On Thursday, I went to a gathering of priests and lay people interested in parish renewal. The presenter and facilitator was a lay leader and pastoral associate of a Catholic parish in Maryland that has experienced tremendous growth in terms of attendance, volunteerism, and giving since he and the pastor started working together more than 20 years ago. He and the pastor have written several popular books about their experience building a vibrant parish. This father of seven who has no degrees in theology or pastoral ministry and started out 20 years ago as a recent college grad doing youth ministry at the parish was a real inspiration. It was also inspiring to me to see so many lay people (who far outnumbered the priests) eager to foster the life and mission of their parishes. The presenter was not selling a program or offering any magic bullets or quick fixes, but was there to remind us and to witness to what amazing things can happen when clergy and laity come together around a shared vision. And that vision is not something we come up with in a pastoral council meeting; rather, it is a vision that comes from Jesus and is clearly described in the scriptures. It all goes back to what a church is. After Peter’s profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi proclaiming that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus says to him, “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” The word we translate as “church” does not refer to a building. The Greek word, ekklesia, refers to a gathering of those who are called out to serve a wider purpose. It would be like those who answered a call to a town-hall meeting with the purpose of serving and improving the broader community. The church is the place where what happened to Peter continues to happen today. It is the place where someone meets Jesus, comes to faith, is formed as a disciple, and is drawn into a mission to introduce others to Jesus. The church’s mission is to seek the lost (those who do not know Christ or have wandered from Christ) and to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). The mission of the church is to bring people to a place where they can ask and answer the same question Peter did about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer was not the product of human wisdom or his own efforts, but the revelation of God – a grace. The church is where we become open to the gift of faith through the encounter with Jesus, where we are free to ask that question and discover the objective truth about Jesus and then work out that answer subjectively in our lives. It is in the community of the church where I am formed, supported, and strengthened to live out in my life what I know to be true. Peter becomes a man attached or devoted to Jesus only after receiving the gift of faith – only after answering that question. But as we know, getting the right answer is not enough. The journey of faith involves an ongoing conversion from thinking as human beings do to thinking as God does. What Jesus revealed, Peter could not predict or imagine. Peter repeatedly messed up and didn’t understand what Jesus told him. But he stayed on the journey with Jesus after he messed up because of that experience he had of being loved by the Lord. Peter was often rebuked or corrected by Jesus, but what moved Peter to conversion was the experience of Christ’s mercy for him that reminded him of who his heart belonged to. Peter becomes a man capable of service to others when he affirms to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” Then he can receive his mission: “Feed my sheep.” Mission flows from this experience of a heart full of love and happiness – happy at knowing that one is called, chosen, wanted, and loved by the Lord, even when one does not “deserve” it. The church, like Peter, is a work in progress. It is not a static thing but a movement led by God. We become an obstacle to that movement when as human beings we try to control and to take the lead, as Peter did, rather than following where Jesus is calling. The presenter had some very challenging questions for us to think about. Are we simply trying to run programs that serve our members and maintain the systems in place, or are we working to create a culture of encounter that is welcoming to outsiders? Are we just running meetings, or are we mobilizing and equipping disciples for mission? Fellowship without discipleship is a waste of our energy and resources. As followers of Jesus, we have come to serve and not to be served. If we lose or forget the reason or “why” we are here as Christians, we lose our way.
How does what I heard at this session on parish renewal relate to our readings today which from Daniel to the Gospel are written in an apocalyptic style? The “apocalypse” does not mean “the end of the world” or the predictions about the future, but like all prophetic writing, it is a call to conversion and a judgment on those acting in opposition to God’s plan. Apocalypse from the Greek literally means “pulling back the veil”; that is why the last book of the Bible is also called the Book of Revelation. Revelation literally means to reveal – to help us to see what is really going on – “under the veil”. And this type of writing uses highly symbolic and powerful metaphorical images to do so. Referencing images from Daniel, Jesus presents himself as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy. His own death, the destruction of the temple, the coming mission of the church, and the final judgment are all intertwined in this rich symbolic language as he gives his farewell address and last instruction to his disciples. The apostles and all future disciples are the “angels” or “messengers” that the risen Lord will send out to all the nations to gather his elect from the “four winds” or all the corners of the earth. The time of the Church – from the time of the Ascension to the 2nd coming of Jesus – is the “end times.” We are living in the “end times” now. And how we understand ourselves as “church” – as “ekklesia” – as those who are called and our mission that flows from it, determines our status at the final judgement. “But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.” The entrance antiphon for this Mass from the prophet Jeremiah, sums up the identity and mission of the church, “You will call upon me, and I will answer you, and I will lead back your captives from every place.” The session on parish renewal was a wake-up call and an opportunity to “pull back the veil” on how we are functioning as a church. Are we intentionally seeking to gather outsiders into the church and to call others to an encounter with Jesus? Are we focussed on the few who are already “in”, or are we seeking to lead to Jesus the many out there in every place who are captive to the world?
There is much distress in the world – a distress that comes from not knowing that God is near. A distress that comes from being aware of our sin and weakness and not knowing his mercy. It is his merciful presence that we recognize here at mass and in the celebration of all the sacraments that makes our heart glad and our souls rejoice. Only with him present can we abide in confidence and not be disturbed. Let us pray to receive the grace like Peter to be devoted to Jesus and show others the path to life and the fullness of joy in his presence.