Editor's note: Bishop Gumbleton gave this homily at the consecration of the altar at the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart Of Mary Motherhouse in Monroe, Mich.
As was pointed out in the beginning of our ceremony today, we are celebrating a special feast in the church. It's the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, and this is a very important feast day in the church because that particular church is known as the mother church of all the churches in the world. It's the church that is the cathedral church for the bishop of Rome. And as we reflect on our lessons today, it probably is important to put into some context the history of this particular church.
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
It was in the early fourth century that for the first time, the Christians, the disciples of Jesus, were able to begin to offer worship in a public way. They had been suppressed over the first three centuries of the beginnings of the church. But in the early part of the fourth century, Constantine, the emperor, underwent a conversion, and he offered to the Christians the opportunity to worship publicly, to be acknowledged as a public religion. And he gave to the church of Rome the land on the Lateran hill, where this Basilica of St. John Lateran is built, and that has become the mother church.
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It's the very spot where Constantine himself was baptized and became a Christian, baptized by Pope Sylvester, and, of course, it was a great benefit to the church. I'm sure Pope Sylvester and the Christians of Rome and throughout the world rejoiced that now they had the opportunity to worship publicly, to be even more open in their task of trying to spread the good news, going out to all the world to proclaim the good news of Jesus.
But there is a downside to this also, because as the church came out of hiding, in a sense, and became public in Rome and throughout Italy and throughout the world, it began to take on some of the characteristics of Constantine the emperor and the Roman Empire. When the church was hiding, just small communities of disciples, they had no power, they had no wealth. But as they began to flourish in a public way, they followed the ways of the empire, and that was a tragedy for the church.
We still suffer from it because the empire, as an example, gave no rights to women at all. They were not recognized even as citizens, and that began to infect the church, that spirit. In the empire, slaves were a common thing, part of the economic system. The church began to imitate the institution of slavery, and, in fact, never condemned slavery until the 20th century at the Vatican council.
So even though this gift of Constantine was something to be grateful for and rejoice in and gave the church its opportunity to be a living church in the open and to spread itself throughout the world, we were, in some ways, almost corrupted from the very beginning. And so that's one of the reasons why, throughout the history of the church, we've always insisted that there must be reform.
We are always a church in need of reform -- to come back to the original vision of Jesus, which is a community of disciples, of brothers and sisters, all equal in freedom and dignity, but all committed to the one task of proclaiming the good news of God's love wherever we go. And our lessons today challenge us to be that real community of disciples of Jesus: Be ready to give up wealth and power, to be the poorest of the poor, to spread the good news, especially to the poor.
In our second lesson today, St. Paul points out how every Christian community, every community of disciples, is itself the living temple of God. Paul's words are very clear when he tells the people of Corinth, "Do you not know you are God's temple and that God's spirit abides in you? If anyone destroys this temple of God, God will destroy that person. God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."
And Paul was very upset because people were beginning to tear that temple apart -- the community where God dwells, the very temple of God was being torn apart because people were jealous of one another, one leader trying to outdo another instead of all being equal in freedom and dignity and all working together under the inspiration of the spirit of Jesus.
As I reflect on what Paul was speaking about and I look around in our church today, I have to ask myself (and it's a challenge, I think, for all of us): Within our church, do we really respect every community of disciples as the very temple of God, try to nurture and build up those communities? Over the 40-some years that I've been a bishop, I have had the opportunity to celebrate various kinds of liturgies in almost every parish of this diocese.
And in some parishes, I find very strong living communities, people who are bound together because they share the common faith in Jesus, and they are really committed to be his disciples. It's a bond of unity. But I've also discovered that most of the time that is strongest in the small communities of our diocese, in the poor areas of our diocese where the poor gather to be that temple of God.
And what is happening to so many of those communities? They're being torn apart; they're destroyed. Throughout the archdiocese of Detroit, we've been closing small churches after small churches, where the strongest communities exist. And it's easy for those who make the decisions, to talk as the communications director of the archdiocese did when he said, "Well, we're just following the demographics. People are moving out, so we don't need those communities any longer."
You have to wonder how many times did those people making the decision ever visit one of these communities and experience the bonds of love and joy and the beautiful celebrations of liturgy that take place there. But they're gone, so many of them. Only a handful, really, left in the city of Detroit, and they probably will be gone soon, also. Every one of these communities, according to St. Paul, is a temple of God, and we have torn those temples down, destroyed them.
Is it any wonder that not only are the demographics, in a sense, moving out of Detroit, but also just moving away from the church? Over 30 million Catholics in our country have walked away from the church. Our leadership says, "Well, we need to get more vocations." We won't get more vocations; we need to bring our people back. It's a strange thing that, this coming week as the bishops gather in Maryland for their national meeting, there's nothing on the agenda about bringing back those 30 million.
