Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time: I Belong Here
Have you ever had a feeling that you really don’t belong someplace? I certainly have. I remember when I first became involved in youth ministry. I was twenty-one years old and a newly professed brother with the Salesians of St. John Bosco. I was just getting used to people calling me Brother Joe. I received my first official ministry assignment. I was to teach CCD on Sundays to the sixth grade boys at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Sparta, New Jersey. Piece of cake. What problems could I have with 11 and 12 year olds? The first class went well, but it really didn’t last long. By the time the kids were assigned to the rooms there were just a few minutes for me to introduce myself. Little did I know that they were just casing me out. The second Sunday I showed up with a great filmstrip that had just come out. To you young people, back in the olden days a filmstrip was like Powerpoint, only with music and words. You would play a tape at the same time that you showed a slide. Then at the “bing” you would advance to the next slide. Well, I got to the parish a little early and ran into Sister Debra who was preparing to teach the sixth grade girls. When she saw that I had this particular filmstrip, she said, “I’ve was looking to show that to the girls. Would you mind if I brought them into your class so they could see it too?” “No problem, Sister. I was planning on starting it about twenty minutes into the class.” “Great,” she said, “you have the boys ready and I’ll bring the girls in.” Have the boys ready? What was she talking about? A few minutes before the class started, she said again to me, “You get the boys ready, and I’ll bring in the girls in twenty minutes.” “Sure,” I said. But I was completely clueless as to what she meant. Twenty minutes into the class, a little girl came in and said that sister wanted to know if the boys were ready for the girls. I was a bit irritated, after all, I was twenty-one and a Salesian. I knew all about kids. But I just said, “Tell sister to send them in.”
So these little girls came in carrying their chairs. And the boys started. They were hooting and howling and whistling. My face dropped. I was paralyzed. I had no idea what to do. And that’s when Sister Debra came in. Now I didn’t mention it, but Sister Debra was a very beautiful young lady. When she walked in, the smallest boy in the front row with the loudest voice in the world stood on his chair and yelled out, “Hey, Brother Joe, there’s one for you!!”
And I had the feeling that I really didn’t belong there. Sadly, this story is 100% true. Actually, I did belong there. I just had to learn a few things about youth ministry....and eleven year old boys.
There are a lot of times that we feel we really don’t belong somewhere. I remember a high school girl who accompanied us on the Life Teen Leadership Conference quite a number of years ago. The first night when we got together as a parish, the girl looked at the other Teens there and said, “I don’t belong here. I’m not as good as these other kids.” I took her aside and told her that Bart, our youth minister, and I chose her to be there and that I was sure she should be there. She responded, “You don’t understand, Father. I’m not good like those other kids. I have a terrible reputation at school. And I earned it.” I told her that the past was the past. There would be an opportunity for confession. And, especially, she did belong there. She showed all the signs of being a strong leader in the faith. Sure enough, through the grace of God, she grew that week and from then on. By the time she got to college, she was the family’s leader in the faith, as well as a leader in our youth
group. Now, out of college, she is a young Catholic woman determined to live and spread the faith.
The feeling of not belonging someplace was certainly forced on the woman in today’s Gospel. She was a Canaanite, a gentile, a pagan. What was she doing seeking healing from this Jesus, whom the Jewish people were treating as their long sought Messiah? Jesus Himself seemed to emphasize this when He joined the sentiment of the crowd and said that He was only sent for the lost sheep of Israel. But the woman was determined. Her daughter was gravely ill. She demanded an audience with Him. Her faith was further tested when He said that it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs, dogs being the Jewish way of referring to the gentiles. Her response that even the dogs eat the food that falls from the table showed that her faith in Him would not waiver. It was clear that she belonged there, before the Lord. No one could say that she didn’t belong. She couldn’t even say that about herself.
None of us should ever feel that we don’t belong coming before the Lord. We do belong here. We belong here because he has called us to be here. Of course we are not good enough to be in His Presence. Not on our own. But He makes us good enough. That is what Baptism does. And, if we squander the Grace of our Baptism, then Penance makes us good enough.
Nor should any of us believe others who through their subtle actions send a message that we really should be excluded from His Presence. For example you might walk into church and see someone you know outside of the parish who gives you a look that says, “I didn’t expect to see you here.” Everyone in the Church belongs here. And there are billions of people outside of the Church who also belong here.
This is the Catholic Church. The word Catholic means universal. All people from all lands and races belong in the Church. The Catholic Church is not a white Church. The Catholic Church is not a black Church. The Catholic Church is not an Asian Church. The Catholic Church is not a Hispanic Church. The Catholic Church is not an American Church. The Catholic Church is not a European Church. The Catholic Church is the universal Church. All people belong here.
Saints and sinners belong here. People who are living exemplary lives belong here. People who are seeking to live better lives belong here. Most of us, actually all of us, I would think, are in that second group. We don’t go to Church because we are so holy. We go to Church because we are seeking holiness. No one could say that the girl on that retreat did not belong there because she had a terrible reputation well earned. She did belong there. She belonged there because she was seeking the Lord. There are many people here in this Church, foremost myself, who come every week asking God to heal us. We are seeking to be sincere in our practice of the faith. We belong here. “Come, all you who are weary and find life burdensome,” the Lord said. He didn’t exclude anyone. He said, all you who are weary.
One of the most effective weapons the devil uses against us is convincing us that we have no right to the Grace of God. The devil wants us to give up on ourselves. The Lord tells us that he will never give up on us. We do not have the right to give up on ourselves.
And so, we come before Him this Sunday and every Sunday. We come before Him with simple faith. Like the Canaanite woman, we ask Him for healing. And we trust Him. For His mercy and compassion are infinitely greater than our sins. We look at the image of our Lord on the cross. We meditate on what He has done for us. And in complete humility we say, “I belong here.”