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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – Nov. 17, 2019 – “Giving testimony to what remains in the midst of changes”

The first weekend in October, the same weekend that John Cardinal Newman was canonized a Saint, I attended the 125th Anniversary celebration of the Newman Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn’s Newman Center was the first Newman Center in the country. Newman Centers are centers for campus ministry for Catholic students on college campuses and universities that are not Catholic. I often went to Mass at the Newman Center when I was an undergraduate at Penn. As part of the event, before dinner, the current President of the Newman Center, Gabbie Ramos, a nursing student, spoke about how important the Newman Center had been for her since she arrived on campus as a freshman four years ago. She spoke about the time she spent each week in quiet adoration, the deep friendships formed in Christ that she found there, and how this place where she encountered Jesus and knew his love sustained her and changed her over the past four years. Her witness was very hopeful, not only because she is a young person speaking about faith, but because she knew what really mattered in life – something quite unusual for the average college student. I don’t think I would have been able to articulate the same thing when I was a senior in college more than twenty-five years ago. I was too caught up in the ideas of “success” and meaning according to the secular culture of the time. What became clear was that what was being celebrated that night was not a physical “center” – a particular physical space where students have gathered for prayer and fellowship for more than 125 years but what Christ has done in the lives of university students in West Philadelphia for a century and a quarter. In fact, the building built in the 1970s that housed the Newman Center in my time was sold last year and torn down.   A high-rise apartment building now sits on the location. The former St. James school building adjacent to St. Agatha-St. James Church is being renovated for a new Newman Center.

Gabbie Ramos’s testimony came to mind in light of today’s Gospel passage in which Jesus says to those admiring the temple in Jerusalem, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” The temple was the center of faith and life. It was the place where God dwelled on earth. Jesus here predicts the destruction of the temple. The destruction of the temple, in Jesus’ teaching, becomes a sign of the end of the world and the final judgement. He makes this point using the cosmic imagery of “powerful earthquakes” and “awesome sights and mighty signs” from the sky that would have been familiar images to his listeners versed in the scriptures. Jesus wants us to place our trust not in the work of human hands – the buildings that are built – but in God. What sustains our faith and our life is not a building but what God gives us when we encounter him (often what we experience inside the building). We will be judged on our testimony – what we witness to when all the man-made structures and systems of this world begin to crumble or are torn down. Jesus says that our defense is not something we can prepare – it is not something that is the work of our hands – but only something that we can receive from him. Our security is not something we build, but it comes from staying with the one who has changed our lives, the one who has promised to remain with us until the end of the age.

Much has changed at the Newman Center not only in the last 25 years since I’ve been there but even in the last few years. A new building. A new priest chaplain. A religious order instead of diocesan priests serving the parish and the center. New student leaders. And the community and diversity of the students themselves are always changing. But the mission remains the same. Christ remains and continues to change and to sustain the lives of many young people. The testimonies I heard filled me with great hope. We face the same reality here in our parish. We can lament the changes and become distraught over how different things are now compared to a few years ago or to when we were much younger, or we can focus on who it is who has entered our life and changed us in this place. The change in us that comes from God is something that no one can resist or refute – it is the testimony of his presence. Faith is allowing ourselves to be seized by his presence. Recently, I heard a sad fact that something like 40% of Catholics stop going to church when their parish or church closes. Even if a neighboring parish church is just a few miles or even a few blocks away, they won’t go because “my church” was closed. If that is true, it is a sign that too many church-going Catholics are more attached to a building than to Christ – more attached to the works of their hands than to Christ’s abiding presence. The church is not a building, a shrine, or a chapel but a people called and gathered by God where he continues to dwell. May we not be deceived by those who promise a security or a solution other than in Christ. Only in following Christ – in perseverance with him who remains in the face of all changes – will we be secure and filled with hope.

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