20th Sunday, Year B
You, Follow Me.
Today is the anniversary of my conversion back to the Catholic Faith.
Granted, it’s not the date.
This is more like when converts who entered the Church at the Easter Vigil consider all Easter Vigils their anniversary, whether it April 10th or March 28.
Or priests’ anniversary of their first Masses:
Like, Fr. Rowan’s was on Pentecost and mine was Corpus Christi, and two that feast day is kind of forever your anniversary, regardless of when those feasts land in the spring.
And here it’s not a even feast day; but an anniversary of a gospel, today’s Gospel, the end of John 6.
Now, officially it wasn’t a conversion, it was a re-version, since I grew up a cradle Catholic.
I even attended a Catholic high school.
But hadn’t been to confession in years.
And for years I would skip Mass probably 3 out of 4 Sundays a month.
All this despite living a block-and-a-half away from the local church.
I’ll tell that story another time, but sister and I would skip most Sundays and go to the local gas station or drug store.
My conversion back to Christianity really stretched over the 9 months of my junior year of high school.
I had come to realize at the beginning of the year thatI wanted to live for something more than just myself, which is where I had been the last 3, 4, 5 years.
I had come to appreciate good friendships and especially friends who strove for virtue.
And by the spring, I came to recognize Jesus as person I needed to follow.
But I wasn’t convinced that this return voyage was going to park its ship at the port of the Catholic Church by any means.
Part of that was 16-year-old arrogance and rebelliousness: Surely whatever my parents think is true is at least 75% likely to be totally wrong.
Part of it was that I really wanted to know the truth, and to look at that for myself.
But as it so happened, just as I was wrestling with this, I ran into several deep young Catholics (from Nebraska, believe it or not) who were willing to talk until late into the night with several of us high schoolers on the front porch of the house of my friend Jill.
They pushed me; pushed me on my doubts: They asked if I trusted the gospel writers.
They asked if I trusted Jesus.
Then you have to go to the Bread of Life discourse; have to go to John 6.
And that’s the chapter we have been working our way through this last month.
Open missalette up to p. 55
He has already twice said: I am the bread (v. 34, 48) last week.
Now, that perhaps could’ve been symbolic, metaphoric.
This week’s section repeats the last line from last week’s gospel, where Jesus raises the bar even from that image of “bread of life”.
v. 51 “The bread that I will give is my flesh”
Maybe even then it might not be literal, but it’s weird that he wasn’t breaking off when they seemed concerned.
We’ve seen Jesus correct a misunderstanding among the disciples before. “Ok, Let’s go back to the house; I’ll reexplain this.”
But he’s not backing off. In fact he’s doubling down!
This leads to them quarreling among themselves, but he pushes them even farther.
v. 53 “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you.”
your life depends on it
We would think he can’t raise the stakes any more.
Oh yes he can!
Switch verbs v. 54
I did not know this. We were looking at an English bible
They explained that the Greek changes. You can look it up later, they said.
The Greek word thus far had been phagēte, which is where we get “esophagus”. It means eating in the broadest terms.
But at v. 54 John uses a different Greek verb, trōgōn, which means to chew, gnaw, munch.
So, “whoever chews, gnaws, my flesh…”
And then as if he can hear the doubts in our minds he reaffirms: my flesh is true food, my blood true drink v. 55
Again with trōgōn on v. 56: “whoever gnaws my flesh and gulps my blood…”
Again and again, just when you think he couldn’t make the point any stronger, he keeps beating you over the head with the idea of really eating.
And we know they walked away. Next week’s gospel is all about that.
They walk away. And he didn’t stop them. He doesn’t say “Wait, I was kidding: it’s a metaphor.”
At that moment, on that night, I was pretty convinced.
I did checked a resource on the internet the next day. It was 1996 so it was pretty low tech, but I did check the Liddell & Scott, which is the go-to greek dictionary. And the two Protestants affirmed that that is what trōgōn meant.
I knew then I couldn’t be a Baptist or an Evangelical or a Presbyterian.
The words of Jesus were too plain for any of their explanations.
