Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. It seems like a cliché but we truly are living in changing times in our Church. Some of the changes we see are challenging, some are positive and should have happened years ago. One of the positive changes taking place is what can be broadly described as a change from a clerical Church to a synodal Church. A clerical Church was a Church that was dominated by bishops, priests and religious. There was a very strong emphasis on authority, status and power. This is the Church that most elderly people grew up in and remember well. It is not to say that it was all bad or that all the leaders of the Church at that time were bad either. Far from it. However, all was not good. There was an unhealthy separation between priests and their people, there was a lack of accountability and in many cases, there was an abuse of power that was used to dominate rather than serve. These were the conditions that led to the tragedy of abuse and the cover ups that followed that have caused so much damage to the Church and her credibility.
With this in mind, the first reading and the Gospel today have a chilling relevancy to our past and point us towards a healthier faith community in the present and the future. In the first reading from Malachi, the prophet criticizes religious leaders for their failure to glorify God and their lack of justice. Then in the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t hold back in his stinging criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. Notice carefully what they are condemned for. First, hypocrisy – not practicing what they preach. Do my words and values correspond to how I live? What is the sign we give by our example? Second, lack of care for the people. These leaders were hammered by Jesus for talking the talk but not walking the walk. It is not good enough anymore to teach people something that is challenging and then walk away, saying ‘Now, just get on with it!’. People need support, encouragement and environments where living a certain way is made easier. As Pope Francis keeps repeating, pastors need to accompany their flock and not pontificate to them from on high. Third, Ego and Pride. Jesus spots that with the Pharisees, their religiosity was not healthy because it was being driven by their egos. Their actions were designed to draw attention to themselves and being honoured as important people of status.
Then Jesus offers a remedy to make things better. He mentions humility, equality, fraternity and a collective unity in God in the family of the Church, united by faith and worship of the same merciful Father. This is precisely the synodal Church that Pope Francis is trying to retrieve – the Church that is replacing the older clerical model that was so dominant in Ireland for so long.
However, an important caveat is put before us by the readings today. The end of a clerical Church does not mean the abolition of the hierarchy or an end to the authority and teaching ministry of priests and bishops. Jesus doesn’t say this. It is not a mandate to ignore Gospel or Church teaching and to do what we like. We do not need a feel-good Church that pats us on the head and makes us feel like saints instead of sinners, because that is not who we are. We need holy priests and bishops to challenge us with solid Gospel teaching in a way that challenges us when necessary, calls us to conversion, holiness and maturity in becoming more like Christ. The Church is called to be a lifeboat, a Noah’s ark, which is the only ship that stays afloat as the world drowns in the flood. So never leave the lifeboat, even when the sailors aren’t saints. The lifeboat that is the Church might be getting smaller but it is healthier. God is present and renewing his Church from a clerical model to a synodal family, united in God and in faith.