Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – November 20, 2011 – Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est
Note: This is the final “sermon” in a series of talks given at St. Vincent de Paul Parish (Albany, NY) to guide a new appreciation and understanding of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Next week, the First Sunday of Advent, the “homily” will be based on the biblical texts of the day.
Every institution exists in a healthy tension between the past and the future. How to respect the past while moving forward. Richard S. DeMillo, author of a new book on American colleges and universities recently said that college presidents are recruited to do what is seemingly impossible: preserve the best of what the university has to offer and … set a new direction that is different from where the school was going before. As society and everything else changes, he said, preserving the past is not the only goal. 
According to one poll seventy-five percent of Americans believe our nation is on the wrong path.  Government and corporate America can no longer function like it did in the past. This is true in our own lives. While many of us enjoy reminiscing about the good old days, we know that the world is rapidly changing and that to survive we have to adapt even if it means doing things differently.
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, a universe that never stays the same. As we come to the end of our liturgical year (next weekend is the first Sunday of Advent) we also conclude our series on the Mass. Today we are focussing on the ongoing reformation of the church. Like universities, like nation states and our personal lives, we are asking … how does our church refashion itself to address social, cultural and historical transitions?
In this weekend’s parish bulletin Fr. Chris DeGiovine reminds us of a traditional aphorism: the church is always in need of reformation. Here are some major milestones. Before the fourth century, Christianity struggled to survive. By the end of that century it was not only recognized as a legitimate religion, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It would not be long before the church, once shaped by the common good, shared ministries and charisms, would become more codified and clerical aligning itself with the imperialism and triumphalism of the civic ruling class.
Twelve centuries later the Catholic church, in a defensive move, reorganized itself to counter the Protestant Reformation. On one hand it became more rigid, it tightened up its rules to maintain its identity, to distinguish itself from the emerging Reformed religions. On the other hand the Catholic Reformation of that time also sought to improve religious life of the clergy and laity through spiritual renewal, missionary work and scripture study.
Four hundred years later the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of the 1960s propelled the church into the modern, global religious community. This was perhaps the most radical ever reformation of the Catholic church. It changed the way we worship, the way we define ourselves in modernity, the way we relate to other Christians as well as dissimilar faith traditions. The Council sought to update the church without forgetting its past.
We can see in these three examples alone just how the Catholic church evolved from a small suspicious underdog into a powerful and controlling institution; from a church whose practices have always been contested from within and without to a body of believers admitting our need to be more respectful of other religions as well as members of our own household. So, how are we doing today? Is the church still in the process of reformation? Are the windows of the Vatican Two Council still open?
The church in the language of Vatican Two is now defined as the people of God, a sacrament of unity. That’s you and me. Do not let anyone take that identity away from you. You have it because of your baptism. Within this large cohort of over one billion Catholics, the hierarchical leaders, the shepherds of our religion, face the same challenges as college and university presidents do — preserve the best of the church’s past at the same time present a new direction for the church of the future.
Throughout history church leaders have produced some powerful statements especially concerning human rights. Most recently the Vatican Council on Justice and Peace called for a new global awareness of the economical inequities all over the world. Over the years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including our own Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, has taken admirable stands on respect for life, education, health care, the economy, costly wars, and the needs of 49.1 million impoverished Americans.
Some of you wonder, I know, how can a church built on a long tradition of caring for people who have no voice overlook the voices of its own members — women, gays and lesbians, married priests, those who remarry without annulments and, in general, most lay people. All baptized members of the church are called to holiness and accountability. That is the message of today’s gospel. We are charged with working together to forge a realistic plan for the future without forgetting the past that got us here.
We remember that whatever we do as a church we do in the company of God — created by God, inspired by Jesus Christ and moved by the Holy Spirit. It may be that the continued reformation of our church will depend on improving conciliatory relationships between God and all members of the church. It will rely on how well clergy and laity work together as reconcilers. Theologian Nathan Mitchell warns, however, “We cannot be a church of reconcilers if we are more concerned with shutting people out than with letting them in; when claiming to be victims and never the victimizers.” Mitchell wrote we must be willing to change or be changed. 
In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with a passionate speech. Here is one sentence about the reformation that the church was about to undergo. “We must not only guard this precious treasure [the church], as if we were concerned only of antiquity, but brisk and without fear, we must continue the work which our era demands, continuing the path that the church has followed for nearly twenty centuries.” 
That’s good advice for college presidents, Catholic bishops, you and me. Build on the past, plan wisely and boldly for the future, but never stop reforming.
1 Lewin, Tamar. “The Future Can’t Wait” in The New York Times, Education Life Section, November 6, 2011, page 31.
2 POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll, November 14, 2011
3 See Nathan Mitchell “Gathering as an Act of Reconciliation” in Worship (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) November 2011, Volume 85, Number 6, 542
4 Pope John XXIII. Address at the Formal Opening of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962, 6, 3.