Anniversary Homily

Word spread quickly through the community of poor, disenfranchised and needy people of Jericho that Jesus of Nazareth, the famous teacher and healer, was coming to town. People lined the roads in anticipation of actually seeing him in person. And Bartimaeus, too, found his place to wait along the anticipated parade route, just another faceless, nameless poor man blending invisibly into the crowd. If you think about it, the Gospels are full of stories of invisible people living on the fringes, their stories unknown and unimportant, their hearts longing for something better. The world has always been thus.
Bartimaeus is sitting on the curb; he hears the murmuring of the crowd, and then an increase in the excited hubbub. Jesus is getting now, so this unknown and invisible man, having no sense of propriety, begins shouting for Jesus to have mercy on him. And the proper people weren’t amused. This visit by the Teacher was the biggest thing to happen in a very long time, and the last thing they wanted or needed was some loser by the side of the road making a scene. Some of the crowd tried to silence the man, but the more they objected, the louder he called out for Jesus to help him. Somehow, despite the massive crowd of people, Jesus hears and approaches the man. “What is it that you want from me?” he asks. In a world of outcasts, Bartimaeus is just one more blind man, and in desperation, he cries out again, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy upon me.”
In my real life dealings with desperate people, one thing is the same in every case: they are always willing to tell you exactly what they need or want. They tell their stories in more detail than I want to know or think I ought to know. Some of them are dishonest, of course, and so they “embroider” their stories with intricate details geared to tug at my heart strings. “I have a new job and I need bus-fare until I get paid.” …”My daughter is in prison and I am caring for my grandkids who haven’t eaten in three days…” “I ran out of gas about a half mile from here and my kids are waiting in the car.” “I have to get to Alabama to visit my sick father who is dying and I have no money for a bus ticket.” The list of stories and needs is endless, but from the very inception of this parish we have heard the cries of those within the Church calling for acceptance, dignity, respect, a safe place to worship, a church they could call home.
If we look at the miracle stories in the Gospels, it seems that Jesus believes that in order for a person’s deepest need to be met, the person has to know what his need is. Think about this. Jesus never just steps into a situation and tells a sick person, “Hey,you know what? I know just what you need here!” Instead, He wants to listen to the person directly and hear what s/he has to say about their situation. This is exactly the opposite of how we decide to help others. We’d rather not listen because we’ve already decided how we’re going to help them. We place them into categories according to race, religion, socioeconomic status and a host of other categories before we determine how we will help.
We have an elaborate system already in place, one that mirrors our own biases: if someone has dependant children, they get this amount of assistance. Food stamps are based on income. Medicare depends on specific criteria. We certainly don’t need to hear people’s problems—we already know the answer. And sadly, this mentality has even taken firm root within the Church. It doesn’t matter which religious institution we’re talking about, the situation is nearly identical: answers are predetermined, presorted, ready to be applied at the discretion of the clergy to any and all situations. We’ve made our answers seem so clear, so certain, so obvious, that we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that our teachings and dogmas and beliefs and practices are not only the “best”, they are in fact the very voice of God! If people can’t or won’t do what we tell them, God will punish them for not listening to us. In case you’ve not been paying attention, this situation is growing ever more ossified and intractable, despite the growing numbers of people who are spiritually starving but cannot find a place where they can worship in integrity.
But what if Christianity could release its stranglehold on having all the answers and just start over? What if Christians, instead of being on the defensive with all the right answers, the correct interpretations, the true dogmas, instead began to listen to the deepest needs of the people around them? Could there be another way, based on the teachings and practices of Jesus himself, that would help the Church become more credible and welcoming? More compassionate? Better able to effect healing and transformation in peoples’ lives?
These are the questions we asked ourselves five years ago when a handful of people decided, finally, that it was time to make Catholicism something more than a set of regulations and prohibitions. Something more than a preoccupation with external rituals and formulae. We had all been raised in the aftermath of the radical teachings of Vatican Council II, and we believed in that wider vision with our whole heart and mind. We had long been saddened by the way the needs of the People of God are ignored by the larger institution. Instead of having answers at the ready, we vowed to listen to each person, to respect the presence of grace within each heart and soul, and to treasure every person for who he or she was becoming. Most importantly, we opened up the idea of community. In former times, the parish community was restricted to those who had made a formal profession of faith. We turned that model on its head! Instead, we opened up the community first, with no prerequisites, no requisite statement of faith, no solemn profession of faith in anything except a desire to follow God more honestly, in integrity of mind and heart.
And this decision to begin fresh has had some backlash. The Roman hierarchy has attempted to have us evicted from this place. They have condemned us publicly and advised “obedient” Catholics to stay away. They have falsely claimed that we are not really “Catholic”, despite the fact that I am a validly ordained Catholic priest and that we do not dissent from any Catholic doctrine. The fact is we treasure our Catholic roots, we love the Tradition, we don’t want to be anything else but Catholic…but we also recognize that some of our tradition is no longer useful. Certain aspects of our past have created barriers instead of bridges, or they have ceased to honor the human person in her or his core essence of divinity. The man-made rules have interfered with the People of God discerning the presence of grace in their own lives.
Like Bartimaeus, we can’t see the future: we don’t know where this path will take us. We only know that Christ will guide us, if we remain open to His Spirit.
Jesus waited for Mr. Bartimaeus to express his need before healing could take place. No sooner were the words spoken, “I want to see!”, than the prayer was granted. It was not the power of Jesus that healed him, it was the man’s own faith in having his need met. Jesus says it himself, that it was the man’s faith that worked the miracle. It will be the same with this parish. Our faith will empower the blind to see, the lame to walk, the broken-hearted to hope, the disenfranchised to find a family, the rejected to find a welcoming home.


About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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