“When Jesus heard this, he was amazed…”
Last week we read from the book of Genesis about the very beginning of the history of salvation; i.e., we heard of Abraham and Sarah responding to God’s invitation to leave their homeland of Ur for a promised land that they couldn’t even imagine. In today’s first reading God begins to fulfill this promise, assuring them that Sarah will have a son.
I am writing this piece while giving a retreat to a wonderful group of religious women; most of the Sisters are in their eighties or nineties, some using walkers or confined to a wheelchair. I wonder if they feel like Sarah, ever-conscious of aging and diminishment…no postulants or novices to follow them.
According to some reports, the church as we have known it is now on the endangered species list. While faith in God has remained high in this country, faith in the church has been on a steady decline, until many of our mainline denominations, Catholics included, are wondering how they will survive. Add to that the highly publicized scandals of some of our better known evangelists, or the abuse of children and its cover-up, or the current quarrel in our culture about the proper relationship between politics and religion, or science and religion, and you begin to understand why many observers have labeled this the post-Christian era. Who can blame young people for looking elsewhere for God?
Today’s Gospel narrative about the centurion offers us an entirely different perspective. We might also think of the Syro-Phenician woman in Matthew 15, or the Samaritan leper in Luke 17, all of them Gentiles or non-believers. Jesus commends their level of trust, saying he hasn’t seen this kind of faith even among his own people, the “faithful” Israelites. Our God is always stretching the poles of the tent, including more, and that might be one response to the gloomy statistics we read about today as many drift from Sunday worship and Catholic Christian allegiance.
It might appear naïve, but in giving conferences to the Sisters this week of retreat, I caught myself pondering that admonition of Mother Teresa’s: “Do not pray to be successful, pray to be faithful.” I stand in awe, with great reverence, for the sisters’ concern is not self-preservation; rather, they ask, “…how can we better proclaim the joy of the Gospel that Pope Francis exudes?”! Rabbi Abrahm Heschel once wrote, ever-so-powerfully, “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder. And God gave it to me.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed.
Fr. Jack Conley, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness. He is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.