Five weeks after we began listening to the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the Lord’s Bread of Life Discourse comes to its conclusion in this Sunday’s readings. And like the church itself, in this summer of scandal, it closes with a heavy sadness. The teaching of Jesus—that he is himself God’s bread, offered to us—is rejected not only by his Jewish interlocutors but also by some of his own. “Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” (6:60).
Then our Lord tells us that heaven has always known that a line of division runs through the very heart of all men and women. Each of us must decide for ourselves whether or not to believe the words of Jesus, whether or not to receive him, as the Word, as the very sustenance of our life.
This line of division does not conform to the boundaries of the church. As the church has always taught, Christ and the Holy Spirit move beyond her borders, drawing men and women to the Father. And within the church, there are those who never come to truly accept either the teaching of Christ or the nourishment he offers.
Within the church, there are those who never come to truly accept the teaching of Christ.
Jesus says to his disciples:
“The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father” (6:63-64).
Of course, the question for each of us, one that can only be asked and answered within the confines of our own consciences, is whether we ourselves have really accepted Jesus, not only in name but also in truth.
Drawing lines of division anywhere outside the self is of no use. Some of those whom we now know as abusers of children may have never accepted the Lord, not within their hearts. Many of them no doubt did, yet they still fell into terrible sin and committed heinous crimes. We can only respond publicly, with appropriate punishment, for what is public. We cannot look into the hearts of others.
The question for each of us is whether we have really accepted Jesus, not only in name but also in truth.
But what of each of us? Why do some of us gasp in horror at vile revelations yet respond with the words of Simon Peter and from within the church of Simon Peter:
Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God (6:68-69).
How is it that others leave, some with righteous indignation, even though the vile acts never personally touched their lives? Well, how is it that some indignantly depart over something as simple as a change in Mass time or a mistake in scheduling ministers? There are examples of vastly different gravity, but the indignation is the same. And the problem with indignation is that it draws the line of righteousness and unrighteousness between the one who is indignant and all the rest.
Why do some stay, even in sorrow, while others leave? I think it comes down to this: If you have been fed by Christ within the church, you know that come what may, you have no other home. To leave the church would be to leave behind the Christ you have come to know here, the Christ who continues to feed you here.
If you have been fed by Christ within the church, you know that come what may, you have no other home.
Many years ago, when he was still a Jesuit superior in Argentina, Pope Francis taught Jesuit novices to learn from the people whom they serve, most particularly to pay attention to their expressions of faith. In his papal biography, The Great Reformer, Austen Ivereigh records:
During the week, in pastoral theology classes and meditations, Bergoglio asked the students to reflect on their experiences. He insisted that they were not going to teach, but to be taught by, the pueblo fiel; the Jesuits’ capacity for inserting themselves into the culture they were sent to evangelize was “the decisive test” of their faith. “How difficult it is, and how lonely it can feel, when I realize I must learn from the people their language, their terms of reference, their values, not as a way of polishing my theology but as a new way of being that transforms me,” he told them. A major part of that learning was to respect and understand popular forms of piety: asking the saints to intercede, praying the Rosary, going on pilgrimages to shrines, reverently touching statues. Bergoglio encouraged his students to do the same. His idea, recalls [Angel] Rossi, [one of the novices] was that “here we have poor people, and because they are poor they rely on faith, and because they have faith, they are our center. Their faith, their culture, their way of expressing their faith—that is what we must value.”
Those who gather before Mass to pray the rosary, those who slip into church to light a votive candle, those who touch their favorite saint’s statue (because that is how we humans communicate with close companions), those who seem relentless in their devotion to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, those who are angry enough to stay away from Mass but cannot skip helping in the soup kitchen—all of these are men and women who have been fed here by Christ.
And what of the unknown young couple, asking to have their baby baptized? Maybe they are caving to pressure from grandparents, or maybe this is their way of recognizing that soon their life must change, must find deeper roots. Is the couple, married outside the church, who send their child to the parochial school, only opting for a quality education, or is this their way of staying near the flock, so they can eventually catch up?
All of these people know that “here,” the church, is far from perfect. It not only suffers the assaults of hell, sadly, it often enough colludes with the powers of hell. They are not complacent. These people know that hearts cannot be judged but that procedures and punishment do not need to read hearts to be effective.
They may be angry. They may be confused. But they walk into their parish each weekend, look up at the altar they call their own and say, neither with complacency nor callousness:
Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life (6:68).
This is not a license for their shepherds to take the faith of these men and women for granted. They are Christ’s own, whom he holds close to himself. Indeed, we the shepherds must look into our own hearts: If we cannot see Christ here, in the flock, if we ignore this Christ, if we allow this Christ to be grievously wounded, where are our hearts? For wherever they are, however calloused they have become, they no longer belong to Christ.