Third Sunday in Ordinary Time A
America magazine was first published by the Jesuits in New York back in 1909. I haven’t been reading it all that time, but I have subscribed for about 15 years now. I rarely agree with everything between its covers, but I do always find it well written and quite thought provoking.
So I was happy when the latest issue appeared in my mailbox the other day, and brought it along to lunch to look through it. I was just a few pages into it when I groaned: they had changed my magazine. Right there on page 3, the editor explained that they’d spent the past year working on this redesign—their entire staff in consultation with experts in the field—and they were quite certain that the result was a far better publication. I was not so sure.
Before I’d finished lunch, I had concluded that I didn’t like the new layout (it’s hard to distinguish the articles from the advertisements), I didn’t like the new font (it’s more difficult to read, and my eyes aren’t getting any younger), and I didn’t like some changes they’d made to the contents (one of my favorite features of America has always been the letters to the editor, since they often print many of them and they’re usually a bit juicy…but in this issue at least, they seemed to have been cut by more than half).
While I was grimacing over the changes made to America the magazine this week, others were reacting to possible changes to America the nation as a new President was inaugurated. Some, of course, are very hopeful and rejoicing at a victory…but others are quite unsettled, and even fearful about what changes may lay ahead.
Change is never easy. The older I get, the less I like it. And yet, with more experience under my belt, the more I’ve come to realize that the alternative to change is actually death. When a living thing stops changing, it is because it has died. Blessed John Henry Newman once put it so well: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” No, change isn’t ever easy, but it’s part of the very essence of life.
I realize that America magazine started to contemplate making a few changes right about the same time that we did the same here at St. André’s. It was a year ago that the Pastoral Council and I began a lengthy, detailed process of long range, strategic planning for the parish. We prayed a lot. We talked a lot. We gathered all kinds of information and studied it a lot. We met twice as much as usual so that we could give enough time and attention to a project as important as this. In November, we shared with you the first fruits of our labors, mailing out to all our parishioners our Proposed Pastoral Plan.
And because our work was not done, we asked you to come to a listening session; between 125-150 parishioners came, and 21 of them spoke that evening—making comments, asking questions, and expressing concerns. And in the two months since then, we’ve been gathering your written responses; we’ve received 20 of them to date. (To be precise: we’ve received 18; one was sent to The Malone Telegram, and one was sent to Bishop LaValley…but those comments eventually found their way to us, too.) The Pastoral Council and I are carefully considering all of this input as we continue to work on the Pastoral Plan.
It seems to me that now is a good time to share with you some observations, based on what’s been shared with us these past couple of months. In reviewing the letters that have come in and the transcripts of the listening session, there are five themes, five common threads, that I want to highlight today.
(1) There seems to be a general impression that the Pastoral Plan is a done deal—and that we’re rushing into it irresponsibly. I’m not sure how many more ways I can say it, or how to make it more convincing, but no final decisions have been made. We wouldn’t be putting either you or ourselves through this process if everything were already figured out. The Plan remains a work in progress. And as far as rushing—one of our Pastoral Council members addressed this head on at our meeting last Monday. He’s the longest serving member of the Council, and has a lot of not-for-profit and administrative experience. His observation wasn’t that we’re moving too fast, but that we’ve gone too slow. He pointed out that we’ve been at this for 15 years already (the first meetings to form Malone Catholic Parishes began all the way back in 2002). It breaks his heart to think of the opportunities and resources that have been squandered because we’ve been overly cautious.
(2) There is also quite a lot of misinformation out there. I suspect most of it is innocent. People remember things partially, or misremember them. Many are forming opinions based on a limited amount of information—what they’ve personally seen, heard, or experienced—which is only natural. A plan for our entire parish, however, must take in the full breadth of the big picture. Unfortunately, however, there also seem to be some folks who are quick to jump to false conclusions, or who prefer to rely on the word on the street rather than the facts on the ground. Please don’t get swept up in what’s churching out from the rumor mill. If you’re looking for information, ask me, or ask a member of our parish staff, or ask a member of the Pastoral Council, and we’ll get you the answers you’re looking for. We have nothing to hide.
(3) If there’s any consensus out there about the Pastoral Plan, it seems to be this: “Fr. Joe, leave everything alone! Don’t change a thing!” No one, of course, has come out and said that in so many words…but several folks have said, “I really don’t want my church to close since I have so many memories there…and the folks at that church have said they feel the same way…and I’ve heard it from the other churches, too…” I certainly appreciate this heartfelt sentiment. It would actually be the easiest option for both you and me to change nothing at all. But the status quo isn’t really an option. We don’t have the people in the pews we once had. And we don’t have the money in the collection basket that we once had, either. And the community around us and its needs are changing, too. Change is part of staying alive.
