The first reading today is from the Book of Deuteronomy, an account of the last words of the prophet Moses to the people at the end of their 40-year trek in the wilderness – from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promise land. His words are to the people who long ago made the decision to stay, to fight, to endure the years of struggle, the ones who remained.
More than just the verse we heard, but the entirety of the Book of Deuteronomy is a reminder why they stayed, why they struggled, and why they held fast to the Word of God that came to them at each point of the journey. In a way, Deuteronomy is the “final chapter” of the Book of Exodus and the other books of the beginning of the Bible. Those books tell the story of how the people of God fought for the ideals of their faith – not for Moses, or Joshua, or the 72 elders, but for their faith and for the promises of God. When I say “fought” it is not only a metaphor for “struggle,” but at times it meant taking up arms and doing battle.
We are nowhere near the “final chapter” of this scandal that has enveloped the Church. We are in the exodus from a passive enslavement from an old institution where we were expected to “pray, pay, obey, and know that the priests and bishops always knew best.” There is a promised land of a purified, renewed church, one that meets the words of St. James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27). But maybe we have “40 years in the wilderness” before we reach our River Jordan and can cross over.
Like our ancestors, many of the faithful are enveloped by this scandal. Who among us does not feel anger, frustration, revulsion, betrayed, duped, disgusted, hurt, …. And I can’t even hope to account for the wide range of feelings held by good and righteous people. I understand why people are being asked, “Why would you, how could you remain in such a church?” I understand why Catholics are asking themselves, “Why do I remain?” I understand why for some this is all a bridge too far and they have left. I understand why others continue to weigh the question. And I understand, why some just hunker down and hope this too shall pass.
And it will pass. But if it remains an institution unreformed, then we will live the experience of the People of God living in the Holy Land. As their institutions failed and the moral leadership of the nation and temple were questioned, there arose from among the people the prophets who called for the institution to remember the call to be a “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father…to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The prophets were the ones who brought the fight to failed and failing leaders; their weapons? The continued call to holiness, healing, and hope – and the dire consequences in continued failure.
Where are the prophets among us today? We are Catholics, we have been baptized into the death and Resurrection of Jesus. In that same baptism we were anointed as “priest, prophet, and king.” You are the prophet among us. We are all charge to speak with the words of a prophets.
The prophets were the ones who sounded the clarion call. They were not priests or bishops. They were faithful people who arose to call the Kings of Israel and the people to be pure and undefiled before God. Can’t see yourself as an Elijah, Micah, or the fiery Jeremiah? How about St. Catherine of Siena? She mostly stayed at home, but she wrote a lot of letters to the leaders of the Church, upbraiding them for moral laxity, poor decisions, and for hurting the faith of the people. She called them to holy and purifying action. Catherine fought for the Church with a prophetic voice and rarely left home.
Like our ancestors, we who stay will have to “fight” for the Church – not the hierarchy or institution – but the Church. The Church founded by Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. The Church to whom the promise of the guidance of the Holy Spirit is given and so strong that not even the gates of Hell will prevail against her. The Church grounded in the teachings of Jesus. The Church who offers the world the Word of God and the Sacraments especially the Eucharist.
Like our ancestors we have to remember who we are and who we are called to be. We are Catholic not because of the moral excellence of our priests, bishops, cardinals and popes. We are Catholic because of our “Amen” to the moral excellence of Jesus and his living Word. We are Catholic because of the Trinitarian love of God poured into our hearts. We are Catholic along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Saints, and our ancestors in the faith. We are Catholic because we give our “Amen” to the Eucharist the source of grace, hope, and courage for the prophetic life.
Not all will stay, but we who stay surely know this: the prophetic life, the Eucharistic life is one fraught with danger if one is to be true to one’s calling. It is a calling, a life, a religion worth fighting for.
The German poet, Goethe, once wrote: “The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers.” Be prophetic. Be Catholic. And in these dangerous times…. live a religion for these times.