Tuesday, 18 August 2009

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

My father went to see the priest about the Baptism of his first child. He had not been looking forward to the interview. He wasn't practising the Faith.

The priest asked him to go home and pray and to ask God to help him decide whether he believed or not. He told my father to consider:
  • If you don't believe, stop pretending!
  • If you do believe - practise your faith!
  • Don't drag your faith around like a dead cat on a piece of string.
This question of choosing is just as much a crucial question for you and me as it was for my father, or for Joshua and the Hebrews at Shechem.

Joshua called the People together and said: ... choose today whom you wish to serve ... .

As Bob Dylan sings in Gotta Serve Somebody - 'It may be the devil,or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.'

All we have to do is choose - but this is not as easy as it sounds - even when the People say with one voice: We ... will serve the Lord, for he is our God.

Their decision to serve (we will serve) goes hand in hand with their statement of belief (for he is our God). It makes it very clear that the modern distinction between believing and serving (practising) is totally unscriptural.

'Oh, of course, Father, I believe, and so does my husband. It's just that, well, we don't go to Mass because we don't believe it's necessary. We pray at home. We have our faith.'

Note what the couple is really saying: 'We believe ... it's just that ... well ... we don't believe.'

Ok, so what's going on here? Let me ask this couple some questions:
  • Do you believe you have a grave obligation to attend the Eucharist with the faith community each Sunday? - NO!
  • Do you believe it's a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday? - NO!
  • Do you believe you need to confess missing Mass deliberately before you can go to Holy Communion? - NO!

So now at least we know one thing clearly - this couple do not, in fact, believe what the Church teaches. This is why they do not practise. They may be baptised, they may have been brought up in a Catholic home, they may have attended a Catholic school, but they do not believe what the Church believes.

Please understand me, this is not an accusation! I'm not judging this couple. I have no idea of their spiritual journey and what has brought them to this point. I am merely making a very important diagnosis. This couple does not hold the faith of the Church.

They are living according to their faith but not according to the Faith.

Well, what now? What are some of our options?
  • Go ahead and baptise the child and hope the parents will find faith at some later time and raise the child as a practising Catholic?
  • Give the parents an hour's worth of instruction on the meaning of being a Catholic and then hope for the best and baptise the child?
  • Tell the parents how important it is to attend Mass on Sundays and then baptise the child?
  • Delay the Baptism till the parents come to some faith of their own?
  • Refuse the baptism because they have no intention of raising the child in the practice of the Faith?
My own answer to this very difficult question is that we should offer this couple an opportunity to choose.

This is what my father was offered; this is what Joshua offered the People; this is what Jesus offers his followers in today's Gospel: What about you, do you want to go away too?

On a practical level this will involve a prolonged, prayerful, gentle catechesis similar to the Catechumenate - during which couples can be renewed in their understanding of the Catholic Faith.

Somewhere within this process the couple will choose.

If they choose not to enter the process they have still chosen. All concerned will find this a difficult decision to accept but it must be respected. Jesus, too, experienced the disappointment of watching people walk away.

Faith is a grace-filled choice. We cannot make it for others, nor can we insulate people from the need to make it. This has been one of our most unhelpful tactics in the determination we have to keep people somehow attached to the Church at all costs. We sacramentalise them because we don't know how to evangelise them.

My father chose for the Church he knew so well but which he had left. The faithfulness with which he lived his decision over the years was an example and an encouragement for each one of his children, all eight of whom still practise the faith.

I thank that priest for allowing my father to choose.

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