St. John Lateran: Moving from criticism to humble service
Peace be with you. Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Lateran. If you read my bulletin column from a couple of weeks ago you know that there is no saint named John Lateran but that this is actually a compound name. The church was initially dedicated to St. John the Baptist but at some point in the mediaeval period someone referred to it as St. John the evangelist and it was donated by the Laterani family so most of the time it is simply referred to as St. John Lateran Cathedral. It is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. Just like our diocese has a cathedral in Dubuque and a basilica in Dyersville, so the diocese of Rome has several basilicas and the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. We often associate the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, with St. Peter’s basilica because it is a huge building that can accommodate tens of thousands of people. But today we remember the Pope’s cathedral and of course Pope Francis.
For this feast the church gave us some very interesting readings to reflect upon that challenge me to ponder this question: what essential things do you think a Catholic parish has to have in order to be inviting and worth attending? One way of answering this question is to look at what people complain about. I thought of three common complaints. People want a clean church. I hear complaints about dirty bathrooms, cobwebs in windows and corners, and kitchens that aren't very clean. People want a good faith formation program where they can drop their kids off and have someone teach them the faith. And they wanted to be convenient and something they are in charge of. And people want mass to be short and fun. Mass should last less than one hour and there should be a good corny joke at some point that they can share with that “churchy” coworker on Monday morning. I imagine all of you have other things that you expect a welcoming church to have as well.
In our readings for this week I see two competing images that may challenge at our assumptions of what a church needs to have. The first comes from the gospel where Jesus challenges the temple authorities to stop "making my father’s house a marketplace." The temple authorities and those utilizing them were essentially turning the practice of their faith into something transactional. They buy an animal, sacrifice it, and in return they receive forgiveness of their sins. All throughout the Old Testament there are instances where the people of Israel I reminded of the insufficiency of the act of sacrifice alone. For example Psalm 50:13-15 “Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Pay your sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and render him your votive offerings. Call on me in the day of distress.” The transactional relationship works well in the retail industry, you give me what I want, and I give you cash or a promissory note in return. But it makes for a very unsatisfactory experience of our faith and the church. It turns out relationship with God into something similar to our relationship to Walmart or a car dealership or a grocery store. And it neglects something fundamental: the very reason they didn't need those oxen, sheep, and doves is because the one driving them out would replace them with his once for all sacrifice. None of us could repay that debt.
Rather than a transactional, quit-pro-quo, understanding of the Church, we may reflect upon the image of the temple in the first reading, a temple flowing with water so pure that it’s capable of purifying the most salty water on the planet, the Dead Sea. This water is flowing from a temple of prayer and represents the grace of God offered to us through prayer. So it begins on our knees and flows into our daily lives. Rather than being characterized by a relentless search for control and power it is characterized by humility, first and foremost, and seeking what God wants not what is most convenient for me.
This is what Pope Francis preached about on Friday when he challenged all of us to move from being "pagan Christians" who go to church on Sundays but spend most of the rest of the week cultivating their attachment to money, power, and pride." Pope Francis challenged us to become authentic Christians. He asked "Do I try to love God and serve others?" He went on to answer his own question by saying "If you were meek, if you are humble, if you are a servant of others, then you are on the right path." Another way of saying this is to change our original question from "what are the essential things at church must have or do to be welcoming and worth attending" to "What am I doing here and in my daily life to humbly be built up as the temple of God and the temple of the Holy Spirit?”