10 Mar 2013
“‘I am the vine you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …” (John 15:5)
In the name …
Today marks the 116th anniversary of the founding of our church denomination. That’s why the purple has come down in the Sanctuary and the flowers have gone up. This is why the Gloria is again recited during the Mass and gold vestments are worn. For this one day we put Lent on hold and celebrate the gift of our church. Over in Rome the Cardinals are gathered so that they can elect the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. This is extremely important for the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, and it should be because the Pope is believed to be the infallible, universal leader of that denomination. But we are an intentionally different kind of Catholic church. Our authority is democratic, our authority, in other words, belongs to the people of the church. This distinction is quite tangible right outside the doors of this building. When the people of these local communities began to erect this church structure, they inscribed on the cornerstone of the building the words “Belonging to the people.”
This is not a trivial statement. And it’s not important only because it’s inscribed in granite. It reflects a fundamental reorientation in the nature of the Catholic church as we understand it as National Catholics. The sacred authority of the church is part of our living, breathing, thinking, worshiping community. The authority of the church is not designated by titles and offices. The authority of the church is a gift, a charism, of the Holy Spirit shared among all of us who are baptized. We don’t control the Holy Spirit; we only reflect the will of the Spirit. The Spirit acts to guide the church through us, together.
When I was in the Seminary back in the 1980’s, we were encouraged to read the writings of Hans Kung, a German Roman Catholic priest and theologian. He was a theological advisor at Vatican Council II in the 1960’s, but once the reforms of that Council were eroded, he fell dramatically out of favour. He was once an advisor to a Pope, but within a decade he even lost his license to teach at Roman Catholic colleges. Fr. Kung was brave in his inquiry into the subject of authority in the church, and boy that ticked-off the authorities of the church. In 1979, he wrote that truth was maintained in the church by the whole of the believing community. He wrote explicitly that this authority did not belong to any church institution or office, which he pointed out, did not exist from the beginning of the church nor need they exist in such forms in the future of the church. (Infallible, 1994, p. 229-230) What has been a constant throughout the ages, however, is the community of believers. This is the ancient tradition that we embrace as National Catholics, and this is the tradition reflected in our church’s cornerstone: Belonging to the people.
This religious democracy is why Fr. Hodur purposefully chose to bless the cornerstone of the Scranton church on the Fourth of July, 1897. This is why our first church in Scranton has stained glass windows of Jan Hus, the great church reformer, and of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, in her sanctuary. [The Help movie] One of my favourite quotes of Bp. Hodur is found in the records of the Synod of 1914. The General Council was the representative of the General Synod between sessions. It was, accordingly, the highest authority of the church. When the topic of adding lay members to this body was broached in 1914, many Synod delegates raised their voices in opposition. They yelled that it was better to leave such matters in the hands of the clergy. Just as adamantly, Bp. Hodur, the head clergyman of the church, answered back: “Learn to govern yourselves! Learn to decide for yourselves and to think for yourselves!” Here’s our church throwing the offer of power to the bishop, and that same bishop refusing it and insisting instead that the people of the church be the authority of the church. This is the sentiment reflected in the inscription on our church’s cornerstone: Belonging to the people.
There is great potential in the accumulated wisdom of the many. You may know by now that I love science, but I can’t do science. My brain doesn’t comprehend. It doesn’t fire on all cylinders. This is why I love it when great scientists write books for the non-scientist reader such as myself. But I still want to do more, and scientists are letting me, letting any of us. If you go to zooniverse.org or eyewire.org, anybody can help with the science of today. You can help catalog some of the millions of galaxies in our local universe or you can help map the bazillion neuron pathways in our eyes. There is great power in the accumulated wisdom of all of us together.
And remember, when the Christian church was first forming, it did so within the realm of the Roman Empire with an all-powerful Emperor sitting on the throne. The church completely rejected this model of authority and instead of individuals the New Testament is filled with stories of the community. And when Bp. Hodur chose today’s Gospel selection, he picked Jesus’ proclamation of “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This is not an image of a maple tree like the ones tapped outside of this building with one strong trunk. The vine is an image of intermingled branches and of a randomness to its unity. Try and untangle the vines that are growing in the vacant lot beside our parking lot. That’s an image of democracy. It’s messy. But the consensus of the faithful in this messy democracy is the best way to allow the Spirit to speak to us and through us as church. All of us share in the sacred gift of building the church. And as Kung said the offices of the church were not there in the beginning and they may not be there in the future, but there has always been and there always will be the authority of the community. This is what is reflected on our cornerstone. And this is what we celebrate today. May we be proud of our religious heritage and may we each do what we can to continue building this democratic Catholic church of ours for us and for those who come after us. It is for this that we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo