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(Editor’s note: Following is Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin’s homily from his farewell Mass on Dec. 3 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.)
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a gala at a very vibrant parish; I won’t identify it, just say that it is one of the two in Greenwood.
And early on, I was meeting some of the people who were very involved in the parish and I met one lady who was in charge of coordinating 1,000 volunteers. And I thought, ‘Holy Toledo, I think I’d rather be an archbishop than coordinating a thousand volunteers.’
And as I was preparing for this service, which marks the feast of one of the patrons of our archdiocese, St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary of the 16th century who left the academic halls of Paris and finished his life preaching the Gospel in Asia, I thought, ‘I wonder what Jesus wants today?’ Is he looking principally for volunteers like most of us pastors are?
What do you think?
It doesn’t sound like it. Those last words in the Gospel of Mark that we just heard Deacon Rick [Wagner] read doesn’t say, ‘If you’ve got any spare time, would you mind terribly going out to all the world, or at least around the corner, and preaching the Good News?’
Certainly Francis Xavier in his letters didn’t sound like it was an option for him. In a letter that he wrote to St. Ignatius, he says,
‘Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again, I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!” ’
Not sure he could coordinate the volunteers.
And then, there is the first great missionary of the Church, Paul, who in that first reading that Sara [Castillo] read so well says, “If I preach the Gospel, there is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me and woe to me if I do not preach it”
(1 Cor 9:16). I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound to me like Francis Xavier or Paul made a cool calculation about how their lives would go.
Volunteers don’t quite describe them. What would we call them, then? It might help us to think a minute about what compelled Paul to do what he did. He talks about having an obligation that was laid upon him. What was he talking about? How would he describe it?
Well, he said it in a lot of different ways in his letters. He said, “Christ loves us and gave himself up for us.” And he would say to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). And while a prisoner writing to the Philippians he says, “I count everything, everything as loss, only to grow in knowledge of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:8).
You can glimpse the obligation. Because when one has been given such a powerful gift as the Christian faith asserts, namely salvation—salvation in Christ Jesus—one cannot hesitate or delay in announcing the Good News; in a nutshell, in evangelizing.
One doesn’t keep this gift wrapped up in a box on the shelf. Jesus came to draw people together and to form a new community no longer based solely on blood lines, race or nation, but on discipleship. Jesus came to form a family of faith.
And the first Apostles would say, “We are his witnesses.” They didn’t say, “We are his volunteers.” We are witnesses that he is alive, that our Redeemer liveth and that he will be with us until the end of time. Witnesses more than volunteers; witnesses more than teachers.
Pope Paul VI in 1975 wrote that, “Modern people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if modern people do listen to teachers, it is because they are also witnesses” (“Evangelization in the Modern World,” #41).
My brothers and sisters, while truth is very powerful and can change the hearts of many, I believe modern men and women are very skeptical of the truth. And even more skeptical of those who pretend to preach the truth and do not live it out. On the other hand, those who live wedded to the truth and clearly show it in their actions are much more persuasive.
The world today simply will not listen to moralizing hypocrites. But they will listen to Christians who practice what they preach. The world around us will not listen to the Gospel unless we live a life of Christian joy, peace and sacrifice. If we boldly proclaim the truth but fail to live a life of holiness, our message is empty and has no weight. It does not affect the people we meet, and they dismiss it without giving it a second thought.
So we cannot simply teach the truth boldly and expect that everyone will flock to the Church. We must live it out first and foremost before we can become believable and change the hearts of those seduced by the world. The world will listen to people like Francis Xavier and Paul because the world will listen to witnesses.
Now brothers and sisters, the experience of the last four years has convinced me of the timeless truth of the 12th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews: “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” not simply those who have gone before us in the light of faith, our mothers and fathers who have taught us by their words and by their actions what it means to be a disciple (Heb 12:1).
I have been privileged to see the witnesses across the 39 counties of this archdiocese, people who quietly bear witness, give testimony to Jesus Christ: in prisons, in hospitals, on college campuses, in CCD classes, in our Catholic grade and high schools.
I’ve seen the witnesses of this archdiocese in the food kitchens and the shelters and the outreach of Catholic Charities, and the welcoming of refugees and strangers.
I’ve seen the witness and I think it is no accident that for the four years that I presided over Easter Vigils here in the archdiocese we have welcomed 1,000 or more new Catholics—men and women who saw the action of the disciples of Jesus and came to believe.
Now what can we say to each other after four years? At the end of Mass, I’m going to make a rather clumsy attempt to say thank you, but now, standing where the word of God is proclaimed, I’d like to say something more. And those of you who know me and have heard me will now wince, because I’m going to do it with a story.
I was reading recently the letters of a group of the Anglican Church, religious brothers who live in the South Pacific. They go by the name of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an Anglican community of men in simple vows based primarily on the Soloman Islands Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where many of the Franciscan sisters from our archdiocese minister.
In the very recent past, during ethnic tensions in 1999 and 2000 in the Solomon Islands, the Brotherhood participated in peace-making efforts which led to a cease fire among the warring factions and to a peace agreement in October of 2000. Then the brothers gathered weapons from the combatants, and they cast them into the sea.
However, one rebel leader refused to accept the peace and instead kidnapped a brother who had been sent to negotiate with him. When the brother didn’t return, there were six others who went to see what happened; there were reports that the rebels were holding them hostage.
In October of 2003, the police commissioner of the Solomon Islands informed the Brotherhood that all six were dead. The rebels surrendered several days later, and the bodies of the seven brothers were exhumed and brought to their hometown for autopsy.
One brother had been tortured for several days before dying. Three of the others had been shot on arrival, and the remaining three had been tortured and shot the next day. Afterward, a member of the Brotherhood, reflecting on the martyrdom of the seven members of his order, wrote this, “We know where we stand, and we know who we belong to.”
And brothers and sisters, that’s what I’d like to say to you in this moment of celebration, of sadness, of saying goodbye in faith.
Brothers and sisters, we know where we stand. And we know who we belong to.
Beyond all the history of confusion and betrayal that surrounds a lot of the Church’s history, beyond the power games that we still can play in the churches, beyond the terrible scandals that have lacerated the Body of Christ, this one rock-like conviction remains—the conviction that drove the writing of every word of the New Testament.
It has nothing to do with conspiracies, opinion polls or the agenda of the powerful. It has everything to do with how the powerless, praying, risking their lives for the sake of Christ and his peace, are the ones who understand the word of God.
They are witnesses. And to accept that is not to sign up to the agenda of some sort of troubled, fussy human society of worried prelates and squabbling factions. It is not to enroll in a fraternity or sorority and begin paying dues. To be a witness in the Church for the world is to choose life and to choose to belong to the life-giver, Jesus Christ.
To Him be glory, now and forever. Let the Church say … Amen! †