Reflection for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Constellations of Grace
John Dalla Costa & Lucinda M. Vardey
John Dalla Costa:
Sometimes grace is subtle. Sometimes it sparkles like stars and just demands to be relished. Today feels like the latter. Here we are, on this last Sunday of the Gathering, finding Mark describing another gathering. Here we have gospel as prelude, and epilogue.
What a moment that must have been when, as Mark tells us, “They gathered around Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught.” Remember last week’s commissioning. Two-by-two they were sent out to heal and announce the fulfillment of God’s redemptive promise. For the first time, there would be an experience of the Word of God without Jesus present. What we know as Church was born at that experimental moment, when the good news in proclamation and action came from those who believed in Jesus. How audacious it must have felt to break this new ground! How frightful must have been the responsibility to represent Jesus to a doubting, distracted, and hostile world.
Mark has not given us the details, but we can imagine that gathering. The apostles were tired, and hungry, probably running on adrenaline. No doubt, there would have been lots of laughter, surprise at their own gumption, and joy for how their message of joy had been contagiously received. No doubt too, they would have experienced the hardships and rejection that Jesus had predicted for them. Lots of stories. Lots of lessons. Like any gathering, they probably listened to one another, learning much from the others’ experience, and feeling awe that these friends – who knew how to listen to Jesus – actually had so much to say. And, like any gathering, they probably got so excited as to cut each other off in mid-sentence. It was a grand communion of words, not quite yet sacramental in form, but nonetheless holy, because they gathered to be near Jesus.
When we pay close attention to Jesus’ ministry, he is not only always on the move, with nowhere to rest his head. He is also frequently on detour. Wherever he is intending to go, Jesus pivots when he hears the pleas of others. A few weeks ago we read how Jarius, the synagogue administrator, approached Jesus, who then immediately set out to heal his daughter, only to be interrupted on that detour, by the hemorrhaging woman who had touched the fringes of His cloak.
Detours provide those exceptional moments in which the truth about our values and motives are revealed because normality has been stripped away. The pandemic has been a detour writ large. Yet, as in the gospels, Jesus has so obviously taken this detour with us. Out of the pastoral improvisation necessitated by lockdown, a forum was created to keep meeting in Jesus’ name. This experiment, by grace, and the generosity of our priests, became an innovation by which we heard the Word preached for the first time by the women and men who usually sat with us in the pews. Having to give up sacraments and meeting at liturgy in person was unsettling. But grace, as we’ve seen, over-flowed. A new ministry was born, with Michael pulling all the backstage technical strings. We got to know one another in a new way, and meet new people. And after years of only hearing them
play, we all got to see JP and Stephanie make music masterfully with their whole bodies in artistic motion.
It now seems like this detour is ending, however, let’s remember that the skills and joys we’ve experienced here, will now travel with us as we step anxiously and hopefully into what’s next.
The world we will be re-entering is in many ways like the multitude who were coming and going and hurried on foot to arrive ahead of where Jesus and the apostles were intending to go. Although it is often camouflaged by busyness, the people around us in their depths hunger for the light. Even without knowing it, the world – in its agony, violence, anger, and wounding – need as ever the mercy of God’s presence. Sheep without a shepherd, says Mark. Sheep that need to be protected. Sheep that need to be gathered and led. Sheep that need to be found and disentangled from wounding brambles.
How precious then, are the good shepherds who have given their lives to imitate the loving custodianship Jesus exemplified? Last week, preparing for this homily, I began to draw a map of the priests and communities that have formed me spiritually. It was a humbling exercise: the Scalabrini priests at my boyhood parish; the Jesuits at Regis; the Basilians at the Newman Centre and St. Basil’s; the Franciscan monks here in Sansepolcro; the Carmelites at Oxford who have brought us into their work of contemplation. How many merciful ears have heard my confessions? How many holy hands have offered me communion? How many kind hearts have directed me spiritually?
