Homilies on The Book of Hebrews, Part 2. the Hope of Vatican II

Russell Shaw is an author (19 books), public speaker and writer for numerous publications such as The Wall Street Journal, L’Osservatore Romano, America and Our Sunday Visitor. Since 1996 Shaw has been an Adjunct Professor of Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome and is a Consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Needless to say, his insights into the Catholic Church possess some depth.

I read two articles he wrote on the 50th anniversary Vatican Council II. In an article entitled, “The unfinished agenda of Vatican II,” Shaw wrote about the 1985 extraordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops, “convoked by Pope St. John Paul II. It considered the successes and the failures in carrying out the Second Vatican Council, 20 years after its conclusion.” Shaw writes,

The synod’s final report saw much to be pleased with, but it also conceded the existence of “deficiencies and difficulties” in the reception of the council by the Church at large. The challenge facing the Church was to demonstrate that “the Catholic religion is for (ALL) mankind.”

A large part of the problem lies in the fact that many Catholics, priests and laity alike, don’t grasp the fact that every baptized Christian has a calling — a personal vocation — to play a role in this redemptive plan of God (Emphasis mine).

Shaw indicates that some of the confusion was not understanding the distinction between lay “ministries” and lay “apostolate.” He continues,

Lay ministries are service roles performed by laypeople within the Church. Lay apostolate — strongly endorsed by Vatican II — expresses the challenge to laypeople to carry Gospel values into the secular world or, in the words of the council, “to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through (the laity) can (the Church) become the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium, No. 33). But lay apostolate is virtually ignored today.

Catholics, especially lay Catholics, eagerly signed up for - and continue to be active in - lay ministries. We see the Eucharistic Ministers, lectors, musicians, singers, and people working in rectories. This is good, but it’s not the lay apostolate. The lay apostolate is the “church as field hospital after battle” as Pope Francis has said. It is a church of people who go “out to the fringes.”

Look at the Church today. What does one see? In his other article, “Going forward, three possible outcomes exist for the U.S. Church,” Shaw wrote that “the possibilities for the future of American Catholicism appear to boil down to three - the Assimilated Church, the Fortress Church, and the Missionary Church.”

Shaw then goes on to describe them:

Numerically, the Assimilated Church is the dominant reality in American Catholicism today. It is populated by people who, if asked, will say they are Catholics but whose religious practice and acceptance of Catholic doctrine are spotty at best.

The ultraconservative Catholic body that I call the Fortress Church is still numerically rather small but also appears to have grown in recent years. There are many things to admire about Catholics like this. But the readiness sometimes found in this segment of American Catholics to attack other Catholics and especially the leadership of the Church is very questionable.

The Missionary Church is probably the most discussed and actively promoted version of Catholicism now. But admirable as it is in many ways, not a lot along these lines is actually happening. The Church has yet to find a really workable formula for turning the idea of the New Evangelization into practical reality of a Missionary Church, and it is far from certain whether that will happen.

Here is where it ties into the reading from Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is not writing to a persecuted church. The audience is a church that has grown complacent and bored and inactive. The Word is speaking to us for the same reason that The Word spoke to that church in Rome 2,000 years ago. Christ is saying, “Stop straddling the issue. I don’t have time for lukewarm people. Make a choice. Are you in or out?”

Brothers and sisters:
Indeed the word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Christ is using his “sword” to measure the hearts of people. He will welcome and bless those who choose to follow. Those who don’t will be exposed and cut away.

How do we do that? That’s a problem. The Church has never really given its people the tools and guidance to take those Gospels values to places like law firms, schools and universities, businesses, politics, entertainment, sports, media and communication. No clear formula on how to do this has been provided.

The book of Hebrews does give us a guideline however. The idea is simple - but it’s NOT EASY. Hebrews says that it is about a personal relationship with Christ. That means getting to know him in The Word. You’ve gotta be reading the book other than Sundays. You allow the Lord to sanctify you and that mean’s the Sacraments. Mass and Eucharist every week. Confession on a regularly scheduled basis. No exceptions. A focus on your vocation. Going on “date night” to stay in touch - and in love - with your spouse. Raising you children well and passing on the faith to them in an intentional way - scheduling it as seriously as you schedule their school, sports and extra-curricular activities.

This is going to be hard. Workers will make fun of you if they see you reading a Bible at your desk at work. Other parents will ridicule you if you tell them your kid isn’t playing in a game because your family is going to church. Things will come up to make a regularly scheduled “date night” onerous or inconvenient.

Hebrews calls this a “burden.” What is important is that your humanity and Christ’s humanity is the same. Thus, your burden and His burden are the same. Scripture scholar Reginald H. Fuller writes that,

Christ had personal experience of all human infirmities. It is this same humanity ours that Jesus took upon himself, with all its defects save sinfulness. He bore the burden of this humanity until death out of obedience to God. God declared this work of his Son to be the cause of salvation for all (Hebrews 4:14–5:10).

This burden - this suffering - is far from meaningless. Christ is the “preexistent Son through whom the world was created (Hebrews 1:1-3). Christ was even made perfect (!) through suffering.” But “perfect” here does not mean moral perfection. Rather, to become perfect means to achieve a goal or a destiny.

In the USCCB, Commentary on the Book of Hebrews, we read,

Thus, the difficulties of human life have meaning when they are accepted as God’s discipline, training and plan (Heb 12:4–13). Christ - the Eternal High Priest - offers his suffering on the altar. That releases grace into the world. Our human suffering, when joined with his divinity and human suffering has an effect - it saves us. If Christians persevere in fidelity to the word in which they have believed, they are assured of possessing forever the unshakable kingdom of God (Heb 12:14–29).

When you carry your burden, and you join your burden to Christ’s grace is released. You are allowing Christ to save you and you are helping Christ to save the world by “participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.” (Colossians 1:24). What human beings do counts! It is important to God.

As Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he does not will to save us - and the world - without us.”

Audio version of the homily is here:


















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