Homily Series - week 3, the future of St. Alexander's
Last week, I came across a beautiful line from St. Ambrose: "The sun of holiness never sets." Holiness is not something that we strive to create in our world and in our lives. Holiness is always there. Our task is to open our hearts to it. And this task is effortless because it's just a decision - a yes to goodness and to God. I begin my homily with this observation about holiness because that ultimately is what we need to be striving for in our parish. Not in any kind of self-centred "I'm perfect and I'm better than you" way, but more of a "wow when I opened my heart to Jesus He really does bless my life, and I want others to experience this and I want to experience this with others. "
This is the third part and the conclusion of a series of homilies on parish renewal.
Part 1 - was about how we have all been influenced by the evangelical churches, including myself. Their message is a message of salvation in Jesus Christ, and it is an important message that we also need to pay attention to.
Part 2 - was about what we saw at nativity and their resolve, not to do more and do it better, but to rely on God.
Part 3 - today, I'd like to apply this to St. Alexander's church and our parish renewal.
I can say at the outset that my vision of parish renewal has much more to do with holiness than it does with creating activities and doing stuff. My hope is to create a parish of holiness, not just a parish with holy people (that too), but a holy parish. There is a difference. What are the characteristics of a holy person?
They are deeply faithful to Jesus
They are men and women of love.
Their holiness is attractive to others.
That is my vision of St. Alexander's - that we become a holy parish: a parish close to Jesus Christ; a parish of love that you can feel immediately when you walk through the doors; and a parish that is attractive to outsiders, who want to come here, to check us out. And so our mission is to love God, love others and follow Christ.
Flowing from this mission are four strategic anchors. Think of these anchors as "flywheels," gears which mesh with each other. When you turn one gear, the others turn as well. When you turn all the gears, over time the gears spin with very little effort. And the engine that drives the gear is the grace of God, holiness. So here are our four strategic anchors. Every decision we make as a parish will be evaluated based on how they will help or hinder these four flywheels.
Anchor 1: Grow wider. I want to see a full Church, I want people to come here who are curious about who we are and what we do, and I want them to feel warmly welcome. We will do our best to enhance our social media presence, our website, and our advertising in the daily papers. We would like to make it very easy for people to join our parish and experience a sense of belonging that leads naturally to our next strategic anchor:
Anchor 2: Grow deeper. We want your experience of Jesus Christ as manifested in this parish to change your life. And so we are laying out a discipleship path. Where are you on this path?
Come and see
Come and learn.
Come and believe
Come and serve
Go and make disciples (and bring them home to Jesus).
Anchor 3: Create an outstanding weekend experience. Everything we do must be reflected in our weekend experience, our weekend Masses. We want people to be moved by what happens here. Are we talking about entertainment here? No absolutely not. We're talking about our fundamental task as Christians to worship God and to lead others to worship him. But whatever takes us away from worshipping him must be removed. Bad lighting takes us away from worshipping God. Bad sound takes us away from worshipping God. Rudeness takes us away from worshipping God. Bad music takes us away from worshipping God. A bad homily takes us away from worshipping God. All those kinds of things distract us from worshipping God, and anyone who has been a catholic for any length of time knows how widely the quality of weekend experiences can vary, both in and out of season, and around the world. Of course, we are human beings, mistakes happen, and we are always moving toward something amazing but never arriving at it until heaven itself. But that doesn't mean we can't improve what we have and that we shouldn't try. We want people to be moved to a deeper place with God and Jesus, and we want people to come back because worship is natural and it's good, and we want people to be part of something amazing.
Anchor 4: Layers of leadership. This is the most important of the 4 anchors and the hardest to implement. It requires strong structures on our part, and skill in delegation which I personally am developing. But it also requires a response of generosity on the part of others. This is why the second strategic anchor is so important as well, growing deeper. Once you believe, your response to that belief is generosity. And to give of your time to the church and work hard for her advancement is a wonderful task which has its own reward built into it. The reward is everything Jesus promised about blessing your life. "Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest." But we also need more lay leaders to step forward. This is very challenging, but I know the talent is out there, I hope that you might consider a leadership position in the parish, but first things first! I hope you can feel deeply the presence of God in your life because of your connection to our parish.
These four anchors are always working together like flywheels, and we are turning them slowly at the moment. We have a long way to go, and it takes great effort to turn these wheels at first, but we don't have to turn them all the way at first. Once you start turning one, even a little bit, the others start to turn as well. In turning these wheels, we will make many mistakes, and many false starts, because we are human. But we must keep moving forward, one step at a time.
Perhaps our Church is like the field in today's Gospel:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
What we are trying to create here is good soil for the people of Fonthill, that will bear fruit in goodness and love for our community.
I conclude where I started. The most important thing for us is not to do more and do it better, but to be holy. We must put our efforts in God's hands, to turn to him and let him lead us and lead our parish. I see a powerful transformation here and in our catholic church. I've seen it in Baltimore in the Chruch of the Nativity, and we will see it here. We are really talking about the new evangelization that starts with us and leads to the conversion of the world. It only ends when the Kingdom of God, which is always already at hand, is fulfilled.
I am reminded of the very famous quotation from Archbishop Romero, who became keenly aware of the need to evangelize his own community but also that he was powerless to do it without the help and grace of God. I would share this quote at every Mass if I could:
"It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection,
no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest."
I stop here for a moment. Before I finish the quote, I want to share with you something that happened recently. 10 years ago I had a youth group at St. Ann's parish and we used to play bingo with the residents at Lookout Ridge once a month or so. I never thought much of it, but I liked connecting the young people with our wise elders. Anyway, last Saturday I presided at the funeral in Niagara Falls of one of the residents. And her husband took me aside just before the funeral and shared with me how much she used to enjoy that bingo and how much she appreciated seeing the young people there. Who knew? I continue with the quote from Archbishop Romero:
"We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own."