Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
“[Jesus] said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.” Over the next several weekends, we will be reading from John Chapter 6, Jesus’ teaching on the Holy Eucharist. Jesus’ teaching is a test: a test of faith. And on the last weekend, that of August 21st and 22nd, we will hear how all but twelve failed this test. As a result of Jesus’ teaching, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
It was the day after my tenth birthday when the news of the clergy abuse scandal first broke in the United States. Being young and relatively innocent, the news didn’t make a strong impression on me, though I do remember my parents being quite upset. Another ten years passed, and by the time I entered seminary I assumed that this dark chapter of the Church’s history was largely behind me. But shortly after my ordination to the diaconate, a shadow of the past emerged. And it emerged in shape of the now-disgraced and former-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick. The months that followed this scandal were dark and difficult for me, as they were for many in the Church.
But the light began to break for me when, a month before my ordination to the priesthood, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI released a letter in response to this most recent chapter in the clergy abuse scandal. I distinctly remember weeping as I read this letter in the lobby of the seminary. For with his characteristic clarity and wisdom, the now retired pope spoke to the heart of the matter, and therefore to my heart as well. He spoke of the scandal as a crisis of faith: only someone who had forgotten God, only someone who had bracketed God out of his life, only someone who had ceased to follow the Lord in truth and charity could commit such horrendous crimes and sins. The only adequate solution to this crisis, then, was faith. “What must be done?” Pope Benedict wrote. “Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed. Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way.” And to live this obedience and love, the pope said, we must first and foremost renew our “Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.”
Like the five loaves and two fish from our gospel, at every Mass we place the simple gifts of bread and wine in the hands of Jesus by placing them in the hands of a priest. And faced with these meager gifts, we may be tempted to ask, as did Andrew, “what good are these for so many?” What good are they for us? How can these gifts possibly become the Body and Blood of Jesus? How can we still believe this as citizens of a modern and scientific age? Is faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament still an option? If it is not, there is no point in continuing to follow Jesus or His Church. Jesus’ teaching on His Real Presence in the Eucharist comprises an entire chapter in the Gospel of John, taking up almost ten percent of the entire book. And the Church teaches that the Holy Eucharist celebrated in the Mass is the indispensable source of the Christian spirit and the very source and summit of the Christian life. If the Eucharist is not who we believe It to be, then our faith is in vain, and Christ and His Church are empty frauds. The choice really is that stark: to believe in the Eucharist and follow Jesus, or to disbelieve and no longer accompany Him.
To believe in something always means to believe someone. When we meet someone for the first time, they often tell us things about themselves that we could verify by talking to their friends, relatives, or co-workers. If we’re feeling especially stalkerish, we could verify what they tell us by looking them up on Facebook or other social media. But as we get to know them better, there will come a time when they say something that we cannot verify using external sources. They may share with us, for example, an emotion or experience which is known to them alone. This is where faith comes in. We have to choose in that moment whether to believe them or not. We can ask ourselves if what they’re telling us is consistent with other things they’ve said before, but we cannot prove with scientific certainty that what they’re saying is true. What are we to do? Are we never to believe anything that cannot be scientifically verified? Are we never to believe someone who says that they love us, because what they say cannot be proven beyond all doubt? Are we never to believe someone who says they’re sorry, for the same reason? Faith makes possible not just our relationship with God, but any relationship that goes beyond that of mere acquaintances. Friendship requires faith, whether it’s friendship with a classmate, coworker, spouse, or God. To banish faith is to banish all possibility of authentic friendship. It is to condemn ourselves to a cold and lonely world, a world of hard facts, devoid of trust and love.
Over these next several weekends, we will hear Jesus say things about the Eucharist that cannot be scientifically verified, like “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” There are, of course, many Eucharistic miracles throughout the centuries, and these can be a great aid to faith. But unless you’ve seen one of these miracles take place before your very eyes, you may still think that there’s room for doubt. Over these next several weekends, we will have a choice to make: to either believe Jesus or not. For to believe in something, like the Real Presence, always means to believe someone. Will we believe Jesus and remain His disciples, or will we fall away and no longer accompany Him? Now is not the time to straddle this issue, to try to save the bathwater of Christianity while throwing out the Baby of the Eucharist. Now is the time to make a choice. We will only experience renewal in the Church, and renewal in the leadership of the Church, if we make the choice of faith. Renewal in the Church will come, more surely than the dawn, if we chose to believe, based on our deep friendship with Jesus, that what He says about the Eucharist is true. “[Jesus] said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.” These next several weekends are a test, a test of faith. Will we pass it? Let us pray for the grace to do so. Amen.