Wider and Wider Circles – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 22:1-14, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Timecropped-waves-circles-285359_960_720-1

When I was a novice, I was assigned to Culion island, in Palawan, for a month. I visited patients in the hospital everyday. And there was always one or two patients who would go down memory lane and tell me lovely stories about Jesuits who had been assigned there. One day, while I was listening to an old lady singing praises of a priest her family loved, our conversation screeched to stop when another elderly lady interrupted us. She said, “Pinag-uusapan ninyo si Fr. (X)? I hate him!” she said in English, loud enough for the small ward suddenly go silent. “’Yan si Fr. X, pari pa naman. Bakit niya hindi tinanggap sa simbahan ang katawan ng inaanak kong nagpakamatay? Bawal daw papasukin sa simbahan ang labi ng nagpakamatay? Saan ‘yan sa bible?” ‘Yung pari raw, sumilip sa pintuan ng simbahan, tapos nung malaman niyang ito yung nababalitang batang nagpakamatay, sinarhan daw ang pinto. “Iyak ng iyak yung kumare ko,” the woman continued, “nagmamakaawa! Katok kami nang katok, brader, habang buhat-buhat yung kabaong. Hindi talaga niya kami pinagbuksan! I hate him!” I was stunned. I saw some people in the ward nodding as the flustered woman ranted her painful story. Apparently, that fateful day was already legendary in the island.

When I came back from studies a few years ago, a churchgoer asked to speak with me about something troubling her. Her daughter used to study in an expensive high school. When she was just about to graduate, the priests running the school sent for her mom. They told the mom that they had found out from the other parents that she was a single parent. Unless she got back together with her husband, their daughter would have to study elsewhere. Now that was sad enough. It was even more tragic that her daughter was so hurt at being kicked out, that she blamed her mother for being the separated woman she was.

Forget heaven for a while, but this “meal”, this “banquet” here on earth, this “feast” that the Lord prepares in God’s Kingdom—I hope we see that through the years, the Holy Spirit has deliberately been opening it up to wider and wider circles. Aren’t we glad, for example, that gone are the days when suicide had to be ruled out as cause of death, otherwise, a blessing could be refused the deceased. Aren’t we glad that babies of unmarried parents may now be baptized, unlike before when we seemed to “punish” infants for the “sins” of their parents? Isn’t it a good thing that today, we no longer think that a beloved gay son or beloved gay daughter has a mental disorder that must be cured, or is a mortal sinner by simply being who he or she is, and should never be given holy communion without herding the person off to confession first? Ever widening circles—that’s how the Holy Spirit works in this banquet, this feast that the Lord serves in the Kingdom here on earth, in space and time. Furthermore, remember that Jesus directed tonight’s parable at the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus was throwing open the doors of the Kingdom of God, but the Scribes and Pharisees went about shutting them. They demanded them shut, wanted them shut, kept them shut. They refused to see the compassion behind banquet, the broad-mindedness, the inclusivity God was serving lavishly in his feast. For these religious rigorists, God’s banquet was only for the righteous like themselves, unsullied, priestly, blameless keepers of word and law.

But you and I are Catholics. It’s no accident that our faith came to be known as Catholic—meaning, universal. The name was born in the early second century to emphasize its universal coverage. Unlike many religions at the time, ours extended all over the world, its invitation open to anyone who wished to come, and best of all, it was known to be incredibly adaptable to the different needs and conditions of people everywhere—universal! But we still have amongst us many Roman Catholics who are really more “Roman” than catholic. Their idea of membership is more exclusivist rather than universalist; their notion of community, more clerical than pastoral; worst, their moral and spiritual attitude, more sin-oriented rather than forgiveness-driven. Smaller and smaller circles. When the Lord gave Peter the “keys” to the Kingdom of God, don’t you think he wanted to him to continue his ministry of unlocking the doors that Judaism had shut? Sadly, many of us priests behave as though those “keys” are meant to lock out certain people, shut out a specific civil status, ban particular sexual orientations—the complete opposite of Christ’s notion of the Kingdom of God as a banquet where everyone has a place.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from burning heretics, from the Crusades, the “holy” Inquisition. We’ve opened more and more doors in the Church, thanks especially to Pope Francis and his refreshing universality of imagination, this in spite of many clerical efforts to lock church doors. Dear sisters and brothers, it only goes to show that not even the most powerful human prejudice can stop the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will keep opening up the banquet to ever widening circles of humanity, even if many of us, especially religious authorities—love locking church doors shut. I’ve often thought that the Spirit wants to lock those doors open, so nobody can shut them again.

Like I tell my students, if we ever get to heaven, we priests will really be surprised at whom we will see there. But I bet, they will be even more surprised to see us! There’s always room in God’s feast, dear sisters and brothers. There’s always more and more and more room.

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