Our parishes would thrive if we stand up and be leaders

Pope Francis meets people involved with St. Maria's Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis meets people involved with St. Maria's Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Thomas Gumbleton

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As always, we try to listen to our Scripture lessons at our Sunday liturgy within the context of what is happening in the world around us. Of course this past week, all our news media have been just overwhelmed by the coverage of Pope Francis and his trip to the United States. There have been millions of people flocking to see him. We’ve watched the crowds on television. We’ve listened to what the pope has to say and it’s been an overwhelming experience, I think, for most Catholics probably here in this country and especially for those who’ve had the opportunity to be where the pope has been in Washington and New York and Philadelphia.

Twenty-fifthSunday in Ordinary Time
Numbers 11:25-29
Psalms 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14
James 5:1-6
John 17:17b, 17a
Mark 9:28-43, 45, 47-48
Full text of the readings

As we listen to our Scripture lesson in the light of what Pope Francis has been doing, I think there’s a couple of things we should especially notice. The first is very obvious — his outreach to the poor. When he spoke before the Congress, one of his main points was calling upon the people of the United States through their elected leaders to reach out to the poor, and in this case, especially the immigrants in our country who are flocking to our shores and whom many people want to push away and get rid of.

Francis is saying, “No, these are the poor. They’re coming here because they need assistance. They’re fleeing violence. They’re fleeing economic oppression. They’re coming out of a desperate need.” In fact, Francis makes it very concrete. One day this week when he was in Washington, he had lunch. Most of the time on a trip like this you would expect people invited to that lunch would be the mayor and the civic leaders, the church leaders and the wealthy — the important people.

Not with Francis — he invites the poor. And what I like about it, too, he doesn’t stand behind a counter and hand out the food and serve them in that way. That would be notable and good, but he sits down with them and engages with them. He shows them he enjoys their company. He wants them to feel welcome with him as the symbol of the church. He’s acting like Jesus who spent most of his time with the poor, drawing them in, having them follow him.

But there are those who react against this, especially when Francis is asking (like he did before the Congress) for changes in our national direction — welcoming immigrants, trying to make sure that people have just wages, trying to make sure that the poor have an opportunity, are not pushed away. Some people resent that. Some people don’t like that. Some people refuse to make changes in our laws and our economic system that would bring justice to the poor. But have we listened to today’s lesson? In a certain way, Francis is mild.

When you listen to what St. James tells us in the second lesson today, James tells us, “So now, what concerns the rich? Cry and weep for the misfortunes that are coming upon you. Your riches are rotting. Your clothes eaten up by the moths. Your silver and gold have rusted. Their rust grows into a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire for having piled up riches in the last days.” James is pretty hard on the rich telling them what’s going to happen to all that wealth that they stored up.

Of course, James is reflecting the words of Jesus when Jesus always reached out to the poor. I think of especially, the Beatitudes, but not the ones we’re most familiar with in Mathew’s Gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the reign of God,” and so on. No, if you go to Luke’s gospel, “Blessed are the poor. Theirs is the reign of God. Woe to the rich. For you who have wealth, you have been comforted now. Blessed are those who are hungry now for you will be filled. Woe to you who are full for you will go hungry.”

Luke goes on with a couple more of those beatitudes speaking out so strongly against those who accumulate wealth and those who allowed this terrible gap between the rich and the poor to develop and to continue to increase. Francis has been trying to draw us in. I think his way is perhaps more gentle even than that of St. James or of Jesus proclaiming the message of the Gospel. Of course, the point of all this now is that as we listen to St. James today and we remember how Jesus spoke against the rich who failed to understand that their riches really weren’t theirs — they’re all a gift from God.

Everything we have is a gift; that’s the problem. So often with the rich, they begin to think, “I did it,” and forget they would have nothing if it were not for God. In their riches sometimes, they become a bit arrogant and proud. Not always, of course, but you have to begin to change your lifestyle like Francis has done if you’re really going to listen to Jesus and listen to those who follow Jesus — St. James and St. Luke and others.

There’s a lesson for us from our Scripture today, but also from within our context of this visit of Francis to our country. But there’s another part of this trip where it seems to me that Francis might well have chided our church leaders. He spoke to the bishops while he was in Washington. The bishops gathered as a group and he spoke to them very gently and basically gave a very positive affirmation of what they’re doing.

Yet, if we listen to our first lesson today from the book of Numbers where the situation of Moses has gotten out of hand. He’s one leader and the number of the Chosen people as they’re traveling through the desert have increased and increased and he’s just overwhelmed. You know from the account, Moses is instructed, “Share the gift of the spirit that you have with seventy others. Let them begin to carry on this work of leadership, the work of nurturing and caring for the people — the shepherding of the people.”

