My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our readings today are very topical: we are told of some priests who lead people astray by their bad example and faulty teaching, and, if we are to be fair, of some lay-people who promise much but produce little. Surely, there should be something here for us to get our teeth into, so to speak, for a short while.
If we take a look at the lay person mentioned in the full first verse of our reading from the prophet Malachi:
‘Cursed be the swindler who has a male in his flock and vows it, but sacrifices a blemished animal to (Me),’ says the LORD of hosts, for I am a great King.
There, someone vows to offer a fine animal in sacrifice to the Lord, but then, after second -- and secret -- thoughts, substitutes a blemished and unworthy one in its stead; no doubt saving himself some considerable money thereby.
It is the same today, People of God, how many there are, seemingly fine Catholics in appearance, who in no way live up to the impression they give in parish life. They may be relatively well off but put little or nothing on the collection plate; they may speak right words but with no ring of sincerity; they frequently criticise but rarely help; and though requiring certain standards, such as clean pews and nice flowers, they can never find the time to join any rota for church cleaning or the provision of flowers. I don't wish to stress the point, however, for no one living in a parish today can be ignorant of what I am describing, unless, perhaps, they are themselves among the culprits.
Then we heard of some priests of the tribe of Levi dishonouring the Lord:
‘And now this commandment is for you, O priests. If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honour to My name,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings.’
Pope St. Gregory the Great, who sent St. Augustine to bring the Catholic faith to England way back in the year 597, over 1400 years ago, bitterly complains in one of his sermons that though there were, in his day, thousands of priests in the Church, very many of them did not do the work required of priests:
Look how the world is full of priests, yet only very rarely is one of them to be found at work in God's harvest.
There is no doubt whatsoever that things are much better now in that respect, for the great majority of priests do give themselves, more or less whole-heartedly, to work in God's vineyard. Nevertheless, human sinfulness, ignorance and weakness, are still part of every man and woman's make up, and so there are today instances, of which even one is too many, of priests dishonouring the Lord, as we heard from the prophet Malachi in the first reading:
As for you (priests), (whereas) the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts, you (on the contrary) have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by (your) instruction; …. you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction.
By their words and by the example of their lives they were causing people to stumble along the way: inducing and leading them into thinking wrong was right, and right -- as we might say today -- too rigid and out of date.
The Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke in the Gospel reading were neither priests nor simple lay-people. They were religious leaders and guides, handing down the religious traditions of Israel which they interpreted according to their own group principles and practices. In that way the Pharisees also were partial in their instruction: smothering the observance of the Law with the stifling burden of their own innumerable regulations and restrictions; which earned them these words of Jesus:
They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
You notice that Jesus had not failed to notice how adept they could be at excusing themselves from the observation of regulations and restrictions to which they would bind others. The Pharisees tended to pride themselves on their strict observance and detailed knowledge of the Law, and consequently they were inclined to despise others who were neither so learned nor so meticulously observant as themselves. Pride easily led them to arrogance.
Today, however, People of God, it can happen that priests who fail the Lord and their people do so, not out of a perverse or domineering attitude towards people but, from a mistaken understanding of how to honour the Lord. They want to make Him more easily appreciated by their people, more immediately likeable and understandable, and so they seek to make themselves -- as His servants and representatives -- popular with, liked by, the people to whom they have been sent. Therefore some try to appear always happy and witty; while others try to show themselves as understanding and sympathetic under all circumstances, studiously avoiding any appearance of teaching with authority, correcting or reproving. St. Gregory the Great speaks of this in his 'Pastoral Rule' saying:
Just as thoughtless remarks can lead people into error, so also ill-advised silence can leave people in their error … Negligent religious leaders are often afraid to speak freely and say what needs to be said – for fear of losing favour with people.
Besides keeping silent for the sake of popularity – and remember, they think they are making Jesus popular too -- such priests may also pursue the same end by over-adapting the Gospel truth to modern opinions and expectations: the Gospel's strictures being softened; hard words of Jesus passed over or explained away, while those of the apostles (especially St. Paul) being omitted altogether. The word 'Love' is much used instead of 'charity', and they seem quite unaware that 'love', in our world of today, can mean so many things; at times, things that are quite contrary to the Gospel.