These last two are the core of what I want to speak to this Sunday.
(4) There is an awful lot of negativity and mistrust surrounding the Pastoral Plan. Some pretty serious accusations have been leveled against me personally and against the Pastoral Council: that we have been intentionally deceiving parishioners; that this is all about stealing money from one church in order to pay for things at another; that the Proposed Plan is actually the end product of a long-term conspiracy of the sort that would make Vladimir Putin jealous. (You folks give me far, far too much credit!) To give you a sense of how far this goes: I was actually heckled while preaching this homily earlier today, when a man in the back called out, “Liar! Liar!” I can’t be sure where this attitude of mistrust is coming from, but I know where it will lead—and that’s nowhere good. We cannot move forward into the future if we cannot trust one another.
(5) This final theme has come up so often that there must be some truth behind it: we keep hearing that our parish just isn’t as warm and welcoming as it ought to be. Mind you, I have never once heard this from a visitor to any of our churches; in fact, they often say quite the opposite. But a notable number of parishioners have commented on St. André’s being inhospitable. When folks attend a different Mass than usual, they get the impression that they’re an intruder in their own parish church. That simply cannot be how we treat one another. If this is true, then we’re all a part of the problem, and we all must be a part of the solution.
In our second reading this Sunday, we hear St. Paul writing to the Corinthians—writing to a church that’s divided within itself. He really could be writing to Christians in any age, and so I’ve taken the liberty to make a few updates to his words:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters,
that there are rivalries among you.
I mean that each of you is saying,
"I belong to St. John Bosco," or "I belong to St. Helen’s,"
or "I belong to St. Joseph’s," or "I belong to Notre Dame."
Is Our Lady divided?
Were St. Joseph or St. John Bosco or St. André crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of St. Helen?
No. So carry on in such a way that the cross of Christ
might not be emptied of its meaning.
Now, neither I nor St. Paul are saying that Christians must be in perfect agreement on absolutely everything. Where there is more than one person, there are bound to be differences of opinion! And I am well aware that there have been deep divisions among the Catholics of our community over the years: between the French and the Irish, between the rich and the poor, between the folks who lived in the village and those out in the country. My friends, those divisions must now be a matter of our history, because our future is all tied up together. Of course we will disagree about some things; such diversity—like change—is a sign of our life and vitality. The question isn’t whether or not we disagree; it’s about how we disagree. Our differences must never be marked by animosity or suspicion, which only serve to further our divisions. Instead, our differences must always be marked by true Christian charity. Christ didn’t die on the Cross that he might see his Body torn further apart; rather, he died to give us an example of the sort of love which should mark us as belonging to him even when we disagree.
The prophet Isaiah draws our attention to the fact that many people walk in darkness, that some are dwelling in gloom and the shadow of death. He does so in order to point to the coming of the light: the arrival of a Savior who will banish the darkness forever. This Sunday’s sad anniversary of the legalization of abortion in our country is just one of many such dark corners in our land as we recall the millions of innocent lives that have been lost. As disciples of Jesus, it falls to us to reflect his light into this darkness…but if we are divided against one another, then we aren’t reflecting his light; we’re actually spreading the darkness. If we treat one another with cold suspicion, then who would ever believe our witness to light and life?
Consider Jesus walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as he calls first Peter and Andrew, and then James and John. Do you think Jesus handed them a complete, detailed plan before he said, “Come, follow me”? Of course not! They had no idea what changes were in store for them—and for the whole world! But these fishermen were able to trust that he had a plan, and that his plan would be what was best. And it’s because they trusted Jesus, and others trusted them, that we are here in this church this morning. Don’t get me wrong: I am not asking you to trust in me the way you ought to trust in Jesus Christ! But we do have to trust one another, and together put our complete trust in him, in order to move ahead. Even more than listening to each other, we need to be listening to Jesus and the plan he has for St. André’s Parish…without ever knowing everything he has in store for us.
America magazine has changed many times in the course of its 100+ years, making changes in order to stay vital and relevant in a changing world. The fact that it’s still in print says that those changes have been, by and large, good ones. When I took the time to sit down with a cup of tea the other evening and actually read through this new issue, I discovered something: it’s really pretty good. No, not perfect, but much better than I expected. I just needed to give it a chance.
There have been Catholics here in Malone for just shy of 200 years now, and over the course of these past two centuries they have witnessed many, many changes in the practice of their faith. And we’re still here, the Church is still alive, only because it has continued to grow and change.
Let us grow in our trust for one another as we put our full trust in the Lord and his plans for our future. Let us open our hearts and allow Christ to change us.