Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sermons: The Storeroom of the New & the Old II

"...every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." (Matthew 13:52)

There are times, it seems, as if the Catholic Church was a two-story building; the laity being on the first floor and the clergy on the second. Each story has its distinct subculture; the differences of which are profound at times. This bi-level Church we belong to- each level having its own language, interests and ways of looking at the world -is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is about five hundred years old. Arguably, the trends which divided the clergy and the laity into separate subcultures emerged in the Middle Ages; and it never went completely away. Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, wrote that "the rise of a new lay educated class brought with it an independent ideal of lay culture. The consequent division of culture into two halves corresponded to the social division between clergy and laity." He continues: "While the clergy studied the Bible and the Fathers, the laity studied the classics; while the clergy studied the history of the Church, the laity studied the history of the State; while the clergy studied the traditional Christian philosophy, the laity studied the philosophers of pagan antiquity and the natural sciences."

Today, this dichotomy between the laity and the clergy expresses itself along similar lines. Lay people are consumers of internet news, cable news, and talk radio. They get their information with imagery, in quick sound bites, or in well crafted advertisements which speak directly to desires and needs. In any given message, relevance is critical. On the other hand, papal encyclicals and Church documents are usually long and academic. To decode some of the theological jargon, one needs a B.A. or an M.A. in theology at the very least. Moreover, these instruments of passing on information within the Church are, as I said previously, more topic-driven and abstract. The average person, however, has been groomed by the media to want current event-driven information. For this reason, Catholic documents and books penned by Church officials are not frequented by many people. It simply takes too much time to read and the language is too elevated for the average person to appreciate.

We need to remember the words of St. Paul who became disillusioned with the elevated and sophisticated language of the Greek philosophers of his day. In his second letter to Corinthians, he wrote: "For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand." (1:13) Brevity, simplicity and charisma are not only the marks of the New Testament epistles, but they are also the marks of modern communication. But as it appears, the clergy has not yet adapted to the twenty-first century consumer mentality and the way people are accustomed to receiving information. This is why sermons are all the more important! Yet, the time allotted for sermons during the liturgy are too often missed opportunities.

Western Civilization, as with most civilizations in world history, is currently on the decline from moral decay. The moral causes are easy to identify: Contraception, sex outside of marriage, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia etc., just to name a few. North America and Europe are literally dying because of these sins. However, due to the silence of the clergy, the world has been given the opportunity to shape our attitudes and beliefs about the most important issues of life. It is not enough that we hear or read the truth about morality from the heights of Vatican Hill. We need to hear it from our priests and bishops. In the forty plus years of my life on earth, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard words like "birth control" or "cohabitation" mentioned during a sermon. Yet, the Catholic Church is the most qualified agent to set the record straight and thus stop the social hemorrhaging. But she must begin by preaching about these issues specifically and concretely; not guised in general references. By doing this, the Church- the oracle of God -will bring the Light of Christ to these dark crevasses of society.

There is, no doubt, a price to paid for speaking the truth. This is why Christ exhorted his followers to rejoice when they are persecuted for His sake. Perhaps a disgruntled Catholic will reproach a priest after Mass; or maybe friendships and alliances will be compromised in the parish. These possibilities quite often serve as a pretext for saying little to nothing about such sins from the pulpit. Nonetheless, it is important that everyone, not just the priest, know that for every person we offend with the truth, we are apt to attract three or more souls to Christ. Yet, the offended person is much more likely to be vocal about his opposition than the person who has been won over by it. Because of this recurring dynamic, Catholics- both clergy and laity -perceiving that the offended person represents the majority, retreats and says no more about the truth. But when the clergy does not speak the truth about the above mentioned sins, then the laity and the Church at large will have to pay a much greater price.

Therefore, the reluctance of the Catholic clergy to address the specifics of the moral law, especially with regard to sexual sin, has left a void in our culture. Let there be no doubt, the silence and timidity of priests who stand behind the pulpit every week has only made room for sin, false ideologies, and destructive behaviors to flourish all the more. Sadly, these things take place in their own parishes. But as our Lord said, "A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." A lamp is placed on a "lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house." But when the lamp is put under a bushel basket, darkness ensues. Indeed, it has never been so unclear as to what a Christian really is or what the nature of marriage really is.

The priesthood, that is, the spiritual fatherhood of society, really does set the pace for the people. The supernatural order is the cause; the natural order, the effect. When priests do not speak to the truth about specific moral behaviors which determine the quality of life and the longevity of civilizations, then the powerful and those most vocal in society will define how we shall live and how we shall die.

Jesus said that "every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." As we have seen, the "new" is necessary for the relevance of the sermon. But the "old" is necessary for understanding.

More on the "old" in the next blog-