26th Sunday Ordinary Time – Homily (Fr. Smith)

Perhaps Pope Francis’ main target in his papacy has been Clericalism. Clericalism is hard to define, but in its extreme form holds that the Church belongs to Bishops and Priests and the rest of you can pray, pay and obey. We see its birth in today’s gospel.

“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Note that last part: not he does not follow “you” – Jesus – but “us” the Apostles, in our terminology the clergy. Jesus immediately tells them that this exorcist is performing a mighty deed in His name, not theirs so let him continue. Ultimately, Clericalism is dangerous because leaders follow themselves for their own advancement, not Jesus for everyone’s.

In last week’s Gospel, the Twelve boasted among themselves about who was the most important. They used human criteria and Jesus showed them that only their love of God was important. It was better to be a child with a strong love of Jesus than a philosopher with a weak one.

This continues that line of thought. Not only should they not be jealous of each other – they should not be jealous of others who call upon the name and power of Jesus. The importance is following Him, not them.

This had a very specific application. The Gospel spread quickly but unevenly usually around trade routes. In the very beginning of the Church, there was no effective coordinating body and “missionaries” would be sent by many different groups. These usually associated themselves with an Apostle.  This included not only the Twelve, but also figures like Paul and James. A city might have several Christian Churches – for us, parishes – which were more connected to other Parishes in different cities who followed the same apostle than to other Christian communities in their own city. This situation could not last for long. The message of Jesus is inherently unifying – it must bring people together.

Christianity was almost immediately a global movement and would need to express itself in different cultures but always seeking unity in the essentials. Last summer, our Parish Bible Study focused on St John. The community was divided between those who prized independence and those who saw the need to join the greater Church, the Church of Peter, which we now recognize as the Catholic Church.

Today’s Gospel reflects this world. It is thought that this Gospel is written in and for Rome, where there would have been many house churches. There was a large Jewish Christian presence to which Paul seems to have written but there was a more gentile group as well to which Mark was predominately addressed.  They had different emphases and perhaps even used different languages, but they all believed that Jesus died and rose for them and formed a new and everlasting covenant with them. The pedigree of the performer is not important only his or her devotion to Jesus. 

This is the role of the leader. Clericalism was a way of running the Church – it cannot be merely abandoned: it must be replaced. Pope Francis, wily old Jesuit that he is, while dismantling clericalism has also enhanced lay ministries. The new leaders of the Church may be yourself or sitting next to you. So, to avoid irony, listen well.

A Chistian leader must seek union among Christians. To use an old Italian expression “The fish stinks from the head down”. The little ones of today’s Gospel are the rank-and-file Christian believer. These are to be guided to accepting, at very least, other Christians as brothers and sisters.  It would be better for a leader, clerical or lay, who fails at this that a great millstone be put around their neck and be thrown into the sea. A leader who creates his or now increasingly her own parish or organization and not a true community no matter how financially sound or culturally significant has failed.

We may not have competing house churches, but we do have causes of division. Most polling has indicated that in the United States religion does not influence our political beliefs as much as political and partisan affiliations form our religious positions. Even issues which do not immediately seem political like vaccinations have taken on a partisan edge. This is true across the religious spectrum, but is utterly ridiculous for Catholics. We have a profound and clear social teaching and it cannot be shoehorned into any political straightjacket. We must choose which option most reflects our conscience, knowing that the fit will be uncomfortable. If you are completely at peace with your political options, we need to talk. It will be long. Our leaders are called from the Pope down to bring us together through these difficulties and differences.

Many commentaries on this passage emphasize the sense of working together across denominations. Our separation from our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters may be a scandal, but has not prevented us from working together. Yet it must mean more than this. Community organizers have discovered that to have a substantial effect on a community all religious communities must work together. They may not all use the name of Jesus, but they can reflect his presence. So let me end with a personal anecdote.

One night in London, I saw what looked like a Good Humor truck pull up to a homeless man. Two men with turbans got out and pulled out a meal tray and fed him. I asked who they were and was told that they were Sikhs and that they go out at night to find and feed the poor. I was – and am – extremely impressed. They did not wait for the poor to come begging to them, but found them. How could this not reflect the presence of Jesus?

As we bring our world back from COVID, let us join with anyone who seeks the good of everyone then we will truly know that we are not an elite following ourselves, but servants following Jesus.