6 Mar 2016
“‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.’” (John 15:4) In the name …
Today we take a momentary break from Lent in order to celebrate the organization of our church denomination in 1897, 119 years ago. Even then, and more especially today, we are not a “rebellious echo” of any other church, which by the way are Bp. Hodur’s words from 1901. We, just like any other church group, are simply doing our best to seek and serve Christ. And we have done so since day-one by emphasizing the collective inspiration, wisdom and experience of the entire church community. We were born not of a clergyman’s vision, but from the hopes and struggles of the people. Outside of our first church in Scranton, PA is a bronze plaque that lists all of the 400 people who came together and founded that church. I love the symbolism of it being placed outside the front entrance. Without those founding parishioners, everything beyond that plaque would have been impossible. We were born a people’s church. Even the cornerstone outside of this church building here reflects the same sentiment and has inscribed in granite that this place “belongs to the people.”
When Fr. Hodur was invited by the 400 founding members of the Scranton parish to come and speak to them about his vision for the church, he shared these words with them on that evening of March 14th: “The rights of the people are more powerful and sacred than the privileges of the [clergy],” and with these words he secured their acceptance of him as their pastor. From the very first moments that we came together as church, we were not about creating an institution for the sake of the institution. We were about freeing the Spirit-infused sacredness of the entire community so that church would not be the few leading the many, but the many helping each other to find Christ and do the work of Christ. And this led to all sorts of progressive religious reforms.
There was a Dilbert cartoon in the newspaper a while back. The CEO encourages the underlings, “You must learn to embrace change.” Sounds great, but then Dilbert asks a reasonable question, “Can we change anything we want to change?” The CEO answers, “No. You don’t get to say what the changes are. I do that.” Then Alice asks, “Will that situation ever change?” The frustrated CEO says flatly, “No.” Wally chimes in, “Why not? You said change is good.” The discussion ends with the top guy warning, “Change is good. For other people. So embrace it or I’ll fire you.” This is not the change we’re celebrating today. In March 1897 that first meeting of our first parish took place in the church hall because the church sanctuary above them was not yet completed. The structure itself and the community were both works in progress. However, with the completion of the building, that first parish of ours decided to dedicate the church four months later, specifically on Independence Day 1897. The American ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy were being carried from the street and into the church. This liberated our thinking and our worship. Ours was not change that was sanctioned and vetted from above, what some in our church today would like to call “Catholic democracy.” Change was real and it emerged not only from the dissatisfaction of the people, but also from their curiosity. They weren’t only reacting against what was; more importantly, they were building what could be.
Fr. Hodur celebrated the first Mass for our first parish on the Sunday after their meeting in the church hall. In 1934, our church printed a new Missal. A missal is the book the celebrant uses during the liturgy. There’s a Mass in there for every day of the year. The Mass for March 21st, the anniversary of Hodur’s first Mass for our church, is entitled A Celebration of Spiritual Rebirth. In that Mass, we give thanks to God that ours is a church striving to release people from “spiritual bondage” and that we struggle to lift-up “the standard of freedom.” This spiritual liberation led us to emphasize religious intelligence. Every parish, Hodur wrote in 1901, should have a school, a library and a reading room. When we visited Scranton a couple of years back, we saw the books of that first library. In 1909 we created a brand new sacrament, the Sacrament of the Word of God, because if the members of the church are going to lead the church they have to be informed about the church. They have to read and study the Bible. They should be able to hear sermons that are not meant to scare or intimidate, but to uplift and educate.
Spiritual knowledge would be emphasized and fear would be demonized. We would not try to lead people to a loving God by resorting to scaring them with threats of hell and Satan. We recognized the good in all people of faith and we saw Jesus in all churches. A century ago, the confessional could be used to intimidate people. So our church created General Confession in 1921, allowing adults to confess their sins to God privately and silently, and to then receive the church’s general absolution through the priest. The mystery of the Mass was separated from the secrecy of the Mass by introducing the language of the people in 1901 and by turning the altar around to face the congregation in 1931.
In 1908 we organized our church fraternal. On its home office building the cornerstone is engraved with the words: “Always forward. Never back.” Where will our religious curiosity lead next? What spiritual innovation should be around the corner? This is why I think Bible study is so important and it starts up again in a month. This is why I encourage the discussion of Women’s Ordination Now. This is why we hold our Annual Meeting on this feast day every year to remind us about the sacred privilege of our democracy. What will be our future direction? Where is the Spirit leading us? What was shocking a century ago is imitated today as the norm. What shocking innovation is today just waiting to emerge when we come together to share our ideas and our hopes?
Hodur chose today’s Gospel for this feast day. The vine branches out in a tangle of paths, but they’re all connected to Jesus. Churches don’t need to be the same, in other words. That Jesus may inspire us to be the branch we are meant to be, for this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo