Bishop John Stowe’s Reflection at Conference of Major Superiors of Men Assembly, August 2, 2016

Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.

Conference of Major Superiors of Men- Opening Reflection

2 August 2016-Columbus, Ohio

Luke 6: 36-37

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  What a standard Jesus has set for us! We are not just to be compassionate, forgiving, not just to be generous and kind, indulgent in the use of our power; but to be merciful just like God in whose image and likeness we are made.   That can only mean being like the Father of the prodigal son, being like the Samaritan that not only attends the injured man on the roadside but provides for his continued care and pays the cost, being like the shepherd carrying the lost and wounded lamb on his shoulders, and ultimately it means to be like the Risen Jesus, the forgiving Victim, who reveals his wounds as he proclaims peace and victory over sin. “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” is the theme that Pope Francis chose for this Jubilee Year of Mercy and it is a worthy goal for a consecrated life truly rich in mercy.  I think it is clear that Pope Francis wants much more than a year-long celebration of the boundless and lavish mercy of God towards all God’s children and all of creation; he wants a church that faithfully and consistently imitates Jesus as he perfectly reveals the merciful face of the Father.

Organized religion, as Jesus knew and experienced it, had a magnificent temple to house worship, elaborate ritual and detailed procedures for offering sacrifice.  There was a rich tradition of studying Torah, God’s Instruction, the Law.  Without a centralized authority in the way we would understand it, different schools of interpretation arose and factions within the practice of Judaism differed about how best to live by God’s life-giving law.  The question “what does the law require?” was a real concern both for religious scholars and for the ordinary person.  Within those differing sects, specialists arose developing quite specific applications of the law, struggling to preserve their Judaism within an empire that did not share their values.  In the noble desire to preserve tradition, with the goal of not being absorbed into the pagan culture in which they were immersed, the application of the law somehow became a source of oppression for many and became a barrier rather than a path to holiness and access to God.  Too much of the Word of God was communicated in a way that seemed out of reach and condemnatory toward all but the religiously observant elite.

John the Baptist, who was taken as a role model by the first practitioners of religious life in the Church, arose in the desert.  An ascetic with a disgusting diet and weird sense of style, he attracted throngs of people because he offered what the official religion did not make sufficiently explicit: mercy, forgiveness, the chance to start over, the assurance that sin was not permanent- like other forms of dirt, it could be washed away.  And one day, the long-awaited Messiah appears standing in line with those filthy sinners seeking the bath of rebirth.  The One who was holiness itself, the perfect revelation of the Eternal God, appears in very ordinary human flesh, blending in with the crowd- taking his place among sinful humanity and in solidarity with those who wished to repair their relationship with God and begin again.

God in the person of Jesus goes to the periphery, to the desert, and takes his place in the midst of sinful humanity; the Messiah came and was to be found drawing close to the unclean.  If that is where Jesus began his public ministry, and if Jesus was repeatedly criticized for eating and drinking with sinners throughout his public ministry, does it not provide an example of where and how we should be?

As evidenced in his first Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis observes far too much of the legalism that Jesus rejected to be at work in the Church today.  When the Law of God is handed down in ways that become burdensome instead of as a path to freedom and a joyful relationship with God, something is wrong.  Like Judaism trying to preserve itself in the midst of a hostile empire, Christians in an age of secularism should definitely be concerned about not disappearing and not being absorbed.  But the way of Jesus is always a way of invitation, a call to conversion and Christianity should be a joyful response to that vision of an all-inclusive kingdom and the teaching of the Church should be the guidepost along the way, always pointing to Jesus.  Pope Francis has described a “logic of the Gospel” which acknowledges that God’s judgement is real and celebrates that God’s judgement (unlike so much of human judgement) is merciful.

It is the mercy of God, revealed in everything that Jesus says and does, that sets the context for living the Law of God in ways that lead to everlasting life- the purpose of the Law. Saint John Paul II, in one of his annual letters to priests on Holy Thursday, said that before teaching the commandments of God, we must be sure to teach the God of the commandments. Pope Francis told the bishops of the United States gathered with him in Washington, DC last fall that everything the church says and does should be seen as merciful.  We know well that the Church is not always seen and heard as merciful.  But I think that those in religious life, women and men, have been exercising this approach for a long time and can provide the leadership for the revolution of tenderness that the Holy Father is calling for in the Church.

For consecrated life to be rich in mercy, we religious need to set aside any sense of superiority for having chosen a “higher, more perfect” path in life, and to recognize our place within the throngs of sinful humanity longing for a chance to begin again.  For many of our religious founders, the concept of a life of conversion was a motivating factor- and it was the active pursuit of becoming that new person who has put on Christ which proved so attractive and gained followers.  Arising in the midst of a humanity longing for a new beginning, some early religious headed for the desert and separated themselves from society, some re-entered society with renewed purpose and some lived with one foot in the City of God and the other in the Earthly City.

Imitating Jesus and the disciples, religious life in its varied forms should find itself in the midst of sinful humanity, breaking bread with sinners and demonstrating the kind of forgiveness modeled by Jesus on the cross.  It should reclaim its proper role of calling the institutional church to ongoing conversion and moderating whatever sounds lacking in mercy in church pronouncements and from the pulpits.  That means teaching by example, putting mercy into action, being as close as a brother.

800 years ago today, Francis of Assisi, so moved by his own encounter with the mercy of God, wished to share the joy of that experience with the masses and obtained a plenary indulgence for anyone and everyone who visited the church of Saint Mary of the Angels on this date.  August 2nd is still celebrated in Assisi as the “Feast of the Pardon.”

Saint Francis found Christ by serving the outcast lepers.  Risking contamination and isolation he was healed interiorly through his encounter with the suffering Christ and overjoyed by the relief he brought the lepers by merely drawing close.  How fitting that religious brothers and priests should be found among the lepers of our times: gang-infested barrios in the inner-city; AIDS clinics and drug rehabilitation centers, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and places of safety for migrants and refugees.  Providing oases of prayer and reflection in the midst of a bustling and competitive world that does not pause for reflection, modeling lives of interdependence – and providing a willing ear are fruitful ways of being in the midst of sinners.  And genuinely living our religious calling as prophetic also aligns us with the marginalized within the church: GLBT persons, our sisters in religious life who insist that the interior life is more important than the external signs and who fall under suspicion when they attempt to listen and give voice to other women, those who have failed at marriage and tried again, and so many others who long to have Jesus stand next to them as they wait in line to be cleansed.

Pope Francis caused quite a controversy, and simultaneously aroused hope in some circles, with his famous phrase, “who am I to judge?”  Was it not an echo of what we heard in this gospel verse immediately after the charge to be merciful like our Father: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.  Forgive and you will be forgiven.”  How can we communicate the richness of our Catholic tradition and its relevance for life today if everything that is pronounced is received as judgmental?

“Let everything the Church says and does be seen as merciful.”  I think bishops need some help to know how—and I think I am in the midst of a group who has the capacity to model this.  For every blunt statement of doctrine and categorical condemnation uttered by the church, may religious men be willing to stand with the sinners and gently walk with them on the path of conversion.  For every pronouncement about intrinsic evils and disordered sexuality, may religious men be ready to wipe tears and heal wounds and help to rediscover goodness and dignity. For every insensitive reaction to circumstances or perceived threats, may religious men bring the fruit of contemplation and discernment of the Spirit’s movement.   May the richness of each of our traditions and the charisms of our founders come alive in us, calling the church to ongoing renewal and conversion and standing with the sinful longing for wholeness- so that we can effectively and authentically announce, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

May our lives and our witness point to him, that we might be merciful as our Father is merciful.

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