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Welcoming back wayward sheep into the fold (2nd of 2)

August 11, 2015

Feast of Saint Clare                   11 August 2015

[Matthew 18: 1-5, 10, 12-14]

Today’s gospel focuses upon leadership in the Church. We have seen this theme in the recent readings from the Book of Exodus, where Moses struggled to in the face of criticism and hostility, from large groups of people and even from his own brother and sister, people really close to him.

In the gospel, the situation is that the disciples are trying to establish a pecking order for when they reach heaven. The disciples are asking Jesus “Who is the greatest amongst us?” They want to be clear on the pecking order, they want personal recognition, influence and authority. Jesus responds by showing them a child. In those time children were despised, of no economic value. As usual, Jesus turns our human thinking upside down: an innocent little child is our role model; leaving the flock to seek out the one lost sheep is what we should be doing.

Today we hear Jesus, prefigured in the story of Moses, speaking on the subject of leadership. He tells his disciples they should not become obsessed by trying to look and feel important. Instead, He says leaders should concentrate on selfless service to everyone else. Jesus is saying that in terms of spiritual leadership, it is the person who has the ability to be humble who is the most effective.

You may be like me, and find that working with those the world despises – the genuinely poor, the so-called “unchurched” people – can be a very hard and lonely furrow to plough. They can be savagely blunt – you could call it a lack of respect. They have tough lives, eking limited resources, so not surprisingly they may often be on the look out to take advantage of people. They live is a hard place, an unfamiliar culture, certainly for me, and you can never be quite sure if you’re being fooled into giving going somewhere you don’t want to go. Not surprising really – the disadvantaged in society so often have to live on their wits, and they are very suspicious of officialdom. They can be unwashed – no sweet smelling Cusson’s Imperial Leather for them! And the experience of many of the poor in our society means that do not always have the polite manners and respect displayed by other people. They can be ‘hard work’, as they say. It’s so much easier to ignore them and concentrate on the polite world of church-goers.

This neglect of what can be seen by genteel, educated clerics as vulgar, and unpleasant – it is a world that is certainly not in my ‘comfort zone’, is a perennial problem in the Church. We suffer from it today. One thing that is very, very pronounced in Pope Frances’ very popular letter called ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ is the no holds barred criticism of clerics who lead comfortable lives whilst neglecting the sheep around them who are lost – clerics who delight in keeping the poor at a distance by placing very strict interpretations of Church Law as bureaucratic and heartless barriers to people ‘who are not like us’.

This is where Saint Clare comes into the picture. She was born in about 1193 in Assisi, where Saint Frances was working hard to rebuild the Church. Influenced by his teaching and leadership, she set up a community of women that was to develop into ‘The Poor Clares’ order of nuns. This was their name for a reason – they lived a rule of life that embraced poverty; she even obtained a special order from the Pope in 1215 that gave these nuns the special status of owning absolutely nothing – they relied entirely upon God’s providence. Not surprisingly, their example was to be faintly embarrassing, as the contrast with the soft, wealthy, easy, comfortable life of the Church hierarchy often stood out and was very plain to see for all concerned. Not surprisingly, those who considered themselves to be “in charge” of the Church would try and persuade Saint Clare to change the rules. Saint Clare always resisted the lure of worldly goods until she died, aged about 60.

Over the centuries we can see the Church – the hierarchy, clerics, religious orders and congregations – we can see the dangers of becoming more interesting in becoming comfortable, forging out a career, seeking favour and preferment, worrying excessively about worldly things; relishing titles and tassles; rules and regulations instead of challenging evangelisation, these dangers repeatedly re-appear in the Church, and we continually run the risk of drifting away from our core business, our proper mission – evangelisation of the lost sheep.

Throughout history, we as a Church have had to renew ourselves, to keep on the right track, to cast off the accumulated barnacles that can foul up the hull of the ‘Bark of Saint Peter.’ Clearly the last major review, to make the Church ‘fit for purpose’ was the great’ Second Vatican Council’. Those reforms, started over 50 years ago, still await completion. It is no surprise that, having been given a Pope who, like saint Clare, is inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi God, who publicly tries to follow a simple, basic lifestyle that eschews the blandishments of power and wealth, it is no surprise that Pope Francis is looking to reach out to our lost sheep.

Such a change of heart, an option for the poor by Christians, also applies to each of us. It can challenge our most deeply-held convictions and beliefs – what we might even call our prejudices, We must pray that, like Saint Clare, as encouraged by our Lord in today’s gospel, we can become truly humble and not be too attached to the comfortable things of this world. All is not gloom and doom. There are so many unknown saints working in this Parish, quietly helping the less fortunate around us, ministering to the poor and needy, often devoting themselves to some very challenging family problems.

And only last week I was tremendously heartened by the response to our monthly collection for asylum seekers and refugees. At the end of July, with many people away, the amount of food and clothing left at the back of church for these poor unfortunates, was magnificent. May we indeed continue to follow Christ in poverty of spirit, in true humility, like Saint Clare.

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