Has anyone ever asked you if you have been saved? Several years ago, I was walking in downtown Toronto to an evening event, dressed in my clerical suit and engrossed in thought when a small group of street people met me and struck up a conversation. "Hey, Reverend, have you been saved?" It was the last thing I needed to hear that evening! My mind was on the talk I was to deliver later to Catholic business leaders at a dinner function. Before I even had a chance to answer what I considered to be an obnoxious question, one of the motley crew replied: "You Catholics aren't saved, and you don't know what it means!”
That whole encounter got me thinking. Such questions about being saved are never raised in theological faculties or Church meetings but I am often asked if I have been saved at downtown street corners, or at the entrance to a large shopping mall in downtown Toronto usually at very inappropriate moments! I say to myself: "Are they not simply poorly educated, unsophisticated street folks, or fundamentalists who rudely break into my quiet space with their impertinent questions?" Nevertheless such questions must be dealt with, especially for us Catholics who aren't often versed in the biblical language of salvation and who are not used to providing an answer to such an essential question.
Lord, who will be saved?
Though today's Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) may well be a loose collection of sayings of Jesus, uttered in several different contexts but brought together under the general heading of "who will be saved," the overall tone of Jesus' meaning is clear: The good news is offered "whole and entire" and must be accepted in the same way. There is an urgency to accept the present opportunity to enter because the narrow door will not remain open indefinitely (13:25).
The question to Jesus really is: "Will only a few be saved?" Jesus answers by saying that the invitation is open but the way into the kingdom is narrow and demands more than casual interest. In fact, the "door of opportunity" will not remain forever open. God's purpose moves toward the end of the ages and when the door is closed, it is closed. This door will certainly not be reopened for persons whose only claim is that Jesus once visited their towns and villages or preached in their streets or that they once saw Jesus and a crowd or encountered members of his family. Such appeals are not only futile but also self-incriminating because their opportunities carried obligations.
To be saved as Christians, we must acknowledge Jesus now as master. From today's Gospel we learn that Jesus may not recognize everyone who bears the name "Christian," but he will recognize immediately all those whose lives bear the stamp of "Christian." Each of us must re-think whatever notions we have of the kingdom of God, of who will be saved. Those we think least likely to enter may be the first to do so, and vice-versa.
A “kairos” of salvation and mercy
Over the past five months, Pope Francis has shown us beautifully how salvation is a life-long journey and how we are found and chosen along the way by God. On the journey we become friends with God and with one another, and enter more deeply into the holy mystery of God. Furthermore, the whole transformative journey is made in love.
Francis has also taught us how even non-Christians, who outwardly may reject the presentation of the gospel of Christ, may not necessarily be rejecting Christ and the One who sent him to us. As Christians, we believe that God is always reaching out to humanity in love. This means that every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin; one can only lose their salvation through serious personal sin of their own account.
A Pope of Mercy
If we were asked to sum up to date the brilliant, hopeful, inspiring Petrine Ministry of the current Bishop of Rome, we would have to say without hesitation that Pope Francis’ major theme is “mercy.” In the popular press, Francis has been dubbed "The Pope of the Poor" and "The People's Pope," and both capture something essential of Francis’ public ministry on a world stage. If you want a formula that most clearly expresses the beating heart of Francis' papacy, however, the best expression is most likely "The Pope of Mercy."
For Blessed John Paul II, it was "Be not afraid!" – a call to revive the church's missionary impulse after a period of introspection and self-doubt. For Benedict, it was "reason and faith," the idea that religion shorn of self-critical reflection becomes extremism while human reason without the orientation of ultimate truths becomes skepticism and nihilism.
The single most commonly used term in Francis’ lexicon has been "joy," more than a hundred times, followed closely by "mercy," which the pope has used almost a hundred times. For the good shepherd from Buenos Aires, his signature is mercy. Over and over again, he emphasizes God's endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the church above all today is a message of compassion and mercy. The importance of mercy is also expressed in the motto Francis took first as bishop then again as pope: Miserando atque eligendo, which basically means, "by having mercy and by choosing."
On his recent return flight from Brazil to Rome following the incredible World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last month, Francis surprised us journalists and media types with an 80-minute conversation. He said:
“The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don't have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? …This is mercy. And I believe that is a kairos: This time is a kairos of mercy.”
Francis believes it's time for the church to lift up its merciful face to the world, in part because of its own self-inflicted wounds and in part because of the harsh and unforgiving temper of the times. This is a pope who will look for every chance to express compassion, steering clear of finger-wagging unless it's absolutely necessary.
A Church of Mercy
What do salvation and papal themes have to do with Sr. Carolyn on her 25th Jubilee of Religious Profession? Everything! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is first and foremost the Gospel of mercy. If we are to get a hearing in today's world, it will be because people recognize that authenticity of our lives and our dedication to building a civilization of love and a culture of mercy. We are called to live our lives as a service to others and commit our lives to give witness to the presence of God's love and mercy in our midst.
The Scriptures teach that God regards the love shown to a neighbor as love shown to Himself. Therefore the loving relationship between a person and his or her neighbor indicates a loving relationship between that person and God. This is not to say that the non-Christian is able to perform these acts of neighborly love without the help of God. Rather these acts of love are in fact evidence of God’s activity in the person.
Catherine McAuley’s extended hand
When Catherine McAuley was twenty-five, the Callaghans, a retired, wealthy, elderly, childless Quaker couple invited her to live with them in Ireland. Many of you know the story well. Catherine learned from them a great love and knowledge of the Scriptures and she proved to be a loving companion and holy example to them. On their deathbeds, the Callaghans converted to Catholicism, and bequeathed their estate to her. Mrs. Callaghan died in 1819 and when Mr. Callaghan died in 1822, Catherine McAuley became the sole beneficiary of their estate. She inherited a considerable fortune and used it to build a house where she and other compassionate women could take in homeless women and children to provide care and an education for them.
Carolyn, you and I have visited that house, and have been struck by the beautiful bronze sculpture of Mother Catherine on the sidewalk before the first Home of Mercy that was opened on September 24, 1827, the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Mother Catherine is greeting a poor, Irish woman with a tiny baby in her arms. Catherine’s hand is extended in welcome to all who visit that place, then and now.
Mother Catherine was gifted with a profound love of God, expressed in a deep love for her Sisters, and a tremendous sense of humor able to help sustain others through difficult times. Her “Suscipe” expresses her surrender to the loving Mercy of God. Often seen walking the streets to serve the sick and the poor, the "walking nuns" as they were called, inspired many women to dedicate themselves to Christ and to the service of the Church, causing the Institute to spread rapidly, even to places like Rochester. What good can come from Rochester? The Sisters of Mercy are one shining example
The mission of the Church and of every Sister of Mercy in particular is to create neighbors, brothers and sisters out of complete strangers. We must do this with simple words, loving, patient gestures, tenderness and love as we walk with them on the streets of our cities, and kneel beside strangers who are hurting.
Catherine McAuley was 53 years old when she professed her vows. Her Religious life was very short - ten prodigiously fruitful years. Under her Spirit-filled guidance the Congregation spread very rapidly. Catherine McAuley’s life was truly a “kairos of mercy” through work with the poor, the uneducated, homeless and destitute people in Ireland. Her bonding with the poor led Catherine to desire a life of total consecration to Our Lord a promise to ‘to serve the poor, sick, and the ignorant.’ It is in this wonderful institute that you, Carolyn, have chosen your own path to salvation for the past quarter of a century.
Let us never forget that our efforts to heal the wounds of society will depend on our capacity to love and to be faithful to our mission. Let us become instruments and living invitations to salvation in Jesus Christ. Our mission, our vocation, our struggle is not just a political battle or a legal problem, but rather a golden opportunity to evangelize and humanize the culture so that our world will truly become a house of mercy for the unborn, young people, the elderly, the poor, and the unproductive.
Ad multos annos, Sr. Carolyn! May your consecrated life and public commitment continue to remind the world that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation, and that the truth and beauty of the faith offer more meaning than a culture dominated by production and consumption. May you continue to reach out to those on the peripheries of life, extending your hand in welcome as did Mother Catherine McAuley years ago on Dublin’s streets.