Moses does it and then you remember there were the two in that lesson that were not there when Moses shared the spirit with these 70. But they began to act as leaders anyway and Joshua comes to Moses and says, “You’ve got to stop them.” Moses says, “Why? Why would I stop them? They’re spreading God’s word. They’re sharing in this role of leadership. We need them.” In the Gospel lesson today, something along the same line happens.

John, one of the disciples, one of those closest to Jesus finds someone driving out devils in the name of Jesus and they’re not part of their group. John says, “We’ve got to stop them.” Jesus says, “No. If they’re doing good things in my name, why would we stop them? We need more and more people sharing in the leadership, the nurturing, the shepherding of the people.” It seems to me as I reflect on those lessons from the book of Numbers and the Gospel that perhaps Francis might have chided the U.S. bishops because we’re in a situation where we’re lacking leaders for our parish communities.

People are drifting away from the church because they don’t find the nourishment, the nurturing, the shepherding that they need. In fact, at this point, so many have drifted away that the second-largest Christian denomination in our country are those who we would call fallen away Catholics. Thirty million have left and many of them belong to no church now. They declare that in their census form when it asks for what religion — none.

Part of the reason is that we have lost dramatically the leaders that we need. The numbers are down. We all know what’s happening in our own diocese — closing church after church, people drifting away because you can’t just break a community and say, “Go someplace else.” Communities don’t just come out of nothing. They are built and they grow and if you stop them and tell them, “Just find another community,” that doesn’t work.

We’ve seen that around our own diocese and it’s true throughout our country. In fact, there’s a diocese in the western part of our country, the diocese of Fresno, Calif., where the numbers of people have grown. The size has more than doubled in 10 years. There were 581,000 Catholics in that diocese in 2005. Now there are 1.2 million members, but the number of priests has gone down. The diocese, I think I’ve read, had like 89 parishes to serve those 1.2 million members — 89 parishes and 40-some missions.

But one priest is expected to cover one, two or three parishes or a parish with one, two or three missions. It’s impossible. Isn’t it likely that just as Moses was directed to share the spirit of God as he had received it to be a leader with others, that we should be doing that in our church? Just as Jesus said to John, “Look, if they’re working for us, why would we drive them away?” We could have parishes staffed by well-trained lay leaders with ordained priests coming to be sacramental ministers.

Theologically, we probably could allow lay people to anoint the sick instead of expecting the priest to be the only one who can share that sacrament. We could certainly also allow lay people to counsel and listen to the needs, the hurts, and the pains of people. They could do a lot of that shepherding if we call forth this leadership and made it men and women, trained in Scripture, preaching and leadership. Our parishes would thrive, but it won’t happen unless we make a concerted effort to draw many, many more into the shepherding roles of our church in our parish communities.

Francis did not talk to the U.S. bishops about that, but I think it’s certainly a very important part of what needs to be said and talked about within our church in this country and other parts of the world. So, it’s up to us. We, as we know, are God’s people; we are the church and we can begin to seek out those roles, be prepared to enter into programs of training and offer our services to minister in a shepherding way in our parishes and really call forth from our bishops a response of not only allowing this to happen, but taking the lead in making it happen so that we would not be closing parishes because they’re too small.

That’s no reason to close a vibrant parish community. Small can be rich and strong and vibrant. People know one another, care about one another. We need that message, too. Francis did not proclaim it, at least publically, but if we look at what is happening and listen to today’s Scriptures, it seems clear to me that God is saying as God did to Moses, “Choose other leaders. Share the spirit with them. Let them serve.”

The same thing that Jesus said to John, “If people are out there to serve, let them do it. If they’re not against me,” Jesus said, “They’re working for me, with me.” I hope as we reflect on today’s Scriptures and continue to rejoice in the visit of Pope Francis to our country and listen to what he says and watch how he acts that we can draw from our Scriptures today a new determination to be more like Francis in changing our lifestyle and sharing all that we have with those who are in need, especially desperate need.

And also, that we will draw forth leaders in our communities who can do the ministering, the shepherding and allow parish communities to grow and flourish. Francis has been a gift to us, but only if we take in what he has done, what he has said and apply it to what’s happening within our church, especially in the light of what God has spoken to us today through our Scriptures. Then this trip of Francis will have been an extraordinary gift to our church, as we become a renewed, enlivened, vibrant church in every parish community throughout our country.

[Homily given at St. Charles Lwanga, St. Leo Site, in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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