Sunday, February 10, 2013

Off Course

   Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

After a rather raucous night,
a man gets up before the sun 
to head out for a day of ice fishing.
A little off-balance and bleary-eyed,
he finds his way through the dark
to what seems a pretty safe spot
and begins to drill a hole through the ice.
He has just started to turn the auger
when a voice booms from above:
“There are no fish under that ice.”
The man was spooked 
but intent on going home with a catch,
so he walks several yards 
and begins to drill again.

And again he hears the thundering voice:
“There are no fish under that ice.”
So the fisherman repeats the same process,
and a third time hears—now, louder and more insistent—
“There are no fish under that ice!”
Though not particularly religious,
the man looks up and asks, “God…is that you?”
“No, you fool,” comes the reply.
“I’m the manager of this hockey rink.”

We are now four months into the Year of Faith—
a year so special it’s thirteen and a half months long!
Pope Benedict XVI has called this Year of Faith
for the work of the new evangelization:
for a reawakening of the Christian faith
in places which first accepted the Gospel long ago.
With that goal in mind,
you’d think that the program for this new evangelization
would focus on the pulpit and the classroom:
on inspirational homilies and programs of religious education.
You might even suspect
that it would move out into the streets,
taking the message of Jesus door-to-door.
But Pope Benedict has charted a different course—
one which doesn’t commence with loud proclamations,
but in quiet whispers.
“The new evangelization,” the Pope has said,
“begins in the confessional.”  (March 9, 2012)
And so Bishop LaValley has asked
the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Ogdensburg
to dedicate their preaching this Sunday,
Ash Wednesday, and on the First Sunday of Lent
to repentance, conversion, and the Sacrament of Penance.

Back in 1973, psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger
wrote a provocative book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin?
It was his conviction—
more from a psychological than a spiritual point of view—
that America was going through self-inflicted turbulent times
because we, as a people, were losing track
of our ethics, our morals, our values.
Americans were feeling that their problems—
like drug addiction, child abuse,
environmental collapse, and violence—
were pretty much beyond their control,
and therefore were losing their sense of personal responsibility.

We were suffering—according to the doctor—
because we were losing a sense of sin.
It should come as no surprise 
that at much the same time
Catholics stopped going to confession 
like they used to.
If we do not recognize
that we have something to be saved from,
we have little need for a Savior, 
little need for a Sacrament,
that promises to set us free.

Forty years later, 
Dr. Menninger’s diagnosis still sticks.
America’s sense of morality is basically that
of the kid with his hand in the cookie jar:
it’s only really wrong if you get caught.

Speaking at an October gathering in Rome
which included the Pope and Bishops from around the world,
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York pointed out:
            The second Vatican Council called for
            a renewal of the sacrament of penance,
            but what we got instead, sadly, in many places,
            was the disappearance of the sacrament.
            So we have busied ourselves calling for the reform
            of structures, systems, institutions,
            and people other than ourselves.
            Yes, this is good.
            But the answer to the question
            “What's wrong with the world?” is not politics.
            The economy, secularism, pollution, global warming... no.
            As Chesterton wrote,
            “'The answer to the question 'What's wrong with the world?'
            is two words: I am.”

            I am!
            Admitting that leads to conversion of heart and repentance,
            the core of the Gospel invitation.

            That happens in the sacrament of Penance.
            This is the sacrament of Evangelization.
 (October 9, 2012)

The Greek word which the New Testament
uses for “sin” is hamartia;
it’s a word borrowed from archery,
and it means “to miss the target; to miss the mark.”
Sin is like our erstwhile ice fisherman:
it sends the human heart looking in all the wrong places.
But even if we’re looking in the wrong places,
even if we keep coming up empty,
that means at least we’re out there looking:
sinking our lines and casting our nets,
hoping for a big catch that will finally makes some sense
of this confusing world and our mixed-up lives.
And when we realize that we’ve missed the mark
but decide to keep searching anyway,
we quickly discover that all along
God, in fact, has been looking for us.
God is calling, as he did Isaiah in the temple.
God is calling, as he did Paul on the road.
God is calling, as he did Simon and his partners in their boats.
In church and at home, at work and in school,
even when we’re far from shore or out on thin ice—
God is constantly calling us to himself.
This awareness can come in any number of ways:
for the prophet, it was a smoky cloud of glory;
for the apostle, it was a blinding light;
for the fishermen, it was a boat-sinking heap
of floundering, smelly fish.
For all three, it demanded a confession of being off target:
“Woe is me!  I am unclean among the unclean”;
“He appeared to me, though I’m not fit to be called his apostle”;
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
But in each of these and in every case,
what truly matters is not the depths of our sin,
but the bottomless sea of God’s grace.

“The new evangelization,” as the Pope has said,
“begins in the confessional.”
And that’s because the goal of this new evangelization,
the goal of this ongoing Year of Faith,
isn’t primarily higher attendance
(although that’s certainly encouraging!);
the goal is that we become holy.
It is in taking responsibility, in acknowledging our sins,
that we recognize our need for pardon.
It is in seeking this pardon from Christ
that we are then renewed.
And it is only when we’ve been renewed
by encountering Christ in his Church and her Sacraments
that we become credible witnesses of holiness before the world.

As he did Simon, James, and John,
Christ is showing us how to reel in a most astonishing catch.
So put out into the deep!  Cast your net into God’s mercy!
Beginning this Lent—continuing for a lifetime—
return to confession!

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