However, St. Gregory’s appreciation of what was wrong in the Church of his time goes much deeper and spreads far wider:
It is often the fault of those in their care that leaders are deprived of the opportunity preach … sometimes preachers are prevented from speaking through the sinfulness of those in their care, as the Lord says to Ezekiel: 'I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them; for they are a rebellious house.' It is as if he had said quite openly: you are not allowed to preach, precisely because this people is not worthy to have the truth preached to it. (Wk. 27, Saturday reading)
In such situations priests can be encouraged in the pursuit of popularity by people who want to hear only good news, or those who want the priest to preach only that which they themselves are willing to accept and practice.
And so, People of God, it has always been the same: in the times of the Prophets, of Jesus Himself, of St. Gregory the Great about the year 600 AD., and still today in our times, there are some leaders and priests who go astray and fail both God and their people for reasons which can be quite complicated and where, at times, not only those leaders and priests are at fault but also the people themselves and even society as a whole. Such is the situation for Mother Church today.
‘Modesty’, ‘self-control’, and ‘discipline’ are, currently, publicly unacceptable words; and that means our people, mothers and fathers of our children, are afraid of, pretend to be ashamed of, those truly Christian virtues. This is the result to a large extent of the truly virulent promotion of sexuality in all forms of public life and experience, entertainment and enterprise, and also of the liberal acceptance of personal so-called ‘freedom of expression’ no matter how deviant or unsocial it may be at times, and the only remedy lies with Christians and Catholics themselves who must be braver, more confident in Jesus and assured in the Spirit, and more decisive in their personal witness to the truth, beauty, and strength of the faith they hold. Such was indeed the most striking impression and supremely effective impact made by the early Christians on the pagan population of Rome in the times of persecution.
With the modern scandal of paedophile priests, however, the most serious failure of Catholic and Christian society to which they bear witness, the deepest evil and greatest danger in our midst, is not, ultimately, their sexual aberrations and cruelty, but their faithlessness and hypocrisy before God and the Church ….
Be very sure of this: no one given to fornication or vice, or the greed which makes an idol of gain, has any share in the Kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with shallow arguments; it is for these things that divine retribution falls on God’s rebel subjects. Have nothing to do with them. Though you once were darkness, now as Christians you are light in the Lord. Prove yourselves at home in the light. (Ephesians 5: 5-8)
They do not believe in God for they do not believe that our God is a just God Who punishes evil; for, despite oft-repeated personal acts of abuse and secretly storing hundreds and thousands of photographs showing the abuse of others, they make use of, and continue in, their position as honoured Catholics:
Perverse and crooked generation whose faults have proved you no children of His, is this how you repay the Lord? (Deuteronomy 32:5-6)
Being impervious to the judgement of God, failing to hold Him in reverential awe, they are shown to be without faith, for:
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom;
or: The fear of God is the best part of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).
However, we must not think something catastrophic is happening today in and to the Church; nor should we throw up our hands in horror at the scandals we hear of, thinking we would be better off out of it all. Listen to Jesus speaking to His disciples and the listening crowd:
The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
And so today, those speaking in the name of Jesus and proclaiming the teaching of the Church for which Jesus sustained the Cross and upon which He has poured out His most Holy Spirit, can and should still be heard for their Catholic teaching which is not invalidated by the personal disbelief and evil practice of some of those preaching the true doctrine of the Church: for Jesus will, most certainly, never fail those seeking Him in and through the Church which is His Body. No; He Himself defined the supreme danger of our times when He said:
When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)
People of God, today, Christians are the most persecuted believers in the world, and the great majority of those will be Catholics, suffering and dying for the Faith. The blood of her martyrs has always been the seed-bed for Mother Church's future growth and glory: where such self-sacrificing lovers of Jesus and the Church are to be found, the future is ever full of promise and worthy of our unshakeable hope.
However we must be clearly aware of the supreme danger for our comfortable old world and for us who are members of old-established Catholic communities; the danger made so disgustingly clear in the current scandals of some priests continuing in the secret practice of abuse while publicly functioning as ministers of God and the Church: that supreme danger and threat for Mother Church today is lack of true faith; faith being merely nominally professed and insincerely practiced …. That is the wide-spread poisonous threat openly manifested in the activities of paedophile priests but also existing secretly in the hearts and minds of too many Catholics with only a minimal interest in the faith as taught by the Church and little commitment to its right practice.
Surely, Pope Benedict’s decision that the Church will have a Holy Year of Faith in 2012 is prophetic!! Let us give thanks for him and for such a decision!