I could’ve still been a Lutheran. For Luther did not reject the bodily presence of Jesus in the host
But I figured if the Catholic Church had held onto that one nugget when Calvin and Zwingli and John Hus and Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer were all blasting away at it, I figured the odds were in the Catholic Church’s favor.
And I found myself a thoroughly convinced Catholic again when it came to the sacraments.
And when it came to all the other questions of the faith, that—amazingly my 16 year old mind hadn’t perfectly grasped yet—I said: if this beat up old Church got the Eucharist right when no one else seems to have, I’m betting they got the rest right too.
That was when I came back to the Catholic Church in my mind and in my heart.
Started going back to Mass and Confession
And many other people have stories like this, converts and reverts alike: that it was John 6 that brought them to the fullness of faith.
I think it’s good to be reminded of this when we read the news headlines and want to despair.
Cardinal McCarrick, 3-4 weeks ago
Allegations in our own Lincoln diocese
Then this week the Pennsylvania grand jury report:
A thousand victims
Over 70 years
If there is a little consolation that that number it is over so much time and and such a broad geographic stretch, there is also the realization then that this was really universal.
Worst part of it for many is the sweeping under the rug by multiple generations of bishops.
Saying: “Don’t tell anybody; it’ll make the Church look bad.”
“Don’t tell anybody; it’ll hurt the people’s faith.”
Well, it hurts their faith now.
It sickens the heart
It grows disenchantment and despair within faithful Catholics
All those things of 2 weeks ago of “feelings deserve to be felt” come rushing back with a vengeance.
Most powerful of feelings
And a desire to act.
People want to fight back.
People want to call down fire and damnation on bishops everywhere.
And priests everywhere.
Notice three feelings especially: anger, despair , and fear
Let’s start with anger
And I think I must still live in something of a bubble here in rural Nebraska
Because I get angry phone calls, one after another, from friends in other parts of America just yelling.
Yelling at me: “You guys need to do something.”
Yelling about the Church: “I’m sick, I’m disgusted.”
Lay friends, priest friends, guys who were in the seminary and left.
People who are ready to walk.
Walk out of their churches. Stop supporting their dioceses. March in protest to bishops’ residences.
The image that some have painted for me is not unlike those people who are “Doomsday Preppers”
You know people who are storing food and weapons for a nuclear holocaust, or “the grid” failing, or a zombie apocalypse.
But these are preppers for a disintegrating Church.
When you’re a kid growing up—well, at least if you’re a boy growing up—I think there is an almost universal experience of wondering if when you’re an adult there will be a war, and what it would be like.
We read about and see movies about WWII and Civil War and you wonder what you would do. Even like with St. Maximilian Kolbe
That’s what it feels like when you here people talking like that.
What will happen within our Church?
Will there be disintegration?
Will there be war from within or from without?
In several different times and ways this has been prophesied:
What I am about to read to does not actually come from Pope John Paul II, it comes from him when he’s just Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, in 1976 when he came to the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. He said:
We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.
“We must be prepared to undergo great trials in the not-too-distant future; trials that will require us to be ready to give up even our lives, and a total gift of self to Christ and for Christ. Through your prayers and mine, it is possible to alleviate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it. . . . How many times has the renewal of the Church been brought about in blood! It will not be different this time.
40 years ago when he said it people might have thought he meant between Christianity and Atheistic Communism.
20 years ago, once he was Pope, it might have been assumed to mean war between Faith and secularism.
Today it might be read as actual division within the Church itself along moral lines.
There is a war. There’s always been a war between good and evil.
What the whole book of Revelation about: there is always a great battle going on, not just at the end of time, they way some people think.
Perpetual fight. Why we say the St. Michael prayer after every Mass.
Sometimes we just don’t see it openly in front of us.
The reality of an ongoing war can be a good wake-up call.
But this can become a trap for us.
Sometimes our righteous anger, or our seeing a battle out there, can warp our focus into becoming just culture warriors.
Can lead to us becoming those religious “preppers” and church conspiracy theorists.
And maybe some people can live like that, but I can’t.
And I don’t know that that is what Jesus wants.
Remember the last chapter of John’s gospel.
