Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Members of the flock of the Church "do not recognize the voice of strangers" and only that of Christ the true Shepherd

There are many voices in the world today. In addition to cell phones, email, Facebook, chat and Skype we have the internet, news outlets, presidents on one side and terrorist jihadists on the other, bloggers, TV demagogues and talk show hosts, self-help gurus and purveyors of popular spiritual books through public appearances; all these and more have joined the chorus of voices calling out for our very limited attention along with those of our family members, our communities and our bishops.

With our very great limitations as human beings how do we remain open to others in a way that would be pleasing to God, would be holy and in imitation of Jesus Christ our Lord, who exercised compassion for the many who sought him out for a sympathetic hearing, while also obeying Christ's command to refuse falsehood and error?

We must be willing to listen in love to those others who ask for our attention as an expression of love, except in cases where we would be participating in sins such as gossip about the faults of others or lies about others. These are called detraction and calumny, excluded by the laws of God and matters for sacramental confession. We must also avoid listening to any talk such as abusive and angry speech, denigration of the gift of the marital act through lustful speech, advocacy of gratuitous violence outside of legitimate needs for self-defense, or speech which takes the Lord's Holy Name in vain. Priests when hearing confessions, for example, sometimes must ask the penitent to limit the description of any sins they are confessing to the briefest detail in order to avoid the near occasion of sin. And it is helpful to remind here that penitents are asked to name sins only by type, or species, and number.

Beyond this, how can we exercise true compassion for others while also being able to say "no" to those things which are incompatible with our way of life in Christ? Jesus Christ unhesitatingly always responded with a firm and clear renunciation of anything which was incompatible with the holy will of His heavenly Father and we must do the same.

In today's Gospel, Jesus Christ says yes to the Father's will that there be but one visible flock in the world, one holy people that would be the Body of Christ as a corporeal group or family and recognizable to all who seek salvation. Jesus Christ says "yes" to the Father's plan for the universal Church, an ecclesia, qahal or a "calling forth" from the world and a setting apart from the world of those persons who belong to Christ and therefore also to the Father, giving and receiving Trinitarian love and life through the Holy Spirit of God.

Those who desire to be members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God are constantly formed as such by God through the active engagement of the intellect and will in the listening to and recognition of the voice of Christ the Redeemer. But how, we should ask, is His voice made known and heard? And why must we also renounce, that is refuse to recognize, the voices of certain others? Who are these others?

Our identity as members of the flock of the true Shepherd requires that we be able to do two things in order to be one with Him and to persevere in His love: we must both hear the voice of the Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and also refuse recognition of the voices of those the Lord calls "strangers".

What is a stranger? A stranger is a person whom we do not know or who does not know us because they are from a distant place, though they may be approaching us and becoming more fully known to us. Those are strangers who are "estranged" from Christ because they persist in living apart from Him as He is present in His Body the Church. These strangers, whether intentionally or not, have closed themselves off from some aspect of the fullness of life he offers through His Church.

The voice of Christ comes through the Church, through the Pope and the bishops in union with him whom Christ Himself commissioned: "Go and teach". The voice of Christ is also heard through the Scriptures, particularly as proclaimed by the Church in her liturgies. As the Second Vatican Council taught, Christ is present through the power of the Holy Spirit when the Scriptures are proclaimed. When we listen with careful and loving attention at Holy Mass as the Scriptures are proclaimed by the priest or deacon and the lectors, we truly hear the voice of the Shepherd who calls us and forms us as His holy Church, His Body in the world.

Those who were cut to the heart in our first reading today, in shame at their complicity in the evil of crucifying the Lord, felt compelled to act in order to renounce the sin of rejecting God and to amend their lives by word and action. In order to find out what it was that they must do they turned to Peter, the one commissioned by the Lord Himself to be His voice, to speak for him so that the world, in hunger for salvation, might be fed with the life-giving truth by Christ our Life. Peter directs them to participation in the Church through the sacramental life: to be baptized. Thus they entered as we must also into the sheepfold of the Church.

For those who have entered the sheepfold there follows the weekly participation in the Sunday Eucharist, the proclamation of the Word of God and the building up of baptismal graces through worthy reception of the Eucharist. And in order to receive the Eucharist in a sincere way one must first listen to and act upon the voice of Christ who invites us to become real and actual members of the Church. It is for this reason that those who are not Catholics in good standing are asked not to receive the Eucharist. Each must take responsibility for his or her free choices, whether to enter the Church or to remain outside the sheepfold and also to accept the consequences of those decisions.

The strangers whose voices we must refuse to recognize unfortunately include also those fellow Christians who acknowledge only the Bible, for example, and do not accept all of the other gifts that come through Christ in the Church such as the sacraments and the teaching office of the Pope and bishops in union with him. We do love all of these sisters and brothers, but our love does not extend to believing with them any errors taught by the ecclesial groups to which they belong because to do so would be to disobey the Lord who commands: "do not recognize the voice of strangers".

This demand can entail suffering as sometimes those discordant teachings and voices are taken up by our own family members whom we love and with whom we want to share the fullness of life in Christ. These persons must be invited to take Catholic instruction and to enter the Church through the RCIA program.

"I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."


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