Sunday, May 10, 2015

The wrong and right ways to welcome others (Sunday homily)

If we ponder the passages of Scripture we just heard, 
one theme that might stand out – 
it did for me, and I suspect it might for others – 
is one of inclusion: welcoming others into the Family of God. 

Notice how, in the first reading, 
God creates a situation in which not only Peter, but those with him, 
are forced to say, yes God wants to share the Holy Spirit 
with everyone, even those outsiders we call Gentiles.

It’s hard to appreciate how shocking this would have been. 
To Jews in that time, Gentiles were not only foreigners; 
they were “unclean,” unholy. But most of all, they were a threat. 

When Peter and his companions visited the house of Cornelius, 
their whole mindset was shaped by a powerful fact: 
for almost their entire history, 
the Jewish people had always been in mortal peril. 
They experienced only brief respites of peace in their land. 
Otherwise, it was one Gentile nation after another 
that came to conquer and scatter. 

We hear something just as shocking in the Gospel: 
the Lord Jesus says to the Apostles, “you are my friends.” 
This is shocking when we realize 
it is not just a mere man who says this, 
but the Lord God, the Creator, who says this.

A politician will get up and say, “dear friends,” 
but that’s because he wants something! 
But God is not a politician; he needs nothing from us. 
God doesn’t use language in the empty way we often do. 

So when Jesus calls them friends, that’s a powerful statement. 
As I said a moment ago, 
we could call it a statement of welcome or inclusion—
and that’s true—but it’s far more than that.

When we talk about how the Church should welcome or include people, 
here’s where that usually ends up: 
as an argument for the Church not teaching something we teach 
that’s either unpopular, or hard to live up to. 
Almost every day, it seems, 
someone is saying we should change our teaching on marriage, 
or on protecting the unborn, or contraception, and so on and so forth.

Here’s the thing: when people tried this with Jesus, 
he never went for it. 
When Jesus taught about the Eucharist, 
some of his own followers didn’t like it. 
He didn’t back down; and they left. 

People came to him with a question about divorce, 
and his answer was tougher than what any of the rabbis taught. 
They cited Moses, and Jesus actually overruled Moses! 
Moses, he explained, made a concession 
“because of the hardness of your hearts.” 

Of course, people cite how readily Jesus forgave, and it’s true. 
And he commands us to do the exact same thing.
Folks remember him teaching generosity, 
and they remember him eating at the houses of sinners. 
All true. And we are called to do the exact same thing. 

But when it came to what is true and what is good, 
Jesus never budged an inch. 
Notice what we just heard Jesus say: 
“you are my friends if you do what I command you.” 
How could it be otherwise? 

To be friends with someone is to have some things in common; 
and the closer a friendship, the more we have in common. 
The friendship Jesus offers 
isn’t a “hey, howyadoin?” wave of the hand; 
but mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart. 

That’s what the Holy Spirit coming upon Cornelius and his family meant: 
Despite any barriers of language, culture, history or prejudice, 
Jews and Gentiles were now one heart and one mind, in Jesus Christ.

So it’s not the truth that gets set aside for the sake of welcome; 
but those other barriers that get in the way of the truth. 

And that challenge remains for us.

One of the things I’ve talked about, and I will continue to emphasize, 
is that each of us has a task: 
to share Jesus Christ with everyone around us. 
That is the reason this parish is here. 
That was what Jesus told his disciples 
right before he returned to heaven. 
Until this world becomes heaven, that task remains, 
and none of us is exempt. Not a single one of us.

So if we’re Peter, or one of his companions, 
what are the barriers that may get in our way?

We all know that a growing number of Catholics in this country 
are Spanish-speaking – obviously, because of immigration. 
Now, a lot of us aren’t happy 
with how the government is handling that issue; 
and in another setting, 
we can debate what sort of immigration policy we ought to have. 
But meanwhile, we have people God calls friends who are here,
and they need the sacraments; they need Christ.

So, our seminarians are learning Spanish. 
In Sidney, and some of the other parishes, 
Mass in Spanish is being offered. 
My Spanish isn’t great, but I work at it.

Now, a few years ago, I stood up in another pulpit, 
in another parish, and said, 
maybe we ought to think about using some Spanish at Mass, 
in the prayers and hymns, in order to put out the welcome mat. 
I said similar things in a parish meeting. 

The most discouraging response wasn’t the hostility, 
of which there was some. 
No, the worst was the indifference! 
I don’t know how we call ourselves friends of Jesus 
if we are indifferent in matters 
when we know Jesus is anything but indifferent!

Now, in our parish, it’s not a question of Spanish vs. English. 
But that day may come. Will we be willing to change, for Christ’s sake?
Meanwhile, we search our hearts and ask: 
what are the barriers 
that keep us from being effective witnesses to our Faith?

