Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2023 Year A
Readings: Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10; 1Thess 2:7-9; Matthew 23:1-12
5 November 2023
Enacting a culture of integrity, humility, powerlessness and servanthood.
Last week, during the Synod in Rome, Pope Francis delivered a speech that was simple in its folksy style and yet poignant in its contents. He described the Church as the faithful people of God and reminded the ordained that they are not apart from but a part of the baptised. If the call to ministry leads them to a false sense of specialness and power over others, it becomes a travesty of Christian service. He went on to say “This is the great defeat to which clericalism leads us. It is very sad and scandalous. It is enough to go to ecclesiastical tailor’s shops in Rome to see the scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats or albs and lace-covered robes.”
Pope Francis is intent on steering the Barque of Peter away from the old way of being Church which is steeped in a culture of triumphalism, worldly power and splendour. Indeed, he has inverted the pyramid model with its penchant for ostentation, pomp and circumstance. In his teachings and symbolic gestures, he has challenged us to embrace the Church of simplicity, poverty and humility. As an embodiment of the Gospel, we endeavour to be the compassionate face of God for the poor and afflicted. It is a kind of Church that through the synodal process, we have embraced here in Parramatta.
The Word of God this Sunday is a summons to integrity in ministry and service. We are called to be a beacon of light for the world by the measure of our authentic witness consisting of servant leadership, selflessness and vulnerability.
In the first reading, Malachi warns the priests of God’s judgment over against their misconduct. He is one of the last prophets who served during the second Temple period, that is, the time the Israelites had returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. Malachi denounces the priests for failing to serve with integrity. They are guided not by a sense of service and impartiality but instead profit and self-interest. We, the clergy of today, need to reflect on these prophetic words, in order to stay true to our vocation, especially in the wake of the Royal Commission.
In the Gospel, Jesus is scathing in his attack against hypocrisy. He demands integrity of the highest order from those who are in the business of guiding others, lest they become an obstacle instead of a guiding light. For some of the scribes and Pharisees, religion has become synonymous with personal gain in their public profile and social status. It has to do with “attracting attention to themselves like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels or having people call them Rabbi”.
For Jesus, however, it is a travesty when religion is reduced to an external display and an arena for power play. Therefore, he condemns this kind of shallow, self-serving and false holiness. He challenges his disciples to practice a holiness that has to do with integrity, love and service – the kind of holiness that touches the depth of who we are and connects us with the humanity of one another.
In the light of the Gospel today, we must confront the question of how much our practice of religion has to do with integrity, servant-leadership and vulnerability, and how much it has to do with the cultivation of our image and the desire for power, control, self-entitlement and privilege. As a church, we cannot move forward until we have fully embraced Jesus’ radical and subversive call to abandon the culture of power in favour of wholesome relational discipleship.
We need to be purified of the shallow, self-serving and false holiness. We need to be purified of an attitude of elitism and superiority that is the antithesis of the Gospel spirit. Equally, we need to convert to the humble and servant Christ, one who came not be served but to serve and to give his life for all. In the post-Royal Commission Australia, when the Catholic brand is seriously compromised, what we need is not a return to the old triumphal Catholicism of yesteryear. Rather, like Malachi who advocates for a true collective conversion, we must learn to enact an ecclesial culture of integrity, humility, powerlessness and servanthood.
My dear friends,
Pope Francis has dedicated himself to promote this ecclesial culture ever since that day when he appeared in a simple white gown, bowed and asked the people for their blessing. It was a powerful, almost subversive gesture of a humble, poor and listening church. One could sense that the old fortress, triumphalist paradigm had ended and a new era had emerged. To use a biblical metaphor, God has poured a new wine through the papacy of Francis. This new wine needs new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism and self-reference abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity are broken. The servant leadership of Pope Francis is indicative of the new era of hope, even if we are struggling to find our way in the emerging and unfamiliar landscape.
Christianity may be returning to the earlier times in terms of being a marginalised or even unpopular minority. Let us not be afraid of the dying of the old just as Malachi’s prophecy of destruction is followed by the fresh hope of a new dawn. May the Holy Spirit give us courage to live a discipleship of integrity, humility and service. May He guide us in finding new ways of doing things that will garner fresh energy for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for self-preservation.