Monday, January 24, 2011

Memorial of St Francis de Sales/Monday of 3rd Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Hebrews 9:15, 24-28 / Mark 3:22-30

We normally associate St Francis de Sales with gentleness, and of course we are right to do so; his was a honeyed soul who drew many back to the faith, and even inspired to deeper devotion those who remained apart, than the other more vinegary tongues to come before and after him. Even so, he was on occasion more than willing to speak and write a difficult word to those whom he intended to challenge.

In his preaching throughout the Chablais, St Francis discovered many men and women who had turned away from the Church and her sacraments, embracing the Reformed creed. They had been scandalized by the Catholic clergy, by their failure, indeed incapacity, to respond theologically to the challenge of the Reformers, and even more so by their failure, and they feared incapacity, to live a moral life that even remotely echoed the Gospel. In the face of a such a failure on the part of the Catholic clergy, St Francis did not pull any punches. Such clerics, he wrote, were nothing less than spiritual murderers for their having caused scandal among the faithful and leading them away from the Church by their dissolute lives.

However, St Francis de Sales had even harder words against those who "forged scandals for themselves." These were those who chose be be scandalized. If the scandalous clergy were spiritual murderers, then those who chose to be scandalized and in their anger and disappointment to leave the Church, were even worse, for they had committed spiritual suicide. To allow scandal to destroy one's faith was, he wrote, to place a millstone around one's own neck and throw oneself off the deck of the barque of Peter, whose helmsman is Christ, into the sea of misery. Allowing oneself to be scandalized, and in the scandal to quit the life of the Church, is the worst sort of sin against charity since it means knowingly to cut oneself off from the only means to receive the forgiveness which Christ has freely poured out.

This spiritual suicide is the very sin against the Holy Spirit about which Christ warns the scribes. The scribes, after all, do not deny that those men and women who had been oppressed by demons, and in that oppression kept from that fulness of life which God willed for them, had been delivered from the Evil One and his servants by the ministry of Jesus. However, even knowing this great good the very coming of Jesus had already brought to the people of Israel, the scribes chose rather the divide themselves from this freely offered deliverance by clinging to their self-wrought chains of scandal, their own personal millstones.

That someone or something in the Church — a prelate, a brother or sister in religion, a parishioner or family member, an encyclical, a practice or its omission — will cause each of us scandal one day is certain. The Church, after all, is full of sinners, and in this we, too, are to be counted. In the face of that millstone which we have hewn by our own temptation to nurse our injuries and the injustices inflicted upon us by the Church and her ministers, will we be ready to embrace instead the Rock who forgives all sins and blasphemies, the one who will appear to us and to the whole world to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him?

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