“‘May your eyes watch night and day over this temple, the place where you have decreed you shall be honoured.’”(1 Kings 8:29)In the name …
Every year on the second Sunday of March we celebrate the founding of our church denomina-tion, but this year the calendar is especially helpful.In 1897 the second Sunday of March was the 14th of the month, just as it is this year.Toward evening of that day 113 years ago today, Fr. Francis Hodur traveled from his parish in Nanticoke, PA to the still unfinished building that would become St. Stanislaus Church in Scranton, PA.Only the foundation and the basement were completed on that day.In that church hall basement, with nothing above them except the sky and their hopes, the 500 families of our first church gathered their representatives together and asked Fr. Hodur to become their pastor.Neither the priest nor the parishioners knew what lay ahead of them, but they both yearned for something new, and on that March 14th of so many years ago, they pledged their commitment to each other.We now count this meeting and this promise as the founding event of our church denomination.
Fr. Hodur recognized that when he said yes to these people he would be in direct violation of his bishop. He knew that when he pledged to become their pastor that he would definitely be defrocked as a priest, and that he may even be excommunicated from the only church he had ever known.Fr. Hodur was giving up everything he cherished for these people and for this cause.He counted the people rather than the institution as his spiritual priority.Likewise, those 500 families were venturing forth into unchartered territory. They had left Europe behind for a new land of opportunity and respect.They came here and believed those words of America’s founding document that “All men are created equal.”These were not just words memorized in elementary school for them.These were words that inspired people to leave their families and villages behind probably forever, to come to a new country where they did not know the language or the customs, where they had little money to start with and no job guaranteed when they got here.These words, however, gave them the courage and the strength to start out anew.The promise of these words would not be fulfilled for a generation or more in the lives they led in their new country, but they would be implemented from the start in their new church.
“National Catholic” does not translate well the intent of the original name of this church.National was not meant to refer to a particular nation, but it referred to “the people.”This was going to be a Catholic church of the people.Even as those 500 families invited Fr. Hodur to come and be their pastor, to lead them in the liturgical rites that are at the essence of the Catholic tradition, they also insisted that they would hold on to the deed of the property.They would in this way have a substantial voice and responsibility in this new church.They would have leverage so that they would never be taken advantage of or taken for granted. Within one month’s time, Fr. Hodur and these 500 families would together publish their first Catholic innovation.They would insist that the people not the bishop own church property, that a Parish Committee elected by the congregation not appointed by the pastor would help govern the church and make accountability possible, and that all pastors be accepted by the members of the church rather than just assigned to a parish by the hierarchy.The people of this church were beginning to voice their equality.They were beginning to exercise their spiritual responsibility as empowered by the Holy Spirit.And Fr. Hodur encouraged them every step of the way because from day one he envisioned a new kind of Catholic church, a people’s Catholic church.
Almost immediately our church initiated reforms that would reflect this new idea of a democratic Catholic church.The liturgy would become more inclusive so that all in the congregation could better understand and participate in the church’s worship.The Word of God was named a sacrament because the idea of teaching and learning became a central tenet of our faith and the basis upon which our church democracy would function.Since we honoured enlightenment, we down-played all of the superstitions associated with the devil and demons. Our priests would not receive the Minor Order of exorcist any longer.Instead of this negative outlook, our clergy would receive the positive Order of Blesser.We stopped talking in fear of eternal damnation, and that all of us were fallen because of original sin.We also stopped thinking of our church as the only church.We recognized God in others. The first-organization-formed honoured the women of the church by placing them in the front pew because women were too often the silent majority of congregations.Before too long this church of ours was working towards a married clergy and establishing a feast day in honour of the Christian Family because women were stepping out of the shadows and expressing themselves.By 1930, Bp. Hodur was writing about his hopes of a future priesthood not limited by gender.The church also championed the plight of the oppressed and spoke out about social justice in the world, actually standing beside the minors in the first strikes ever to hit the coal mines.And the list goes on.
Anniversaries are not only meant to celebrate what has been done, but to challenge us to complete what needs to be done.If we still claim to be the progressive and democratic church of our founding, then we need to advance the stalled cause of women in this church, and also champion the rights and responsibilities of all parishioners to lead in this Catholic church.We need to make sure that our clergy are teachers who help to empower this Catholic democracy.And parishioners need to take their faith seriously enough so that the Holy Spirit may work through them.Faithfulness is not keeping the past unchanged, but ushering forward the ideals of the past.That we, like those people gathered on this very day in 1897, that we may trust enough in God and in each other to venture forward as church, may this be our prayer on this Feast Day of our founding, in Jesus’ name. Amen. +