St. Albertuspfarrgemeinde—Ottawa, ON
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year “A”)
World Mission Sunday - October 19, 2014
MISSIONARY DISCIPLES FOR TODAY
[Texts: Isaiah 45.1, 4-6 [Psalm 96 (95)]; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-5; Matthew 22.15-21]
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Your parish has been in the forefront of my thoughts this week. Members of the parish very kindly prepared and served an “Oktoberfest” luncheon at the Diocesan Centre for our Pastoral Day on Thursday. This weekend you have been holding your “Laienseminar” on the vision of Pope Francis for our Church guided by Msgr. Norbert Blome from the German Diocese of Ulm. I thank him for his presence in our midst and I thank you and Fr. Schoenhammer, your pastor for your kindness and service in the Archdiocese.
During his second missionary journey, Paul had a vision of a Greek calling out in the night, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (Acts 16.9) It was a key moment in the spread of the gospel—from Asia to Europe.
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy sailed from Troas to Macedonia and came to Thessalonica. Readers interested in what happened there, and after Paul was expelled from the city, may read about it in Acts 17.1-18.11.
Paul's letters to the Thessalonians were efforts to keep in touch with the church he left in a hurry. In them he recalled his teaching and comforted them. Paul told them how all they experienced was part of God's plan and helped them deal with suffering.
Above all, he helped them cope with the death of some of their friends—their “brothers and sisters in the Lord”. He offered them a vision of what would happen at the Lord Jesus' coming in glory.
Thessalonica was religiously diverse. The Romans obliged their citizens to worship the empire and the emperor as divine; archaeologists have discovered there a temple to the goddess Roma and coins of Julius Caesar and Augustus inscribed with divine titles.
As in other Greek cities, Thessalonica had “mystery” religions espousing the cult of Dionysus and Serapis. In such mystery religions, worshippers celebrated a ritual ceremony of the deity's dying and rising in order to share in divine life. As in major cities of the empire, there were likely a few Jews in Thessalonica, too, though no synagogue has been found.
Paul shared with the Thessalonians the good news that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Paul says they believed his message—taking it to be God's Word—and “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10).
Their sincerity in becoming believers was palpable, so Paul made deep friendships with them. Suddenly, though, persecution broke out and after a few weeks he had to leave them. As they parted, Paul wondered how their faith would turn out. Would they go back to former ways? Or would they stick with their new convictions?
Paul worried and told his Thessalonian friends of his anxieties. Meantime, he sent them a letter—the First Epistle to the Thessalonians—which scholars think is the first New Testament document put into writing, around the year 51. For a few weeks the second reading will be from this Pauline composition.
Paul was both a talented letter-writer and a brilliant teacher. He knew the viewpoints of the “idea people” of his day. Some of these were known as Epicureans, Stoics and Cynics. We know that the exponents of these “life-styles” wrote treatises in the form of letters. Perhaps Paul wrote letters in imitation of them.
We do not know how these teachers went about their business, but it appears they held themselves up as models for their students, as we see Paul doing in First Thessalonians (2.1-12; 2.17-20; and 4.1-2). These secular philosophers thought the best way of coping with life was to show little in the way of feelings. Unlike them, Paul's approach was full of passionate expressions of fondness for his fellow believers.
Paul heard that the Thessalonians were grieving over the death of their friends, which gave them personal anguish. Paul told them he had experienced similar pain when his relationship with them was cut off unexpectedly as he fled for his life (2.17-20).
Christians believe in God and in Christ's resurrection. Still, separation from a loved one, seeing a loved one suffer, losing someone to death—all are painful, disturbing experiences. The question for disciples, then, is how faith, hope and love help one to approach these realities.
These days, we cannot help but reflect on elements in society that seek to hasten death and mourning. This week, the Supreme Court heard proposals to allow and to prohibit euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). The proposals for euthanasia and PAS oppose the Christian precepts on the gospel of life from conception to natural death.
Let us pray earnestly that the Supreme Court justices will choose wisely the path of affirming life. May their rulings encourage the Government of Canada to foster palliative care so that people will not fear pain and suffering in their last days. Canadians near the end of life should receive sound medical care and the consolation of family and friends at their side.
In a way, this kind of debate (and others such a law restricting abortion, objection to safe-injection drug sites, dealing with prostitution) raises the question of the relation of the spiritual and temporal realms, issues of church and state.
The gospel today shows us that we are not the first to deal with this relationship; it was there in the time of Jesus.
In an earlier passage in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus had expressed willingness to pay the Temple tax to avoid scandal (Matthew 17:4). Now we learn that he was not unwilling that the poll tax be paid to Caesar (“Give, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s...'). But Jesus went a step further when He added, “And to God the things that are God's”.
This claim, we should note, is all-inclusive, for God's image and likeness are found inscribed on all God's subjects. Therefore, all of a believer's life should be rendered to God, while only a paltry coin is owed the civil ruler.
The role of religion or the Church in politics is always a contentious issue. What is clear is that Christian citizens have a right to participate in the secular realm and its political processes.
Religious persons and the Church, then, are duty-bound to remind civic rulers of the dignity of the human person, who bears God's image and likeness. This significant truth will have wide repercussions in spheres such as health care—from the moment of a person's conception to one's natural death—as well as in areas such as education, corrections, taxation and, indeed, all manner of social policy.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, says that all of us who have been baptized must be today “missionary-disciples”. A “disciple” is one who learns every day from Christ, through prayer, reading the Scriptures, serving the poor and in so many other ways.
And we become a “missionary” by taking our faith into the public sphere and sharing the joy of the gospel—of having come to know Jesus Christ in an intimate and personal manner—and telling others about him and how he guides our families, our work, our social activities.
Here is a way of understanding our taking up the challenge of World Mission Sunday. We realize that the missionary lands have come to us in the many immigrants from so many different cultures; but also that our own Canada has become a missionary land. And the role of being a missionary disciple belongs not only to the clergy but to every one of the baptized. We in the Catholic Church need to learn how to do this, but first of all we must hear the challenge to take up the task.
Today in Rome a missionary pope of the last century, Giovanni Battista Montini (Pope Paul VI) was beatified. He has gone down in history as the pope who steered to its conclusion and implemented the Second Vatican Council. He was the first pilgrim pope, the pope who gave away the triple crown with its symbol of temporal power, a man who was very much misunderstood during his lifetime.
Highly cultured, spiritually rich, humble and respectful of others whoever they might be, open to dialogue, he loved and served the Church and humanity and now may be viewed as a role model.
He wrote a number of encyclicals, including ones on social development, on devotion to Mary, on joy, and most famously, his last encyclical in 1968 Humanae Vitae, which upheld the Church’s ban on artificial contraceptives, which divided and continues to divide the Church.
In his earlier encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul famously said that the modern world listens more readily to witnesses than to teachers, and it listens to teachers if they are also witnesses to the encounter they have had with Jesus and the joy and transformed life that such an encounter brings.
May we all grow in our capacity to be witnesses to the Good News and how it has touched us and so live out the challenge offered to us on World Missionary Sunday to become ever more credible missionary-disciples in the mold of St. Paul and his relationship with the church of Thessalonica and of Blessed Paul VI, a pope with a missionary’s heart.
Photos: Heribert Riesbeck