11th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Ready for Harvest

God's kingdom is often compared to a "harvest" in the Scriptures.  It is an image that perhaps meant more to other cultures, in other ages than our own.  However, there is still an important message for all of us in today's Gospel passage.  We can substitute the word "church" for "harvest" and we can hear the Lord reminding us that it is by God's favor that we belong to this chosen community. 

Jesus is moved to speak because of his because of his compassion for the fractured humanity that encircles him.  The people are confused and dejected, like "shepherdless sheep" and they are expectant, like a field of grain ready for the harvest.  But the mission of the Gospel is not just a response to a need; it is a gift from God and therefore the Father must be asked to send those who will do the harvesting.  And so we see Jesus formalizing the call of the twelve who will be sent on this mission.  But the folks that He chooses, themselves deserve the label "lost sheep"; the awkward and fearful Peter; Matthew the tax collector; Simon, probably a member of the hot-blooded Zealot revolutionaries; James and John, who would argue over who was the greater; and the tragic Judas.  The Gospel will be proclaimed by the very ones who desperately need it.

A harvest just doesn't happen - it requires work.  "Church" doesn't just happen...  it doesn't just pop up out of ground.  All of the different components which make up our Church require work, support, planning, tender care - and, yes, patience. 

The last time this Gospel was proclaimed in the Liturgical cycle, the U.S. Bishops had just concluded a 3-day meeting in Dallas, Texas, during which they formulated the now-famous "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and its accompanying "Essential Norms", the Vatican-approved special legislation for handling accusations of clerical sexual abuse.  They are now preparing for another meeting - this time in Chicago, June 16th through the 18th - where they will face revisions to the Charter, and where they will also be asked to approve spending up to $1 million from USCCB reserves to fund an in-depth study of the causes and context behind the decades of clergy sexual abuse of minors that forced them to act in 2002.

"At the sight of the crowds, Jesus' heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd."

I think it is appropriate that this same Gospel is being procalimed again on the eve of this meeting. Much has happened within the Church over the last three years.  We have seen the death of one pope and the election of a another;  we had have new hopes and new fears.

The clergy abuse scandal has taken a prominent position in the minds of most folks, especially since it is now well documented that the crisis is not particular to the United States alone. Parishes and schools are being consolidated or are closing; diocesese are declaring bankruptcy; the crisis continues to unfold.  The procedures have been put in place to protect our children - procedures which the bishops will review and perhaps revise.  Yet, as one article I read recently states: "... the crises of sexual abuse in the church did not happen primarily because children, parents or parishioners did not report cases - they did - but because church leaders did not adequately act on those reports.  This aspect of the crisis has yet to be dealt with." (Jim McDermott,  "Sins of our Fathers," America, May 23, 2005)  And while a number of bishops have offered public apologies, as a group they have yet to accept responsibility or accountability for the scope of the crisis. 

"... ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest."

Although the revision of the Charter is likely to draw the most media attention, the bishops will also discuss a revision of the U.S. Program of Priestly Formation, and the possible establishment of an annual day of prayer for vocations.  As reported by Catholic News Service, this revised formation document has more extensive seminary admission criteria and of celibacy formation. It includes for the first time an explicit warning: "Any credible evidence in the candidate of a sexual attraction to children necessitates an immediate dismissal from the seminary."  One would think that this would be obvious. 

Pope Paul VI once said that "in the design of God, all people are called upon to fulfill and complete themselves because every life is a vocation..."  There is already a multitude of "vocations" available to our bishops. Maybe they're just looking in the wrong places; maybe they need to open their hearts and minds to clearly see the gifts and talents given to the entire people of God.  And if they need a blue-print for priestly formation, they might do well to read the passages immediately following today's readings.  (Matt. 10: 5-15)

Three years ago I offered an alternative to praying for an increase in the number of vocations:

Prayer, however, is not enough. We need to cooperate and to respond - and we must not be afraid to speak out whenever those who shepherd us (clergy or not) give evidence of attitudes that do not reflect the spirit of Jesus. That doesn't mean grumbling and complaining in private, but rather to speak sincerely and constructively. It means taking ownership of the Gospel.

John XXIII and the bishops of the Second Vatican Council believed that the Church could read the reality of the social and cultural phenomena of this world by reading the "signs of the times."  The Church of the New Millennium must be a Church of responsible leadership and commitment… shared leadership between clergy and laity, and shared commitment to the work of the harvest. If we must rely on "the Church" to witness to Christ, we must do so because together we are the Church. This is our basic belief in sacramental theology - that as baptized and sacramental people we are empowered to be alive in the Holy Spirit and to transform the world.

Without healthy laborers - without courageous and imaginative leadership - we will be in danger of jeopardizing the values of our sacramental community, and will have watered down the urgency of the Gospel message.  We will have forgotten that we are to be the voice and the presence of Jesus himself in this world and that we are to continue his same works of compassion and reconciliation.