Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
Originally delivered on January 30, 1994
The tape of this homily has been lost, however, it was transcribed before it was lost. Therefore, the text of the homily is below.
When I was a seminarian in Baltimore, studying theology — I believe I alluded to that phase of my life last week; that was, that is to say, before I was thrown out of the seminary for being too independent and too critical in my thinking, before they caught up with me, you might say — among other things, what some of the young theologians and I did was to participate in a correspondence course of religious instruction for people who would write in, having seen an ad in a Catholic publication.
And among the people who found that interesting and became students in this correspondence course were a number of cadets from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. And so relationships developed, and on holidays some of us would go and visit in Annapolis and share experiences and stories about our lives and our training. And it worked both ways.
And it was kind of interesting as I recall it, the cadets always thought we had it tougher than they did and we felt just the opposite. There were, however, some advantages they had, which might bring us to the second reading today, that probably influenced their judgment that they were better off.
But in the process of getting to know each other, we became very much aware of how systems depend so crucially and so vitally on authority. We had to embrace the basic concept that God establishes arrangements in the human situation whereby some people speak with something of the authority of God, that there are people, whether called, you might say, somewhat directly by God or by government, there are people who are able to speak and, for good reason, expect that others will respond with obedience, that others will answer. You can well imagine that, the better we got to know our professions and the demands that they made, not all of us who shared those thoughts went on to become officers or priests. For some of us the demands of authority, the expectations of the institution of the system, the degree of conformity to its requirements would prove too much for many, and so they would choose another profession.
But we accept that, in some way I think all of us, as a kind of solid, fundamental, inescapable principle, that if we are to function together here on this earth, if people with the wondrous diversity of their tastes and preferences and talents and hopes and dreams, if there is to be any hope at all of us functioning in some kind of harmony, the concept of authority and the virtue of obedience must be acknowledged.
I believe that that is addressed in the first reading today in a very striking way. Just to refresh your memory now, in this exchange between Moses and Yahweh, there’s a mutual agreement that it just will not do down through the ages, every time God has something to say, to you might say cause a thunderstorm or speak with flashes of lightning or dramatic effects. The people asked Moses to tell Yahweh don’t overdo this, this is heavy stuff. We’re a little bit afraid of you and this dramatic encounter with God may be more than we can take. So Yahweh says, “I agree with the people, too. So I will send a prophet to speak in my name.” Which I understand to be God saying, in this particular passage, in the ordinary course of events, in everyday life, it will not be necessary for the heavens to open every time God’s will is to be addressed and heeded. There will be very human, natural ways in which we can communicate with one another and understand God’s will.
And some of us — one would hope with a great reverence for playing such a role — speak in God’s name for the good of others. But before the passage is over, you notice that Yahweh gives a warning. “But let any prophet I send to speak in my name, to speak with authority among the people, let that prophet beware lest he or she speak not in my name, my words, my directives, but some notion that he or she has fashioned as if it be God’s will. Because anyone who does that will pay a price.”
That’s all there in that first reading. And it’s all so fundamental, it’s all so basic to the human condition. We believe we share together this belief, this conviction that God is at work among us, and God doesn’t have to do cataclysmic things to get our attention or to make the divine will known. And in the ordinary course of human events, God’s will becomes evident and the appropriate application of the basic principles of our faith can be applied by wise and prudent and caring and loving people speaking, in effect, in God’s name.
I found it so interesting that the second reading today is a person of tremendous authority, not only in his own time but for all the ages to follow, St. Paul, who could deny it that what he said and what he wrote has had a tremendous impact on the Church. Here’s a man of great authority, determined to speak in the Spirit and, you might say, on behalf of Jesus — offering his opinion on a very sensitive, very basic, very central issue of the human condition. Here’s Paul offering his opinion that unmarried people, for what he considers reasons so obvious, can get God’s will done more directly and more effectively than married people.
One thing I find interesting about it is, we ought to note that somebody of Paul’s prestige cannot give off opinions, especially in a text that’s to become part of the Bible, and have them treated with the same, how shall I say it, casual response as the opinions of other people. Paul created a new problem for us, who want to be faithful to God, responsive and sensitive to the sacred Word — Paul creates a new problem for us. How do we discern when Paul is speaking how much of what he’s saying is coming directly from the Boss, if you will, and how much of it is, simply, by the time you’re finished, Paul’s considered opinion.
