Bottom line: In the long run we cannot have the Catholic Church as our mother unless we also accept her as our teacher. And as Jesus makes clear, in accepting his Church, we are accepting him.
Last Sunday we heard how Jesus raised Peter to primacy among the Twelve Apostles: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church." But like many of us Peter is not ready to accept the full implications of following Jesus: "he must suffer greatly..." (Mt 16:21) Peter tries to find a way around it ("God forbid, Lord. No such thing shall ever happen..."). Jesus, however, rejects those words as a Satanic temptation. He talks point blank about the most gruesome reality in Roman world - the cross. Then Jesus concludes with something about profit and loss. "What profit would there be to gain the whole world and lose ones soul?"
Before saying what this means to us today, let me back up fifty years. In 1961 Pope John XXIII wrote an encyclical called Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher"). It described the Church's beautiful role as mother of the faithful, but also her awesome duty as teacher of mankind. In the encyclical he applied the teachings of Jesus to so very specific issues. One Catholic columnist was upset by what the pope had to say and he wrote an essay that became known as Mater sí, Magistra no! It seemed fine for the Church be a tender, loving mother, but he bridled when she pronounced teachings he did not like.
We might shake our heads at a Catholic writing in the secular press being openly disloyal. Nevertheless, he sums up the sad state of many contemporary Christians. This December I will have been a priest for forty years. I have noticed that many want the church as a mother. When a loved one dies - or some other crisis - people instinctively turn to the Church like an injured child seeking his mom. This is a wonderful moment - and God forbid that we be irritable or impatient or distracted when hurting people come to us. We must represent some of the tenderness of God which as the Catechism says, "can also be expressed in image of motherhood." (# 239) And whereas God is first and foremost "Father," his church must always be as a mother.
There is, nonetheless, a rub to this tender image. A true mother must also instruct. A teacher cannot simply pat a student on the head and say, "keep up the good work." At times she will have to set a pupil straight. The job of correcting is not an easy one. I admit I often shy away from it - especially if the subject appears explosive. To accept correction is hard. It involves the cross, a willingness to suffer.
Let me tell you about someone who did respond to this challenge. A Catholic doctor once experienced a profound spiritual renewal. He realized his faith needed to affect not only his role as husband and father, but his entire life. In his medical practice he had been prescribing the pill and other forms of contraception. After studying the effects of these contraceptives, he concluded many of them not only prevent conception, but cause the destruction of a newly conceived human life. Even though the embryo is very small, still what he prescribed could destroy that tiny child. This serious reflection led him to review Catholic teaching regarding contraception. He made the bold decision to stop prescribing artificial contraception and instead to teach natural means.
This doctor's decision involved the cross. He naturally lost many of his patients; his colleagues treated him like he had a communicable disease. They kept their distance. His family suffered and there was some fear. But, you know, along with the cross God gives blessings. It brought his family together like they never were previously. And eventually he built up a practice based exclusively on natural methods. He now has so many patients he cannot take new ones.
For us as well it can involve a kind of martyrdom to accept the Church as not only our mother, but our teacher. St. Paul tells us this Sunday to be transformed by a renewal of your mind. That is such a beautiful and powerful phrase. Following Jesus is not just a matter of some pious feelings. Our very minds must be renewed so we can resist the destructive power of the culture that surrounds constantly. Only by a humble submission to the Church as our teacher can we, as St. Paul says, "discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect." (Rom 12:2)
To sum up: In the long run we cannot have the Catholic Church as our mother unless we also accept her as our teacher. And as Jesus makes clear, in accepting his Church, we are accepting him. Amen.
From Archives (for Twenty-second Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Parish Picture Album
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Correspondence with Dave Jarvis:
Maybe a comparison would help. Suppose that each time the media does an article on the Obama administration, they refer to the corruption of Chicago politics and the president's use of cocaine. Would that be fair?