Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent 3

It has been an interesting week to be a Catholic.
Of course everybody who has access to any form of media
knows that Pope Benedict’s resignation from the papacy 
took effect on Thursday
and that the Church has entered a period of sedes vacans,
or the empty chair of Peter,
as we await the election of a new Pope by the college of Cardinals.

In my mind, this event is framed 
by two other events from this week:
on Monday the Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned
amidst accusations of sexual misconduct with several priests,
and on Friday the Archdiocese of Baltimore issued a statement
that one of my brother deacons had been suspended from ministry
after his arrest for possession of child pornography.

Sad to say, for all too many people 
such news has ceased to be shocking,
because it has come to seem like business as usual 
from the Catholic Church.
And I find myself praying that God will seize this opportunity
to send us a leader who can make the Church into the kind of place
where at least such things regain their capacity to shock.

So what does the Word of God offer us today?
We hear in the Gospel the parable of the fig tree,
which for three years produces no fruit,
after which the owner of the orchard, 
justly and understandably frustrated,
tells the gardener to cut it down 
so that it will no longer deplete the soil.
But the gardener pleads with the owner 
to give the tree one more year,
during which he will tend it and fertilize it.

Early Christian interpreters such as St. Augustine
saw the parable as a warning to Christians that,
while we have been granted another season of grace
in which to bear the fruit of good works,
a day of judgment and reckoning is coming
for those whose lives remain barren.

But perhaps this parable 
is not just about us as individuals,
but also about us as a Church.
Events not just this week but over the past ten years
have led me often to wonder whether our Church
has become like the fig tree,
exhausting the soil around it
while producing no fruit but scandal upon scandal,
sucking life from the world
and offering nothing in return but one more excuse
for the cynicism that so pervades modern life.
Is time running out for our Church to bear good fruit?
Could the day arrive when God decides 
that the time has come to cut it down?
Christ said that the gates of hell 
would not prevail against his Church,
but we must also remember the words of St. Paul:
“whoever thinks he is standing secure 
should take care not to fall.”

These are dark thoughts to have on the eve of a papal election.
And they bring with them the temptation to think
that what is needed to fix the Church
is a Pope who fits with my particular agenda:
whether that is a Pope who will ordain women to the priesthood
or impose the Latin Mass on all parishes,
or change the Church’s teaching on contraception
or excommunicate all the bad Catholics.
These might be good ideas or bad ideas,
but a solution more radical than any of these is called for,
a solution that fits neither a “conservative” agenda nor a “liberal” one, 
a solution that is hinted at in the parable of the fig tree.

The gardener in the parable says
that he will cultivate the ground around the tree and fertilize it.
What our translation rather primly translates as “fertilizer”
is the Greek word kopria, which really means “excrement.”
A Pope from many centuries ago, Gregory the Great,
said, in reference to this parable, that the fertilizer that can make
the unfruitful tree of our souls fruitful once again
is the remembrance of the dung of our past sins;
the frank acknowledgement of the stench of our own misdeeds 
can pierce our hearts
and move us to begin bearing 
the fruit of good and godly deeds (Homily 31).

And what is true of us as individuals 
is just as true of us as a Church.
The Church must clear away all of the weeds that are choking it:
the desire to protect careers and images at all costs,
the denial that the world’s evils are found in the Church as well,
the denigration of any who would dare to call us to account.
The Church must be fertilized by facing up to the foulness of her failings,
and let her heart be pierced by the stench of her own sins,
so that we can in due season bear fruit
that will feed a world that is spiritually starving.

Perhaps our next Pope can help us to do this.
But the Church stands 
on the promise of Christ to remain with us,
not on the dream of a Pope 
who will fix everything that is wrong with us.
Still, we should pray in this time of sede vacans 
for God to send us a leader
who, like the gardener in the parable,
will cultivate and fertilize the Church with honest repentance.
And we should not only pray, but pray with confidence,
because we know that while our past is ours, and we must own it,
our future belongs to the God 
whose grace can make a barren fig tree fruitful
and make a desert bush burn with the fire of God’s presence,
the God whose Spirit, 
despite our best efforts to quench it,
still burns as a refiner’s fire within the Church, 
the living body of Christ.