We might think, oh, I’m not smart enough. 
But sharing our Faith doesn’t mean we have to be scholars or experts. 
We really only need to do one thing: 
tell our own story of why we put our faith in Jesus Christ. That’s it.
What does Jesus mean—to me? How has he changed my life? 
Why am I willing to give up anything, even my life, 
if that’s what it takes to keep my friendship with Jesus Christ?

And if we’ve never asked ourselves those questions, then start there. 
In fact, we might even just start with an even more basic question: 
what does it mean to say, Jesus is…my friend? 
Do I have a friendship with Jesus Christ? 

I realize that may feel strange: Jesus is my Lord! 
Yes, but I’ll say it again: 
Jesus never said anything he didn’t mean. 
So when he calls us “friends,” he means it. 

So, there’s your “homework”: find that friendship. Deepen it. 
And then there’s no wondering 
about what you or I have to share with others about our Faith. 


Hoser said...

I agree that welcoming of foreign catholics are important, but where does language become the necessary ingredient? In our parish, we have many Phillipino's, many more than Hispanic's, so where do we draw the line? Our Bishop has placed an importance on our parish priests to be immersed in Spanish speaking families in Mexico to hurriedly learn Spanish in six to eight weeks, certainly not enough to be conversant, but enough to learn dialect. What do we do about our good Catholics from the Philippines? I asked them if they feel slighted, and they said, 'heavens no!" Most of them HAD to learn the language to come over here!

I would rather the church help our Spanish speaking brethren learn the language instead of forming our liturgy to meet their language necessities. Most of the Spanish Mass attendee's here locally all speak wonderful English and only go to Spanish Mass to enjoy singing Spanish songs. That only makes the priest have to pray one more Mass, of sometimes three Masses on Sunday, just to fulfill a particular need and requirement of the Bishop. It's not right.

All the more reason to have Masses said in Latin.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I have no objection to Mass in Latin, and in a parish of three or more languages, I'd make the case. But reintroducing a mostly Latin Mass is a huge undertaking. Parish priests cannot simply "impose."

As far as immigrants learning English, of course, yes. However, it has always been the case that parishes would offer instruction, care, prayer and sacraments in the immigrants' language. We did it for the Germans, French, Italians, Poles, etc. even when the Mass was in Latin, what language do you think was used for the re-presentation of the readings and the homily? Why do you suppose the Church did it that way?

One reason could be because people will go where they feel welcome. If not to their owne Catholic Church, then to Protestant churches. Saint Paul said he would become all things to all men, so that he might save some. how do you think he would handle the matter?

rcg said...

The Spanish is dilemma for me, too. It seems that many Spanish speakers don't learn English in order to remain apart and this is encouraged so that certain people and groups can maintain control over the Balkanized groups. One of the biggest factors that enables exploitation of immigrants is their segregation due to language. It is good for Americans to speak Spanish, but it is equally good or even better for the immigrants to learn English so they more fully benefit from the culture and society.

Latin in Mass is different, very different. The disaster of functional equivalence helped erode Catholic understanding of the Faith. I am not against vernacular Masses, but the rigour of the translation is important and helps people grasp the meaning. I don't know that the Spanish vernacular translations were any better than the English. I have heard they are not as bad. A homily on vernacular with the rest of the Mass in Latin seems like the way to go.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm not averse to a song or two in Spanish. To be welcoming, however, doesn't necessarily mean to be so accommodating to new cultures that they don't need to change to become a part of our society. If were to relocate to Mexico, I would expect to hear the Mass celebrated in Spanish. Just because I am living there, should I demand a separate "English Mass"? Right or wrong, many of the European immigrants to the U.S. paid for and built their own church buildings where the Latin Mass was celebrated along with some German, Italian, or Polish hymns. When we create separate Masses for language groups, I think we widen the culture gap and delay the unity we seek. ~ Rosemary A.

Fr Martin Fox said...

RCG, Rosemary:

I would just point out that a century ago, and more, German, French, Italian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and other Catholics came to this country, and they had priests teaching and providing sacraments to them in their own language. Why should Spanish-speaking immigrant Catholics be different?

Anonymous said...

Point taken, Father. I WANT to help, and I WANT to be welcoming. Teaching and sacraments in their own language - of course all immigrants should have them. And, yes, I know that even today in Cincinnati there is at least one church that celebrates the Mass in German. I lived near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a child (my neighbors and friends were from a multitude of racial and ethnic backgrounds), moved to Cincinnati as a teen, and became Catholic in 2004 in a small town in Missouri with a large Hispanic population. I think that if our Missouri congregation had been limited to only one Sunday morning Mass (with bilingual readings, prayers and homily), there would have been more welcoming and unity. But having one Mass in English and one in Spanish seemed to create an "us and them" kind of mentality in both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parishioners. How can I welcome someone I seldom see and with whom I worship only on Christmas and Easter? I would be delighted if there were a practical solution.~ Rosemary A.