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The Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

(Dedication of the Shrine to Blessed John XXIII)
September 30, 2012

    
     "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord's spirit would be given to them all."  Those words of Moses in today's first reading from the Book of Numbers were his rather surprising response to a situation that could have been downright threatening to him.  Remember who Moses was: he was the leader of God’s chosen people and their liberator.  They looked to Moss for everything. For the people of Israel, the voice of Moses was the voice of God.

     But Moses was human, too, and when he became overburdened, God took some of the Spirit that was on him and gave it to seventy elders of the people who then also began to speak in God's name and with God's authority.

     That was one thing. But, then, two characters named Eldad and Medad -- outsiders who hadn't even been present along with the seventy elders -- began speaking in God’s name, too.  A fearful, small-minded leader would have gotten nervous at that point – jealous of his authority.  Not Moses.  When he learned of it he expressed delight:  "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord's spirit would be given to them all...!"

     Moses was not one to place limits on God or on the workings of God's Spirit.  Nor was Jesus.  In today's Gospel passage from Mark we have something of a parallel.  Instead of those two prophets without portfolio, Eldad and Medad, we have someone presuming to cast out demons in Jesus' name.  And some nervous disciples try to put a stop to it.  Jesus' response sounds a little like Moses: "Do not stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us!"

     Both these readings score a point for religious tolerance and pluralism.  They speak about welcoming truth no matter where it comes from -- even when it comes from ‘outsiders’ -- maybe even from outside the ranks of believers. The truth, after all, is one, and is never the private possession of a few privileged insiders. The truth lives in unexpected places as today’s scriptures make clear.

     I hear something further in these readings, too: a call to avoid an ‘insider-outsider’ mentality.  In the Church we are all insiders. God’s Spirit has been poured out in abundance on us all. The inscription around our baptistery says it all: we are all of us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  Moses’ dream that all God’s people might be prophets has been realized – in you and in me – in all the holy people of God, the Church.

      The implications of this are very far-reaching.  If the Church is a priestly, prophetic and holy people -- the entire Church -- then holiness is not something that trickles down from the top.  And wisdom, knowledge, and understanding are not sparingly doled out by a favored few at the top to the many and the motley at the bottom. No. That’s bad theology.  There is only the Body of Christ in which gifts are poured out in abundance by the Spirit who "breathes where it will," as Jesus said to Nicodemus.

     This, of course, does not mean that there are not within the church particular roles and responsibilities:  ordained ministries, lay ministries, ministries of teaching, of authority, of service.  There are.  But the overriding reality is that these ministries are carried out within a Church in which all have been graced by the Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation and all have received the Spirit's gifts of wisdom, understanding, and right judgment.

     What a great message this is for us today as we remember the great and blessed Pope John XXIII and dedicate a shrine to this man who would never have been elected Pope had it not been for the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit.  Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born to humble sharecroppers in a backwater northern Italian village, was hardly a likely candidate for Pope. He was old, for one thing, and while he had served the Church faithfully, he had done so in mostly marginal, second-rung assignments. “Just one look at me,” he once said with typical self-deprecating humor, “and anyone would know there is nobody less suited than I for the apostolate of dinner parties!”  When it came to Vatican politics, he was an outsider, but that turned out to be a plus when the College of Cardinals decided to elect a compromise candidate – a short-termer, they figured, who could hold the place until a more permanent – and likely – candidate would emerge.

     Imagine, then, the shock waves the new Pope unleashed across the world when, only three months after his election, he announced his intention to call a major Church Council. But maybe the world shouldn’t have been so surprised because, although definitely not an insider, he had clearly been an innovator in his various diplomatic postings: Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Paris. In Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, the Catholic Church was itself an outsider, and in post Nazi-occupied France, the Church was regarded by some as an outlaw, thanks to weak collaborationist bishops during the War. So what did he do?  He did what he always did: he built bridges: bridges to hostile governments, bridges to long-alienated Orthodox Christians, bridges to persecuted Jews, and to Muslims who had never so much as met a Catholic priest.  “Let us look at each other without mistrust,” he would say, “meet each other without fear, talk with each other without surrendering principle.”

     Because he was so warmly open and approachable -- like a favorite uncle – and so respectful of difference and diversity, he gained respect and quickly came to know the struggles of ordinary people, as well as the challenges and possibilities facing a Church that had long regarded itself as self-sufficient, with everything to teach and little, if anything, to learn.

     Through it all, this unlikely candidate for the papacy came to understand that the Holy Spirit speaks in many ways – through Church leaders, yes, but also through people in the pews; through outsiders, too; through those whose worldview and whose religious convictions were far different from his own. It’s a lesson he never forgot.  “This morning I must receive cardinals, princes, and important representatives of the Government,” he said while on assignment in Turkey, “but in the afternoon I want to spend time with some ordinary people who have no other title save their dignity as human beings and children of God.” 

     You see why I say that the world shouldn’t have been surprised when Pope John called the Second Vatican Council and referred to it as a New Pentecost -- or when he famously spoke of throwing open the windows of the Church “so that we can see out and the people can see in.”  He was simply doing what the Spirit had always prompted him to do – espousing a Church with an open heart and an open mind – a Church every bit as open as he was: a Church renewed from the inside-out and from top to bottom, a Church where the gifts of all – women and men, lay people and clergy, Protestant and Orthodox, poor and rich, simple and educated – would be welcomed and honored and celebrated.       

     That sort of thinking was nothing short of revolutionary in the late 1950’s. Church leaders were simply not expected to speak or think in this way. But Pope John was not just any Church leader. He was unique. Some Church leaders feared dialogue, John encouraged it:  “Speak up!” he told the bishops gathered for the Council.  “Be inventive!  Do you think that I brought you to Rome so that you should all sing the same psalm like monks in a choir?”

     On another occasion, echoing words of St. Bernard, he set forth his ‘philosophy’ of leadership: “to notice everything, to turn a blind eye to much, and to correct a few things.”

     Pope John may have ‘turned a blind eye,’ but he was a visionary, nonetheless. In his opening address at the Council,  he put words to his great vision: "In the daily exercise of our pastoral office,” he said, “we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of those who…are not endowed with too much sense of discretion… In these modern times they see nothing but…ruin, They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history…the teacher of life. We feel we must disagree with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”   

     Just before he died, he gave his “Last Testament.”  “Seek what unites,” he wrote, “not what divides.  At the hour of farewell, let us seek what is most important in this world:  our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, his Gospel, his holy church, truth, and goodness.  I pray for you all, until we meet again.”

     Today we give thanks for Pope John XXIII’s great gift to the Church by honoring him in this Cathedral church and in this parish. And, you know, both the Cathedral and the parish reflect in many ways his remarkable vision for the Church.  The Cathedral speaks of a Pope John’s dream of a Church renewed, a Church where the people participate in worship actively and consciously and joyfully, a Church where all are welcome; and this parish community reflects the Pope’s dream of a Church with a broad mind and a big heart, a Church committed to generous, wholehearted service to the world, especially the poor.

     "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord's spirit would be given to them all."  Dear friends, o one in recent memory brought those words of Moses closer to fulfillment than the great and Blessed Pope John XXIII!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

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