You may be wondering if I, as a Catholic priest, would excommunicate you, or tell you that if you do not do what I think you should do, you will “go to hell.” You may wonder why I do not “preach the law” and tell you in detail what I think are the sins you should avoid.
To the best of my knowledge, until very recently, I never heard or read of anyone being excommunicated, except in bygone eras, when some clergy in the Church took this extreme measure in order to correct some grave fault. Admittedly, I have long respected Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who publicly refused to give communion to the Roman Emperor, because he had ordered a massacre in Thessaloniki. Now there was a man of great courage, Bishop Ambrose. He did not cave in to power and wealth, but took a public stance against an emperor who had done much evil to human beings. Bishop Ambrose could not be bought off. By standing for truth and justice, this bishop brought the Emperor to his knees in public for committing human atrocity. That, I submit, brothers and sisters, was a justifiable, and salutary, use of excommunication to bring about repentance from a deadly crime against humanity.
But as for you folks, if I were to begin excommunicating people for sins, where would we begin? And where would it end? Would anyone be left standing, or would the pews be emptied? Perhaps we would begin with the juicy sins. Now which sins would be the juiciest, the most sensational, the most disturbing? Which sinners could I excommunicate because they may be committing a sin that has lurked in the dark recesses of my own soul? Have you not noticed that we human beings have a habit of harping on the sins and faults in others that we ourselves engage in, or wish we did, or we struggle against? Have you ever wondered why celibate priests have often become nearly obsessed with sexual sins, while overlooking major ones, such as spiritual pride, arrogance, the lust for power, greed, deception, stealing from parishioners, and so on? Have you wondered why some of us dwell on sex? Perhaps it is because we have not attained the virtue of chastity, and found the peace of living virtuously. Perhaps some of us are just plain jealous of others who can engage in openly sexual conduct.
Brother and sisters, I have not the least interest in excommunicating any of you. And why? First of all, because I am a sinner before the all-good, merciful God. I need God’s mercy and forgiveness daily. How can I single out some of you for excommunication, when I am such a sinful human being myself? In judging you, I would surely be condemning myself. Second, I believe in the Holy Spirit, more than in rigorous laws and rules preached or shoved down peoples’ throats. What do I mean? My entire pastoral desire, as your priest, is to help ground you in the living God. That means that I want to see you live now and forever in God, and God in you. I long for you and for me to live by faith, hope, charity, and to be filled with God’s joy and peace. Now, I have learned from my own experience that rubbing my nose in my sins does little to improve me. But God is very patient, and wise, and can and does gradually lead me to understand what I am doing wrong, and help me to change my life. I believe in the Holy Spirit: God’s presence in you, in me, to transform us “from one degree of glory to another,” when we by our own efforts cannot perfect ourselves.
You belong to God. I am here only to help you realize and develop friendship with the God beyond all of our imaginings and beliefs. I believe that your sharing in our worship together, as an active participant, in prayer, song, listening to the word, and fellowship; in charity towards one another; in a shared meal of the Lord’s body and blood—I believe that together in Christ we can and will be changed. I want you here with me, to share in God’s work. We are in this together. Why would I ever want to excommunicate you? It would be like cutting off my foot, or a part of my heart. We belong to each other, for each other. We need each other on our journey home into God. That is why God’s wise and loving Providence has brought us together.
No, I will not excommunicate you, but I will invite you, “Children, come, eat a meal.” And I will say to you, “Behold the Lamb of God…” And I will say with you—and mean—“Lord, I am not worthy… but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” I need healing, and perhaps you do, too. Well, we have come to the divine Physician. I will not excommunicate you, and hope that you will not excommunicate yourself by avoiding the Presence of He Who Is.
Your brother in Christ,