Peter has just had his re-confession of faith, his reconversion.
Three times he said, “Lord you know I love.”
Three times Jesus answered: “Peter, feed my sheep.”
And Jesus has told him that he will eventually be taken prisoner and led where he does not want to go and die, just like Jesus himself did.
And Peter points down the beach to St. John and asks “What about him? What will happen to him?”
And Jesus says: “What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You, follow me.”
That’s essential. In the midst of all other trials and wars and rumors of wars, Jesus is saying to us “No. You, follow me.”
A very real feeling.
Do we even still trust in the Church, in our priests, in our bishops?
Is God still protecting and inspiring his Church?
I’ve read quite a number of articles about people thinking about leaving and even more from people who are hurting but not leaving.
Those in the second category all come back to two main things:
- Jesus established a church and we can trace that historically in the Catholic church
- even more of them, pointing back to the sacraments—the very thing that brought me back at age 16—that the Catholic church offers something in those sacraments that the other churches don’t.
Two thoughts on despair:
First, this feeling—this split feeling of the benefit of the sacraments but of awareness of the unworthiness of their ministers—is not new.
This book is Holy Thursday, by Francois Mauriac. I think I’ve read out of it to you during Holy Week before.
Even back in 1931, he had no illusions about who priests were. In his chapter "Holy Orders" he writes:
“The twelve apostles are the first twelve priests; Judas is the first bad priest.”
Again, it’s 1931. He’s still very affirming of the clergy (maybe almost too much at times) but notice as I read the next part that he’s also incredibly honest about the clergy’s flaws and how people scoff at their failures.
The grace of Holy Thursday will be transmitted unto the end of time, unto the last of the priests who will celebrate the last Mass in a shattered universe. Holy Thursday created these men; a mark was stamped on them; a sign was given to them. They are like to us and yet so different-a fact never more surprising than in this pagan age. People say that there is a scarcity of priests. In truth, what an adorable mystery it is that there still are any priests. They no longer have any human advantage. Celibacy, solitude, hatred very often, derision and, above all, the indifference of a world in which there seems to be no longer room for them-such is the portion they have chosen. […] A pagan atmosphere prevails all around them. The people would laugh at their virtue if they believed in it, but they do not. They are spied upon. A thousand voices accuse those who fall. As for the others, the greater number, no one is surprised to see them toiling without any sort of recognition, without appreciable salary, bending over the bodies of the dying or ambling about the parish schoolyards.
Honestly, he’s probably being a little too generous there.
It’s 1931 and he’s still largely a fan; he doesn’t know how bad things might get over the next 85 years.
A second thought on despair:
Remember what I told you two week ago about the Japanese Catholics?
Why did they last 300 years without priests and sacraments?
Because they didn’t despair.
They didn’t look down the beach and ask about what God was doing for other Christians in other lands, like Peter did with John.
They heard Jesus’ words to them, “You follow me.”
Even with no visible Church for centuries, they got it:
You, follow me.
We fear we’ll lose more priests.
More will be taken for evaluation.
More moved to cover others priests who have been removed.
Our country already has a priest shortage and parishes are consolidated.
What if even 10% of those existing priests were put on administrative leave?
Or if they just gave up in this time of trial and walked away?
But the truth is:
Even if you lose your priests,
Even if you lose every priest,
You know what to do:
It’s what he told Peter.
It’s what he tells us.
You were never in it for the priest.
Good help you if you were in it for a Bishop.
You might be forgiven if you were in it for a Pope, since we’ve had some pretty amazing ones over the last 200 years.
But at the end of the day, it was never for any of them.
You’re in it for Jesus.
You’re in it for the Jesus who gives you those sacraments.
You’re in it for the Jesus who saved you and gave you grace.
You’re in it for the Jesus who founded a Church regardless of how many screwed up people are part of it.
To conclude then, let's go back to that line I read a few minutes ago from Holy Thursday:
“The grace of Holy Thursday will be transmitted unto the end of time, unto the last of the priests who will celebrate the last Mass in a shattered universe.”
Kind of a scary image
But even once that last Mass has been said by the last priest in a broken world, you still know what to do: