By Father Michael Panicali
One beautiful July Saturday three summers ago, some former co-workers and I were enjoying lunch on the Coney Island boardwalk when I put out an invitation for Mass later that evening.
A lapsed young Catholic woman in our group made a joke that since she had not been to church in such a long time, if she entered one, she would immediately “burn up.”
We laughed, but what she was expressing is a relevant phenomenon, and pastoral concern, facing the Church in this secular age as it looks to gather the wandering back into the fold: for many baptized Catholics who have been away, it’s easy to fall into the false thinking that they are not worthy of ever coming back.
While I was able to dispel this for my friend right then and there, I am confident that a good number of Catholics at this moment believe the fallacy that church is only for pious people. As they drift further away, and especially if they break with Church teaching, the more they are convinced God no longer has use for them.
In today’s Scriptures we see how sin obscures how man sees himself in relation to God, and God’s merciful and loving ways to affirm, strengthen, and restore man’s rightful vision, beginning with the Prophet Isaiah. As choirs of angels, heavenly smoke, thunderous sounds and the awe and glory of God fills the temple, Isaiah feels terrified because of his unworthiness.
His shame and embarrassment is allayed, however, when God rather spectacularly redeems him: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it, and said, ‘See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’”
The burning ember placed upon Isaiah’s lips is emblematic of what the Church teaches is the purifying fire of purgatory, through which the soul is mercifully cleansed of sin and made ready to see the very face of God in the heavenly banquet.
Today’s Gospel finds Peter, upon whom the Church would eventually be built, similarly feeling unworthy of being in Jesus’ presence after reacting with surprise to His request to lower nets into waters that had not yielded any fish over a whole night’s efforts. When miraculously the catch begins filling not one, but two boats, the self-effacing Peter falls to his knees and says to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
His pride does not allow Him to see that Jesus is perfectly comfortable dealing with people who time and again fail to realize just what He is bringing to them, or what is right in front of them.
Jesus Brings Life, Not Shame
Evident within both Isaiah and Peter is a misconstruing and contortion of God’s salvific plan for humanity that continues to play out today. Jesus did not enter our humanity to condemn us and to make us feel worse. Far from it; He came so that we may have life, and have it in abundance! He came to restore what sin has clouded – the sense of value and worth and healthy self-respect that accompanies our being created in the very image and likeness of God.
It is Paul who earns the highest mark among his peers today, for he is the one who understands the redemption that Christ brings, and the depth of the mercy Christ has bestowed upon Him. Curiously, he describes his entering the community of believers as one born “abnormally;” by this, he differentiates himself from his newfound brothers and sisters in Christ by pointing out that aside from not walking with the Lord during His earthly ministry, he had, right up until his conversion, actually been ruthlessly persecuting Christians!
While he recognizes his own weaknesses and shortcomings, he is also keenly aware of how Christ has worked in him: “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.”
I was not able to get my friend and former co-worker to come to church with me that summer day. I am not sure if she has ever returned. There is always the prospect of other reunion lunches or dinners being arranged, so anything is possible. We never know how the grace of God works, but can only trust that, indeed, it is always at play, looking to draw the lost home with open arms.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 6: 1-2a, 3-8
Psalm 138: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 or 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8, 11
Luke 5: 1-11
Father Panicali is a parochial vicar at St. Mark and St. Margaret Mary parish, Sheepshead Bay.