It happens to be my humble opinion that an awful lot of people in the Church, and people with tremendous authority and power in the Church, gave a lot more weight to Paul’s opinion than perhaps it should have received. It was striking that, last night, a new group that’s formed in our parish, a Singles Group, had a get-together. They came to the 6:00 o’clock Mass and then had a sociable gathering downstairs in the parish meeting rooms, and, as Fr. Kelly pointed out at last night’s liturgy, very much with them in mind and present and sharing in the celebration, from time to time the Church needs to be reminded that the single vocation may be, for specific individuals, not only just as good but better than a vocation to religious life or a vocation to marriage, but it works the same all the way around. There is no such thing as one superior vocation. The best vocation for any individual is the one that suits that person and expresses that person’s response to God with his or her unique talents.
But Paul’s strong thoughts and feelings on celibacy had a profound influence down through the generations and the centuries on those most subject to authority in the Church, those who were expected to be most responsive — priests, sisters, religious and brothers. Paul’s opinion carried great weight. And obedience to the Church sometimes seemed to be a call to blind obedience.
In the Gospel, Jesus does the spectacular. And I was pleased as I was researching it to see that a lot of the scholars feel that what’s really important in that Gospel story is not the fact that Jesus can drive out devils, so the spectacular. You might say it’s an attention getter, so that everybody will stop and look and behold, and here comes someone into their midst who expresses power and authority unknown to that day in anyone else, an extraordinary expression of power and authority. But it seems to be so different from any use of authority the people had ever known before. There’s not the tiniest little smidgeon of self-serving purpose in the authority of Jesus. Just the opposite. His use of authority, His use of power, His call to obedience is totally, absolutely for the good of others. Not in the least, at all, for His own personal satisfaction or gratification.
And that’s what the people are talking about when they say, Wow, look at this, this one comes into our midst who has more power to control people than anyone we’ve ever seen before, and what does He do with this power and authority but make Himself utterly servant to the people He could, if He would, control and dominate. Indeed, this is a difference.
I see these readings today, this theme in this Liturgy, as a kind of invitation, as a sacred possibility for us to think, to reflect, and maybe to make a fresh start in our lives on our understanding and — so very importantly — on our use of authority and power. But, of course, you know I’d go a step further. You know I would say: And, beyond that, a renewed resolution to challenge all those who have authority or power over us. Not denying it is ultimately and essentially God-given, but reminding them of the warning given through Moses by Yahweh in the first reading, “Let those who come with authority in the name of God beware when they abuse it or misuse it for their own purposes.”
The authority that Jesus represents and the authority that Jesus is is an authority, a power, a call to obedience, the whole point and purpose of which is to set free the human spirit, never to suppress it. Power in Jesus is a liberation of people, in community, helping each other to discover, to celebrate, to share their talents — never to be suppressed, never to be pushed down, never to be gotten out of the way of others who enjoy lording it over their neighbors. The power, the authority of Jesus is such that He who is authority and power Himself is at last obedience, even to the Cross. We must try to fathom that mystery a little bit more.
Those of us who are parents and teachers should examine our consciences and wonder when and how and why, if ever, we used our power over our children and our students to make them do our will. We’d like to be humble enough to admit at least the possibility that on occasion we’ve done so.
Those of us who have positions in Government, those of us who have positions of respect and authority in the Church, would do well this day to ask God’s forgiveness for all the times we took advantage of what I might call the license given, unsolicited by the people, for priests and nuns and religious figures to influence their lives and the direction they take. For all the times that we have used that awesome power carelessly, selfishly, or lacking in courage or conviction, we need to ask God’s forgiveness. And I believe it’s a good time, a sacred moment for us to repent now for all the times in the past we let people who had authority over us misuse it and get away with it because we might otherwise have had to confront and defend ourselves and speak up and give witness for the truth as we perceived it.
I have a sense that last week, as I was sharing my reflections in the homily, that it wasn’t until the 11:15 Mass that I made this comment about myself. If I’m repeating, forgive me. But I did want to share this. I joke from time to time about having been thrown out of the seminary. It’s a fact of my life. I was two years from ordination when I was dismissed from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. It took me a year, a very difficult year of struggle as a public school teacher, both elementary and high school teacher, to sort of work my way back, and, to tell the truth, I didn’t get back in on my own merits. It was a kind of political thing. The Holy Ghost Fathers took me in because I already had two brothers in the order.
But it was a very valuable experience for me. There’s no way I could tell you how much I treasure that, you might say, terrible setback in my life. For one thing, by becoming a Holy Ghost Father what it meant was I was destined to live and work in Arizona, Illinois, Rhode Island, Washington, Virginia and Tanzania in East Africa.
