Last week all the priests of the Diocese of San Jose gathered in San Juan Bautista for our Annual Clergy Study Week. It is always good for us to take time away and engage in some formation as priests. It is the only time every year that we get to spend time together in fellowship. Generally, I love going because we get to know each other and share stories. We are such a diverse presbyterate (group of priests within a diocese) with priests from at least 20 different nations celebrating Mass each week in over 20 different languages throughout the diocese. That is one of greatest gifts but also a challenge as we come together and get to know each other.
This week was one of the most challenging I have experienced in my 22 years as a priest. The presenter, Dr. Ralph Martin, was a professor from the seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. We were expecting to dialogue about evangelization and how we can engage our communities and our local culture in a more meaningful way. Normally, we get a short presentation that spawns a dialogue among us and then we gather a consensus of how best to move forward as a diocese. But that did not happen this week!
This year was a shock to my system as the presenter lectured at us with no openness to dialogue. He preached and scolded us for eight separate one-hour sessions. He refused to allow any interactions until he completed his lectures! I felt like I was back in the seminary being treated like a High School student!
More disturbing than the methodology of his lectures was the content and his lens with which he viewed the world. His first few sessions were unbearable as he laid out his worldview and the way he sees our challenge in the Church as priests today. He stated that “today the way the church has preached the gospel and the prevalent view of the culture is that the road to heaven is wide and the road to hell is narrow.’ He tried to tell us that is not true and that the gospel tells us, and Jesus tells us, the exact opposite! In his opinion, he thinks “the road to heaven is narrow and the road to hell is wide and most people are on it.” That was so shocking to hear! Even more stunning was his follow-up admonition that we need to “preach the God of justice and judgment – not the God of love and mercy. We have heard that message and it is not working. People are falling away from the Church in their vast numbers. The secular culture is demonic, and the people need to hear how God has expectations and if we don’t meet them, we will go to hell.”
Holy comoly!! “The road to hell!” I had not heard that type of message since I was a child in Ireland with the fire and brimstone sermons of years past. It was very disorienting. I was not sure which I was more shocked by, the fact that anyone who espouses this position holds a faculty position in any seminary in the USA or that this man was invited to speak to our diocese! Both disturbed me and both angered me.
On the first night, I contemplated leaving the Study Week in protest but after conversation with the bishop and prayer I decided to stay and endure it. It was a relief to hear that Bishop Cantu was as disturbed as I was and even more so because he had invited him and they had multiple conversations in preparation in which none of this material was presented. It was a complete bait and switch!
It was very difficult to listen to a person who was fixated on the sins like cinematic caricatures of the priests and nuns of old! Such a narrow view of God’s mercy and compassion, I have rarely experienced. I could not, and did not, remain silent. When allowed, I challenged him publicly to seek the virtue of humility espoused by all the saints he quoted and acknowledge that his view was a very narrow view of the gospel.
Despite the harrowing week of presentations, something positive came of it – he united us as a presbyterate like no other presenter in our recent history of Clergy Study Week! After he left, Bishop Cantu spoke eloquently, countering his narrow view of God. He spoke of the Church’s incarnational theology of Christ’s transformative presence in the world and articulated that despite our imperfections as a society and as individuals, his experience as a pastor is that our parishioners are good, our culture is good, and our world is good.
The road to heaven is very wide and open to all. God created nature as good and we are called to work for the good of all. We need to say yes to that road, it is open to everyone all the time and all are welcome. However, at times, we will need help to stay on the road – that is why a loving community is important and can help support us. We have many wounds and distractions that cause us to choose alternatives which lead elsewhere, and we need to encourage each other and through God’s grace we will stay on the road. If not, we know God’s mercy will help us choose that road in eternal life. God constantly enables us by his grace to choose his way for ourselves and others even in eternal life.
Furthermore, it is my personal experience of all the communities of this diocese that I have served and especially this community of St. Simon Parish that God works through each of us at different times. We need each other, not as perfect examples of sainthood but as honest disciples trying our hardest to be faithful to Christ in our current place in life.
YOU are the living Body of Christ here and I am privileged to serve you as pastor and priest. My imperfections are all too evident to me and maybe even more evident to you, but I am grateful to God every day that I have the honor to serve you as pastor. You are good and kind people and God is within every one of you. I see that reality every single day. You may have imperfections too, but you do not need to be reminded of the gates of hell as I believe you will never see them. You will be welcomed by the loving arms of our savior at the gates of heaven. Yes, I am sure we will all need some time of purification to ready our souls for the beatific vision of God. The road to heaven IS WIDE and open to all and no presenter claiming otherwise will change my experience of God’s abundant mercy to his created people.
To finish on an even more positive note, I invite you to come and enjoy a night of contemporary music with John Angotti and his friends, Jesse Manibusan, Meredith Augustin and ValLimar Jensen on Friday, May 20 at 7pm. Let’s fill the house. Invite your friends to come enjoy this nationally renown group of musicians and composers and together joyfully celebrate God’s love and mercy open to all people.