by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Then Jesus said to the Twelve: “What about you, do you, too, want to go away?” Simon Peter answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6, 60-69

Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is sometimes referred to as the “Bread of Life” chapter. It is the second longest chapter of any of the books in the New Testament (Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel is the longest). For five Sundays in succession the gospel reading has been taken from this sixth chapter of John. Repeatedly, using very graphic language of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Jesus has challenged the crowds following him on their openness to identify with him. Of course, that same challenge is put to us, for we, too, are being asked if we are prepared to identify ourselves with Jesus by being bread broken and wine poured out for others. Jesus says to us, as he did to the Twelve: “Do you, too, want to go away?”

At some time or other, every generation of those claiming to walk in the footsteps of Jesus have had to answer for themselves that very question: “Will you, too, go away?”

I imagine that there are very few of us who do not know someone who has walked away from the Christian community to which we continue to belong. Some have departed, criticising the Church loudly and publicly for what they regard as hypocrisy. Others have drifted away silently. Some have had difficulty with what they regard as inflexible and narrow-minded leadership. Others have expected a community of saints, but have found only sinners. Some have been comfortable among fellow sinners but have been disillusioned by those whom they label as pious “God-botherers”. Some have found comfort and security in hard-and-fast rules, while others have found the same rules and regulations over-controlling, constrictive of their freedom, and dismissive of their conscience. In recent times, many have walked away, unable to fathom the devastation of child-abuse visited on innocent children and vulnerable adults by those from whom they were entitled to expect protection and personal integrity.

Yet, there are still many others who have found themselves able to respond to Jesus’ question as Peter did: “To whom shall we go; you have the message of eternal life?” We know the limitations and the frailty of the Church to which we belong, and we do our best from our place within that community to work for change that will promote healthy growth and renewal, change that will restore credibility as it mirrors to our world the attractive message of Jesus. That, then, nudges us to explain to ourselves and to others why we choose to stay. And while I personally cannot offer any indefensible, philosophical or theological argument for my choice to stay, I really believe it comes down to the encouragement and affirmation extended to me by those faith-filled, deeply committed men and women who, day-in and day-out, inspire me by their fidelity. They are the people who give of their time and energy visiting the sick and shut-ins, reaching out to the lonely, feeding the hungry who live on the streets, working as volunteers for the St Vincent de Paul society. They know in their hearts that God is the source of everything that is good in our world. Through the lens of their faith they are able to see God’s love at work in the world, even amid confusion and apparent hopelessness. And so, they inspire me! Very ordinary, generously committed women and men like this are a reason why I stay.

In recent weeks I have had the privilege of living with eight young men and their guides in a Christian Brothers’ novitiate in Zambia. Those young men are discerning whether they want to express the love in their hearts as Brothers in religious life. Their honesty, courage, generosity and palpable goodness are infectious and truly inspirational. They give me reason to stay.

And there are other truly extraordinary women and men in our tradition who continue to enrich the lives of anyone who cares to listen to them. The medieval mystic and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena was once asked by one of her Dominican sisters: “How can I do something in return for all the goodness God has given me?” Catherine replied: “It won’t do you any good to do any more penance or to go and build another church. Nor will it achieve much if you spend more time in prayer. But I’ll tell you something you can do in return for all the compassion and love God has given you. Just find someone as unlovable as you are and give that person the kind of love God has given you.” It’s because of women like Catherine, a mystic whose humanity shone bright and whose two feet were firmly planted in reality, that I choose to stay.

And then, there’s Oscar Romero, whose integrity and passion for justice will be officially recognised by Pope Francis within the next two months. As he was shot through the heart with a single bullet while saying the words of consecration (“This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you.”) at Mass in his cathedral, he became Eucharist for his people – bread broken and wine poured out. It’s courageous men like him who inspire me to stay.

Today’s gospel reading begins with some of the crowd around Jesus saying: “How can we take these words seriously?” Perhaps that’s what we heard ourselves asking when we listened to Paul’s advice to married people in today’s second reading: “Wives should be submissive to their husbands…Husbands, give yourself up for your wives.” Submission and dominance are notions that don’t sit comfortably with most of us. They are words that have little currency in our everyday language. When I ask myself what Paul was getting at, I come to the realisation that genuine love for and commitment to anyone calls for putting myself second, letting go of ego and self-interest, putting first what is best for the one I say I love. The first casualty of genuine commitment to another must surely be our ego. Moreover, let’s not forget that God does not want anyone to live in slavery to another person, or to God. The love that God asks us to give has to be given freely. Eucharist is ultimately about giving our ourselves and our lives freely for others. That’s the kind of love into which today’s readings invite us to grow.