I have been a teacher, a headmaster of a school. I got, with the freedom that religious priests have, I had the opportunity to go to law school and become a lawyer, work in human rights. And, best of all, came to this wonderful, beautiful, indescribably great parish of Queen of Peace. But — the day they kicked me out, I didn’t have all that in mind. It was a painful learning process. And what I said last week — and if I didn’t say it to you, let me say it now — it took me a long time to admit it, but they weren’t all that wrong when they threw me out. I was, in fact — maybe I’d better say even then — somewhat arrogant, too cocky, too sure of myself, too strong in my opinions. So much for the confession of my sins.
But it wouldn’t be to tell you the truth if I don’t say, to this day I believe I was gotten rid of because it was not accepted for those subject to authority to challenge it, to question it, to demand explanations that made sense on our way to being people who would hold authority and get an awful lot of respect and obedience whether we deserved it or not.
I was chatting last night on purpose, in the context of this homily, with my sister and her companion, Sr. Dolores. We were, so to speak, swapping stories about our experience, remembering what it was like in the novitiate in the old days. Of course, whenever they gave me an order that didn’t make sense, as my expulsion testifies, I always wanted to know why. But, for example, my brother, Joe, one of the most gentle, kindly people you could ever meet, when he was told by a novice master to go out and water the plants during a rain storm, he knew there was something wrong here but he did it.
And many, many — many, many novices, many, many seminarians and candidates for religious life — sometimes inadvertently, sometimes out of fear — played into this system and helped to somehow or other enlarge it, where authority was used to test people and the test was to see if you would do as you’re told even if what you were told was ridiculous.
We have come to greatly misunderstand and terribly misuse and abuse this basic principle of authority, God’s authority at work among His people. Sad to say, there are people who have moral authority in the world today who could bring about dramatic change if they would use authority, the authority of their office and their position, appropriately and courageously. If all the Catholic Bishops, for example, would speak out with one voice and decry the injustices being done to the poor, to the oppressed in so many places, and speak with a voice so resounding and unequivocal that people couldn’t possibly misunderstand, what a wondrous use of authority that would be.
And yet, in such large measure, in so many places, the Bishops are still prudently reflecting and wondering together and being careful lest they speak out too soon or too forcefully. And we, if the truth be known, we, the Christian people, the Catholic faithful, all too often let the Bishops, the leaders of the Church, those authority figures in effect be our excuse for continuing to wonder, to deliberate.
We noted together last week that on this absolutely crucial life issue of abortion, the Church speaks with such a ringing voice, with such power, and is still not speaking as clearly on so many other life issues. They say — I haven’t read it yet because, for reasons not entirely clear to any of us, the new Catechism of the Church is still not available in English, not quite yet — but in there it says, in effect, “We’re getting to the point” — I paraphrase, at best — “We’re getting to the point where the Universal Church kind of thinks that capital punishment may really not be any good.”
We are still waiting, to this day, on so many life issues, to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through those who have authority and power in the Church in a way that’s utterly unequivocal, that’s so clear everyone will know what God is saying. In the meantime, we’ve been so busy, so many of us, being jealous of our authority, being nervous and possessive about our power over other people that we have not yet caught and you might say absorbed the Spirit of Jesus, who, demonstrating as He does in today’s Gospel, could call demons right out of people and cast them off into the nether world — this same Jesus never, ever used power or authority, divine authority within Him, to hurt, to offend, to embarrass, to shame anyone. Always His authority was love. Always His power was expressed in service to those who needed to be lifted up, to be invited to celebrate their gifts and talents.
Today, as I suggested at the beginning, may God give us the grace to appreciate anew the meaning and the purpose of authority and power, whether in our hands or in the hands of others, and let us walk humbly before God, using whatever power we have always for the good of others and never, ever to somehow or other place ourselves above or somehow or other demand tribute from others. And, while we’re at it, let’s ask God’s forgiveness and the grace for a fresh beginning to have the nerve and the courage to challenge authority being abused, authority being misused, and, most especially, when it’s crushing our own sisters and brothers.
I hope that it was, you might say, in the final analysis, all for the better and for my good when, early on in my career, I was called up short for challenging authority. I didn’t always do it with prudence, God knows. And I suspect I didn’t always do it with as much love and detachment from my own opinion as I might have if I had been more sensitive to God’s grace. I repent of that. But I would prefer to repent for having been too much a questioner and challenger of authority if I had a choice — I’d prefer that to having to do penance for having let people with power and authority abuse others while I remained silent.
I invite you, in the measure you have authority over others, never, ever use it for your own sake. Always for the other. And I challenge you, in the measure, you are subject to authority and you can see and you believe it’s being misused and it’s hurting other people, then speak up and cry out and challenge everyone to use authority in the unique way that Jesus does.