By Matt Janeczko, OFM Cap.
Last weekend, I went out to eat with one of the friars. About midway through our meal, a father came in with his two sons. The younger son, looking sullen as younger sons do when with their families, looked about twelve or thirteen years old. The older brother, I would guess was eighteen or nineteen. It became clear to me, rather soon after their arrival, that the older brother had a form of autism. He was non-verbal and constantly found himself fighting with facial and verbal ticks – a sort of a series of spasms over which he had no control.
The family ordered a meal and the younger brother and father took turns cutting up their son/older brother’s food and trying to coax him to eat. While one helped, the other ate – and then vice versa.
I’m not sure how many French fries the young man ate, but he was served them with love throughout the whole meal.
After they had finished, something extraordinary happened.
The father and his two sons got up and began to walk out of the restaurant. As he passed our table, the dad stopped, turned to the two of us and thanked us for being so patient with them, as if their small family had inconvenienced us or did something wrong.
The apology was heartfelt, likely borne out of being scolded before.
I was left to wonder: what type of community scolds or refuses to accept a father and brother who attend to treat their son/brother with the dignity that all of us take for granted? And better yet, when someone scolded the family, what did the other people in the restaurant do?
What does it say about our community when a father feels the need to apologize for fulfilling Paul’s reminder that “The one who has loved another has fulfilled the law”?
Today’s Gospel really calls us to a collective examination of conscience: we are not solely the sum total of our individual actions. And what’s more, we’re accountable to each other. Indeed, when God looks at us, I don’t think God merely sees me or you, but rather, God sees a people: peoples upon peoples – the people who make up this Archdiocese, this city, and this particular parish of the Sacred Heart.
And when we look in the mirror, as Christians, we can’t not see others: there is no decision we make in our families that doesn’t have consequence for others. The same goes for the Catholic community.
However, our church is also accountable itself. And listening to Matthew’s Gospel, we may begin to realize that this is nothing new. The Gospel is attempting to make the point that our church community doesn’t make a decision because it’s the majority-vote or because it “needs to do business.” It makes decisions because Christ is present in us, calling us to always move closer to Him. At the same time, because we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re also responsible to each other. This community – all of us gathered here right now, possess the Spirit of Christ in our very selves. And when we welcome others, we make that Spirit real. When we ignore and exclude, we do that Spirit violence. At the same time, when we ignore others who are hurting themselves, we do equal violence. When we ignore others who are hurt or are doing the hurting, we’re missing the point.
This, however, isn’t just “church” language: it’s a lot more than that. The failure to live and build a community has dire effects. We all know this: just take a minute to consider how many of our family and friends no longer participate in our communities precisely because they’ve been met not with the Spirit of the Living Christ, but rather with something more excited about judgment for its own sake.
At the same time, we are called through the Spirit of Christ to offer a word of hope to the forgotten: not that we ought to all keep doing the same old thing, but rather that newness and conversion is always in style. In the same way, there will be times that we call each other out, precisely because we love each other.
The only way the living Christ breaks out is if we have the courage to rely upon each other to figure out how to love each other.
Today’s Gospel takes seriously the reality of sinfulness and the need for conversion in our lives. It requires, quite plainly, a great leap of faith to recognize that need in our own lives or to speak charitably to others who need it.
The challenge, then, this week is to work on this accountability: ask somebody to join you in prayer, seek out feedback on the way we’ve treat someone else. The Spirit of Christ is within us all: let’s allow it to be seen. And let’s love each other enough to say when this Spirit isn’t being seen.