For the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (August 15), I traveled to the parishes in Rock Springs, Evanston and Kemmerer. Last Saturday, I was at the parish of St. Joseph in Rawlins. On Sunday, I preached at the parishes of St. Ann in Saratoga and St. Joseph in Hanna. It was a joy to spend time with the priests and people in those parishes in the south and western part of the diocese. Following is the homily from the weekend Masses.
What is the main job of a Bishop? What is the most important thing that a pastor needs to do at a parish? What is the main purpose of a parish? Sometimes we need to ask the bigger questions. Otherwise, we spend our time and energy on things that distract us from what is essential. So let’s take a little time for these bigger questions today.
As a successor of the apostles, a Bishop’s main job is to continue the ministry of Jesus. Bishops are like modern day apostles. The word Apostle means “one who is SENT,” in particular, to be sent with the authority of Christ. Remember when the Risen Lord appeared to the twelve in the upper room and said to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you. Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23).
Jesus gave the apostles his power, the power of the Holy Spirit. He gave them explicit authority to forgive sins, to heal the sick, to proclaim the Kingdom. A Bishop’s job is to continue the ministry of Jesus. You could say the same for a pastor and for a parish.
In the gospel for this Sunday (Matt. 15:21-28), Jesus heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman. The disciples want Jesus to send her away, not only because she keeps bothering them, but probably because she is not a Hebrew. Why should this outsider share in the salvation of Jesus? Have you ever noticed how often he healed? So many gospel stories are about healing, especially healing outsiders – lepers who were outcasts, tax collectors who were despised or Samaritans who were hated and considered heretics. The list goes on.
In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote that we need to go to the margins, and he said that the Church is a Field Hospital. He didn’t pull those images out of a hat. He has reflected carefully on the gospels. He is a man immersed in the Scriptures. So often Jesus healed people on the margins, and that is why Pope Francis uses those images.
Is your parish a FIELD HOSPITAL to those on the margins? The danger for a parish is to be insular and parochial, to take care of itself with little concern for those outside, to maintain the status quo.
At the last two parishes where I served, we held Healing Services. They were not services for the Sacrament of Anointing which we celebrated at other times. Rather, the Healing Services were for anyone with any kind of ailment. All people were invited to receive prayers for any purpose. We opened the services up to the community and encouraged parishioners to bring friends…. Catholic or non-Catholic.
Then we took it one step further, and held MERCY NIGHTS, where we offered healing prayers and confessions at the same service at the Cathedral in Rapid City. We sent postcards to every household in a two-mile radius of the Cathedral so that it became a community event, not merely a Catholic event. People who had been away from the Church for decades came simply because they received a postcard. Over 500 people at each service. Priests heard confessions and prayer teams offered prayers for up to three hours.
The Healing Services and Mercy Nights were two practical ways that we sought to be a Field Hospital for those on the margins. Now it’s true that the Church is more than a field hospital. We also need to teach the faith, and we must celebrate the Sacraments devoutly and faithfully. But Pope Francis said that many people are so broken that the first thing they need is the healing mercy of God. Before we can teach them the finer points of doctrine, we need to offer them Christ’s healing mercy. After all, that is how Jesus ministered.
A Bishop’s job is to continue the ministry of Jesus. In the tradition of the Church, that involves three main duties: to sanctify, to preach and to shepherd (or govern). The duty to SANCTIFY is primarily with the Sacraments. The duty to PREACH is obviously with homilies, but it involves teaching in faith formation classes and many other ways. The duty to SHEPHERD or govern involves all of the daily ministry which the Church does – visiting the sick, helping the needy, and being a field hospital on the margins.
But the Bishop cannot do that for the whole diocese, right? So priests are commissioned as co-workers with the Bishop to keep the VISION of Jesus alive. And priests need the witness of other disciples who will join him in the ministry of Jesus. Priests and bishops have to spend time daily with the Scriptures, especially with the Gospel. Because it keeps us in touch with Jesus and his vision. The same is true for all who are disciples of Christ. Otherwise, we get focused on programs, or our own special interests.
Daily prayerful meditation on the Gospel is essential for a healthy church. Is your parish going to the margins to offer the healing of Christ? How do your programs serve that mission? Do you believe in his healing which is available for everyone? We only need to let the faith of the Canaanite woman instruct us in this truth.