This is my homily for the Feast of the Ascension.
Today we celebrate Ascension Thursday. I know it’s Saturday (Sunday). But a few years ago the Church decided that it was OK to move Ascension Thursday to Sunday, giving us one less Holy Day of Obligation. I’m not sure I understand it, but then there are a lot of things I don’t understand, so I’m happy to defer that decision to people who are much smarter than I am. Anyway……
Today we celebrate Jesus’ return to heaven. He ascended into heaven so we call it the Feast of the Ascension. We confirm our belief every weekend in the Creed. “He ascended into heaven.” Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus appeared to the disciples many times during the time after His resurrection, proving that He was still alive. Then “He enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak.” In other words He wanted them to stick around until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would descend on them.
But, once the Spirit did descend on them, Jesus told them, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then He ascended into heaven. He was gone! But not before He gave them their final instructions, according to Matthew’s Gospel, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
So, what exactly is a disciple? According to the dictionary, a disciple is a follower or a student of a teacher. When Jesus commissions the Apostles to make disciples of all nations, He tells them to baptize and to teach. Then each new disciple is called to make more disciples. That’s how we got from twelve men to over a billion Catholics in the world today. But, are all those people disciples? No, they’re not.
In order to be a disciple you have to have a personal relationship with God through His Son and His Holy Spirit. Who is Jesus to you? What has He done in your life? Do you have a personal relationship with Him? He said He “would be with us always until the end of the age.” What does that mean to you?
I went to a three-day Catholic conference last week. Some of the things we heard were encouraging but some weren’t. We learned some statistics that are very startling. While you and I may be focused on our own problems and issues here in Soulard, the state of the Church in the United States isn’t all that great. I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of statistics, but here are some of the more scary ones.
Talking about mass attendance among people who say they’re Catholics, 45% age 65 and above go to mass. Of the next group, the Baby Boomers, age 47-64, only 20% go to mass. But like they say on the infomercials, “wait. There’s more.” Of the Generation X Catholics, age 26-46, only 13% attend mass. And of the youngest group, age 18-25, just 10% go to mass. Once they’re out of the house, nine out of ten Catholic young people stop going to church.
Think about that for a minute. How many of us are 65 or older? [hands] We’re the group most likely to go to mass, and even then, less than half of us do. What’s going to happen in the next ten years? The next twenty? I hate to be so blunt, but in twenty years most of us who raised our hands are going to be dead. If things stay the same, the age group behind us isn’t going to pick up the slack. One out of five of them are going to mass today. This beautiful church which as been around for more than a century will be just another vacant building in the City of Saint Louis.
I could give you a lot more of these statistics, but I just wanted you to have an idea of what we’re up against. But there IS good news. Whenever you hear statistics about Catholics, they probably are from a study done by the Pew Research Center in 2008. But something very dramatic has happened to the Catholic Church since 2008…….. and his name is Francis. For the last two years, since Francis’ installation as Pope, there has been a surge in positive feelings toward the Church, especially among young people. We have a tremendous opportunity to both be disciples and to make new disciples. Francis is the public face of the Catholic Church and people are liking what they see.
Remember that Jesus promised to protect His Church. His spirit guided the Papal Conclave to select this South American Cardinal to lead our Church at the time when we need him most. This holy man is opening doors that have been closed for a long time. Just this week he arranged a meeting between the leaders of Israel and Palestine at the Vatican. Jesus is alive and well and working through his new Vicar.
But, what about you and me? I said earlier that we must have a personal relationship with Christ if we want to be His disciples. I asked four questions: (1) Who is Jesus to you? (2) What has He done in your life? (3) Do you have a personal relationship with Him? (4) What does His statement ‘I will be with you until the end of the age” mean to you? I can’t answer for you, I can only answer for myself. Each of us has a different experience. But, if we’re going to be true disciples, we have to know our answers. If you and I are going to invite our fallen brothers and sisters back to the Church, they’re going to want to know your answers.
God answers our prayers. As you can imagine I pray a lot for things that will help keep this chapel going. This week I got a phone call from the Archdiocese. Jesus answered another of my prayers. He’s sending His Mother to visit us on June 21 and 22 in the form of the icon of the Black Madonna. This is a huge deal. The icon has traveled all over the world promoting Pro Life. It’s going to be in Saint Louis for two days. It will visit two churches. It will spend Saturday morning at the Cathedral Basilica then will come to Saint John’s Saturday afternoon and Sunday. This is very exciting. June 22 is the day of our barbecue and picnic. Expect to see a lot of people here that day. You can’t tell me that God doesn’t look after us. Our prayers to the Infant of Prague have been answered again.
God isn’t some cosmic force who doesn’t care about us. He may have created our huge universe but he takes a personal interest in every one of us. That includes you and it includes me. We have a relationship with Him whether we know it or not; whether we want it or not. He loves us with a love that’s beyond our human understanding. All He asks is that we love Him back. If we do, then we’ll be genuine disciples.