What has happened that those 30 million people have walked away? Could it be partly because instead of nurturing these small communities, where the love of Jesus is so present, we squelch them, crush them, destroy them? What St. Paul writes about is happening today, and it's something that I think we must deplore and object to, pray about, and work to do whatever we can to nurture the small communities while we have them, make them even stronger, in spite of what is being done to so many of them.
But then there's another challenge from today's Scriptures, and that comes to us from the Gospel lesson. That incident in the life of Jesus is one that all of us remember so clearly because it's one of the times, and maybe the only time, where it's so clear Jesus is angry, and that disturbs people. People are taken aback when they discover that Jesus, one like us in every way except sin, fully human, also had a strong emotion of anger.
But it was mostly brought out in him when he saw injustice being done, when the poor were being exploited, and that's what was happening in those temple precincts where they were buying and selling. They were exploiting the poor, and that roused up the anger of Jesus so that he moved with vehemence, overturning tables, driving animals out of the temple. "Do not make the house of God into a marketplace of thieves!" It's so rare that we see Jesus in the Gospels that forceful that it almost frightens us. But it happened because Jesus had an intense love for the poor, and when they were being exploited, it roused up his anger.
It's a very beautiful thing that we're doing today, dedicating this new altar within this renewed chapel, and it's something to be grateful for, something to rejoice in. But I think, based on how Jesus acted there in the temple, and out of the same kind of zeal that you find in the prophet Isaiah. In the very first chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet speaks about what is happening in Jerusalem at the temple then. He says to the leaders of his people, Isaiah, some hundreds of years before Jesus, "Hear the warning of God, you leaders of the people. Listen to the word of God."
And here's what God says (one of the most powerful passages in the Scriptures): "What do I care for your endless sacrifices? I am fed up with your burnt offerings in the fat of your bulls. The blood of fattenings and lambs I abhor. When you come before me and trample on my courts, who asked you to visit me? I am fed up with your oblations. I grow sick with your incense. Your new moons, Sabbaths and meetings I can no longer bear. When you stretch out your hands, I will close my eyes. The more you pray, the more I refuse to listen."
Strong words; almost frightening as we are gathered here to worship, to dedicate an altar, to rejoice in a renewed chapel. But what was the reason? Isaiah says that God speaks so strongly, so harshly, because he says to the people, "Your hands are covered in blood. Wash and make yourselves clean. Remove from my sight the evil of your deeds." And what were those evil deeds? Seek justice, give the orphans their rights, defend the widows, heal the broken-hearted and the poor.
You see, if we worship God through externals -- offerings -- by our celebrations like this but our hands are covered with blood, a very strong judgment. But isn't it happening even today in a world where there is so much injustice and so much violence? A failure to really heed the message, the good news of God's love poured forth upon the world, upon all, but especially the poor -- the orphans, the widows -- and not only in other parts of the world, but in our own country?
There's injustice, and even now cries out to God. We have a country where -- well, we have a city in Detroit where water was cut off from the poor. A basic human right -- every person has a right to water, to food, to clothing, to medicine, but we could heartlessly cut off water for the poor who could not pay their bills. And why are they poor, so many? Because we have such an unjust distribution of wealth.
In our country, as in the world, the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. The gap ever grows wider, and it isn't because people are lazy, don't want to work. It's because we have a system where you can work full time, even more than one job, and not be able to make enough to support a family. During this past election, there were three places where they were trying to raise the minimum wage to try to help to move people a little bit closer to being out of poverty.
But that needs to happen everywhere. Huge corporations make money off the backs of the poor. And that's the kind of thing, in a whole different economic situation, that Isaiah was crying out against and challenging the people: "You can't worship me" -- speaking for God. You can't worship God if your hands are covered with blood, with the injustices that destroys the poor.
As we celebrate today, then, and I apologize that this has not been exactly an uplifting kind of reflection, I hope we will take seriously what God is saying to us. Yes, God will rejoice with us, and we rejoice with God in the celebration of this building -- the beauty of it, the way it makes an easy place to come together to pray. And we can celebrate this new altar, which is a table around which we gather to bring back into our presence the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But as we gather and celebrate this chapel, this altar, we must be sure that we are helping to build up the body of Christ, build up those communities that are struggling to stay together, where the love of God really is brought forth. We must make sure that, as Isaiah says, "We wash our hands clean" by doing everything we can to bring about a just system, within our city, our country, our world. That we bring about a system where the love of Jesus will break forth and fill the hearts of people everywhere so that we turn away from violence and bring peace and reconciliation and love wherever we are.
It's an extraordinary challenge that is given to us as disciples of Jesus. If we live up to that challenge by making sure that we wash our hands clean as we celebrate at this new altar, then we can be sure that God will pour forth God's blessings upon us, and that out of this temple -- and not just this building, but we who are the temple of God -- those living waters will flow, described by Ezekiel, that will bring life and goodness and love and peace wherever those waters go -- that is, wherever we go -- and bring that living water of God's spirit into our world.
[Homily given for the consecration of the altar at the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart Of Mary Motherhouse in Monroe, Mich. 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.]