Rev. Eric M. Augenstein
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – August 18/19, 2018
St. Agnes Catholic Church
Proverbs 9.1-6; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58
Just under three years ago, I was on a bus with 50 other people from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. We were heading to the World Meeting of Families, which was being held in Philadelphia that year, and would be one of the stops on Pope Francis’ first pastoral visit to the United States. Not long after we got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just south of Pittsburgh, we started seeing signs along the way encouraging us to turn back – literally. Highway information signs were broadcasting the message: “Pope to visit Philadelphia September 26-27. Expect delays. Seek alternate routes.” At a Turnpike rest stop, we encountered travel advisory signs urging us to avoid the Philadelphia area unless we are going to see the Pope. It said to expect congestion worse than a blizzard. Be sure to fuel up your car, bring plenty of food and water with you in case you get stranded, and really, if at all possible, just avoid the area. But that was exactly where we were headed. I remember thinking at the time that it felt like we were driving toward a fire or into the path of an oncoming hurricane against all advice.
That image and memory came to my mind this past week, not only because the next edition of the World Meeting of Families begins in a few days, this time in Dublin, Ireland; bur moreso as I – and many of us both inside and outside the Catholic Church – have struggled to process and understand the latest heart-rending revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and cover-ups and criminal mismanagement by bishops and other Church leaders. The latest news comes from a Grand Jury report that covers criminal sexual abuse at the hands of clergy in dioceses that flank the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I’ve started reading the report. It’s painful. I haven’t finished reading the 800+ pages. I don’t want to, but I need to. The Catholic Church is on fire, and some of my brother priests have lit the flames. The winds are battering our fragile faith, and some of our shepherds were fiddling while Rome burned. It would be so easy to turn around and run away; it would be easy, and perhaps justifiable, to abandon the Church that has failed so many. The days are evil, St. Paul reminded the Ephesians. So don’t be foolish. The days are evil, he says; try to understand the will of the Lord. I confess, I’m not sure these days exactly what the will of the Lord is in all of this. And I’m ashamed and so sorry for the evil that has been done.
Last week, I stood in front of our seminarians as they prepared to enter a year of formation for the priesthood. Twenty four men who have courageously put themselves forward in these days to say that they feel called to a priestly ministry that has scars on it and that has caused partially-healed wounds to break open once more. Seven of these men are new seminarians, setting out on the path to priesthood in this summer of shame. As I stood before these seminarians last week, I gave them a challenge – one that I give to myself, and to all of us. When the Church is most hurting, it is then that we need great Saints. When the storms or fires rage and burn, it is then that we need the strength and witness and courage and wisdom that no mortal man or woman can conjure on their own but which comes from the Holy Spirit to raise up a new generation of saintly heroes. We need people to go toward the fire, not run away – to heal wounds – to listen compassionately – to show true mercy – to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty – to forsake foolishness – to advance in the way of understanding – to be the hands and feet and heart and voice of Jesus Christ, who does not abandon his own. There are plenty of sinners who are content at being sinners. These days, especially, we need sinners who long to be Saints, and with God’s grace, it can be.
So where do we go from here? From one perspective, that’s still an open question. The Church is sick. The world is sick. And the treatment plan is still under review. But there’s one simple answer that is fool-proof. Where do we go from here? To the Eucharist. Here at this altar is the bread come down from heaven. Here at this altar is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here at this altar, a broken man is called to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Here at this altar, the one who was crushed for our sins and broken for our infirmities raises us up to new life. Here at this altar, Saints are born. “Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life.”