[Jesus said] “…where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s had a great deal to reflect on, and enacted a large number of reforms in the Church. Not least among them was replacing the use of Latin in the Mass with the language of whatever place the Mass was said. For someone like me, this was a breathtaking change. The Latin Mass was something which had been in place for over 1000 years, something which would never change. But it did. The consequences of this still resound in the church today. The Council stated this was not only to enable a greater understanding of the central and most sacred liturgical action in the Christian Church, but also to enable other Christians to see and understand what the Roman Church meant by it. Remember that the “Real Presence” of the Lord in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass was one of the most divisive factors in the Reformation. The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy also stated the Church’s strong belief that the presence of the Lord is also to be found in the sacred writings, in the presence of the priest at Mass and in the gathering of the faithful, “two or three” to use Jesus’ own words today. Primarily, however, the consecrated elements of bread and wine are the ultimate foundation of this belief. In fact, the greatest privilege a priest has is to preside at Mass. Ask any bishop, ask the Pope himself, and you would get the same answer, to preside at Mass. So the Mass should be the supreme demonstration of Christian love, celebrating Jesus’ love for us, fulfilling his promise to be with us forever until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). Given that, but knowing human frailty, Jesus tried to create a model which would help achieve that goal even when there is division. It is all shaped, I believe, by possibly his strongest of all commands, that we forgive, forgive and forgive again. So if our brother sins against us, we are obliged to forgive him, but also to address him directly, a confrontation devoutly to be avoided most of us would say. But there it is, from the lips of the Savior himself. If there is no admission of guilt, then further action has to be taken, and ultimately, given no change, he is to be “treated as you would a Gentile or a tax collector”, which is to say, to be excommunicated from the community. That is to be done even though you have forgiven him, unsaid by Jesus, but fully in line with his teaching on forgiveness.
The thought occurs here that this confronts a frequent criticism hurled at Christians that we forgive anybody for anything and even let people get away with murder. But in today’s gospel we have a wrongdoer being punished for his evil act, whatever it was. In fact, if you transpose this gospel teaching to the supernatural world, it seems to say that the wrongdoer will end up in hell, an existence I have always equated not with devils, fire and pitchforks, but with a solitary existence, a solitude, a loneliness forever, forever without any hope ever. If you put yourself always first in this life, then that’s what you get after. Jesus is very clear on something else too: that the facts, as stated by two or three witnesses, have to indicate clearly the guilt of the sinner. So it is clearly the stubbornness of the guilty party that is the reason for his punishment. We often read of court cases where the accused shows no remorse over the crime committed. That always seems to have a huge effect on the ultimate punishment. One might think prisoners at the bar might make at least an attempt at remorse, but some do not, which makes Jesus’ words today even more understandable, though bear in mind that God will know the difference between remorse and show acting… So the lack of remorse displays defiance, a “me first and always” attitude, leading to self-destruction, as suggested above. As the second reading states clearly, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law, and, one might add, the pathway to life and love eternal. Surely that is worth remorse, shame and admission of guilt and the hope of forgiveness? Continue reading