Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year A 2017 at St Paul the Apostle Parish, Winston Hills
2 July 2017
It would be an understatement to say that the Catholic Church got some bad headlines this week. Nevertheless I’d like to share with you a rather interesting story first. It was the unexpected welcome that Pope Francis extended to 35 separated and divorced women from Toledo, Spain. The women had written to him and shared their personal stories with him. Moved by their suffering, the Pope invited them to a private audience in Rome. It was reported that he kept telling the women to live their wounded lives with dignity and that the Church always welcomes and embraces them.
Through this symbolic gesture, Pope Francis has highlighted for us the importance of seeing people through the prism of suffering. In this perspective, the commitment to the vulnerable and the marginalised is central to being a Christian. It is not optional. For the core belief of Christianity is the incarnation and the God who is fully identified with the lowliest. Dietrich Bonhoeffer the anti-Nazi pastor said that “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer”. We cannot be authentic followers of Christ if we are oblivious to the plight of our suffering brothers and sisters. It is what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters that makes our faith real.
Scriptures this Sunday challenge us not to close in on ourselves, not to be indifferent, but to be open to the ways God comes into our lives, especially the hidden, the unexpected and the unlikely. In the first reading from the Book of Kings, we hear how the prophet Elisha was welcomed and treated with generous hospitality by a foreign woman. Just like his master Elijah who was fed by a destitute widow, Elisha experienced God’s providence from the most unexpected source. The foreign woman and her husband were promised the gift of a child because of their extraordinary kindness to the stranger. They teach us the art of living the sacrament of the moment and of recognising the sacred in the unfamiliar. Their spiritual attentiveness enabled them to attune themselves to divine manifestations. Lack of spiritual attentiveness prevents us from recognising that life even in each mundane detail contains the hidden presence of God.
In the Gospel, Jesus takes the injunction of welcoming the strangers to a new level. In the Old Testament lesson, the foreign couple recognised Elisha – a person superior to them – to be the man of God and treated him accordingly. Jesus, however, challenges us even more. We are told not only to welcome a superior person – the prophet or the holy man – but also to honour God in the little ones – people considered inferior to us. “If anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones… he will most certainly not lose his reward”.
This is consistent with the way Jesus engaged with others. Not only did he reach out the outcasts such as widows, Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors etc…; he also taught us that God identifies with them and so to serve them is to honour God himself. In Jesus who surrounds himself with the outcast, we see a God of solidarity and vulnerability. In Jesus, we meet a God who disturbs our comfort and who pushes us out to the periphery to be with the least of his brothers and sisters.
This brings me to the other news story from Rome with its genesis in Australia. As Catholics, we feel a mixture of sadness and disillusionment by the latest developments involving the very echelons of the Church leadership. While awaiting justice to run its course, we must focus on the task at hand, which is to care for victims and those most adversely affected by sexual abuse in the Church.
Furthermore, we need to convert to the radical vision of Jesus which enables us to see, to judge and to act from the position of weakness and vulnerability. Therefore, in this time of collective soul searching and institutional repentance, we must learn to be more Christlike in our identity and mission. We must learn to stand with the least and the last. It is not simply a matter of acting with mercy and compassion, with our position of power and privilege intact. Rather, it is a radical discipleship of vulnerability and powerlessness demanded by the humble Servant of God. It is a total conversion with far reaching implications for us as Church.
I want to thank the faithful parishioners of St Paul’s who continue to witness and serve generously in spite of the crisis of trust and credibility in respect of the Church leadership. I pledge to walk with you through this valley of darkness to the hope of a Church which is purified and humbled, yet more of a sacrament of God’s love in the world. In a time of profound change, we must adhere to the constant message of faith, hope and love for all. We must continue to be a church where all people, especially the most vulnerable can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel. And as long as we embody that vision of church in our practice, we become a lighthouse for the world. Let us pray for the courage to follow Christ’s footsteps in uplifting the downtrodden, in giving hope to the hopeless and in building up God’s kingdom among us.