Book of Numbers 11: 25 - 29 and Mark 9: 38 - 43; 47 - 48
The first reading and the gospel contain two segments that I cannot recall as a topic for a homily, a sermon, an article or even an address by any Pope, Cardinal, Bishop or priest I have known about in my lifetime. Let me write at the very outset in the reflection, the Holy Spirit is working in my heart because I hear his voice calling for an honest look at the issue of dissent in our Church. The same can be said about society in general as well.
Fr. Wilfred Theisen, O.S.B., in a reflection on the words of Moses and Jesus, writes that we, in our times, "have to determine honestly whether dissent divides the Body of Christ." We have t ask the question: Is dissent ad avenue of pain that helps the Body of Christ strengthen its presence in the world; does it help for growth and development?
We know from the gospels that Jesus took positions quite contrary to the Law of Moses more than once. A read of the Acts of the Apostles and some of Paul's writings make evident the division that existed in the early Church, especially against Peter's teachings. The dissenter was none other than St. Paul, another apostle. He was charged with the message of Jesus to himself directly and would not give any quarter to anyone whom he considered wrong. Hear this: "But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong" (Gal 2:11).
The history of our Church is marked by more than one or two instances of internal dissent. These painful moments, however, resulted in the correction of schismatic positions as well as in a clearer awareness of what had been revealed by Jesus. Therefore, to write off, to dismiss demands for modification or removal of what some might consider essentials of our Church may be an example of blocking clearer understanding of what Jesus taught.
We might reflect for a moment on two statistics: (1) there are 30 million "ex Catholics" in the world; (2) one in ten Americans is a former Catholic. Just in numbers what does this tell us. A parish, for example, of 800 households may well represent 3840 souls using 4.8 as an average number in each house. That "one" would be another 840 for this parish. Another significant number of people worship in our Church.
Most dissent results from change. The American people are understanding that reality these days more strongly than in many years. Both Moses words to Joshua and Jesus' to John developed because others were acting "outside the box." Both Joshua and John speak out for traditions that had become essentials in the minds of many.
Look at what Jesus and Moses were teaching: tolerance and understanding, patience and love. It was not easy. Just consider the "hot bottons" that start heated arguments today .. too often simply because someone believes his/her position is right even though the essence of the issues are not fully understood. What Moses and Jesus were using as norms deciding what was best way of acting by those outside is not easy to answer: Was it a harm to the community? Was it good for the community?
We are no different today. But Fr. Wilfred reminds us there is a path we can follow. It is in the words of Pope John XXIII who was criticized both before and after his death for initiating Vatican II ... an event whose consequences continue to divide parts of our Church we can follow a sensible path:
In essential matters, let there be unity;
in non-essential matters, liberty;
in all matters, charity.
Let us never fear an open mind, an ope heart. Never let our ears be closed to another, especially a dissenter. That man or woman is hurting: something is blocking his/her love for the Church, the Body of Christ. Just yesterday, Pope Benedict, speaking to the leaders of Czech Republic in the Prague Cathedral said:
"Jointly we must engage in the struggle for freedom and the search for truth, which either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery" (cf. Fides et Ratio, 90).