I could make almost as long a list about women, about nuns, but the point I’d like to make is that these men who have laid down their lives for Jesus have been indispensable to my friendship with Jesus. I can’t thank them all for the innumerable graces I’ve received, but I can with all my heart thank Father Morgan and Father Norm. Their priesthood has held us in gathering, and was gracious enough to help us learn to exercise our own baptismal priesthood as ever-more confident shepherds for one another.
Lucinda M. Vardey
The role of the shepherd is, in fact, a maternal role; not only for the sheepfold but also for us as God’s children, a brood Jesus said he desires to gather like a mother hen under her wings in Matthew 23: 37. Jesus certainly illustrates a maternal aspect in today’s gospel, recognizing the need for rest and restoration for his disciples amid all the activities. It is interesting to note the maternal quality exemplified by Jesus’ openness to circumstance versus plans; His heart is expressed in the moment.
He’s getting out of the boat to take a much-needed rest but like a mother, he’s not permitted even a few minutes without the needs of his family converging on his space, on his time, and diverting his plans. Like a mother he doesn’t think twice about himself but of the crowd that needs him. And from that childlike reaching out of those who ran ahead of him to be able to meet him on the shore, he acknowledges their vulnerability, their isolation
from belonging, their desperation to be with him, and is moved by compassion to teach them.
Pope Francis has frequently emphasized that our church is a mother, Mother Church we call her. He says that the Church’s identity needs to be as The Face of a Mother. One that embraces, encounters and engages, the way Jesus does in today’s gospel.
In Fratelli Tutti Francis writes “The Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother…..we want to be a Church that serves, that leaves home and goes forth from its place of worship, goes forth from its sacristies in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be the sign of unity…..to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation.”
Mother Church is a church that serves the family of God, feeds from the eucharistic table, invites into community, brings hope to those suffering, washes the feet of her parishioners and those of strangers who drop in for a visit. She is to be a “welcoming womb that regenerates life” as Pope Francis calls the feminine dimension of our church.
Mother Church has been my experience at St. Basil’s while in Toronto and particularly after moving to Italy. The Church is local and global, and the work and ministry from ST. Basil’s has been able to affect both in a profound way. As one of my Round Table colleagues in Rome stated “The maternal allows us to break out of the limitations previously imposed on us.”
The limitations are numerous, and have been for centuries, however, the Covid experience brought with it the message that we do not suffer alone, we suffer not only with family, in our local communities but together as a global community, and as Catholics with the universal Church. Perhaps the greatest suffering we endure is the absence of Jesus’ fulfillment. The absence of the gospel alive and working fully in our experiences of Church. But maybe, too, as Pope Francis reminds us in Amoris Laetitia, in which he calls the Holy Spirit mother, Jesus wants “a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, who “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud on the street.” (#308)
In October this year the Bishops will be meeting with Pope Francis for the 16th ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops entitled “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.” It comprises three phases of listening to the people of God with a move towards an inclusive Church (of lay and clergy, men and women, – all that are separated by categories, gender, labels, nationalities and hierarchies).
The first woman undersecretary to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops (appointed by Pope Francis) is Sr. Nathalie Becquart. In a recent webinar from Rome she said that “The Church has, and always will be guided by the Holy Spirit….we need to return to how we were in the early Church, working side-by-side, walking together. Each of us must become protagonists for a much-needed renewal in the Church, sharing our gifts. We must also be in service to each other….Community is central, we need simple, direct relationships formed by mutual encouragement.”
These words remind me of what we have been experiencing in the Gathering this last year and a bit. As Jesus told us when two are more are gathered in his name, there he is among us. Well we’ve had up to 60+ and as low as 15 in the early days, but still, we gathered and Jesus was among us, in our homes, via zoom, connecting us as Church, as community.
A synodal Church is one that allows the action of the Spirit in the communion of the Body of Christ and in the missionary journey of the People of God. We, at the gathering of St. Basil’s have, under the guidance of Fr. Morgan and Fr. Norm, already shown what a synodal Church of the 3rd millennium can look like.
We now say goodbye to the Gathering with much gratitude for the constellation – and consolation – of graces received through our mutual embrace, encounter and engagement, a true and beautiful experience of Mother Church.