Preached May 11, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Let me start off today with an advertisement. We have a parish subscription for “Formed”, which is a sort of Catholic “Netflix”, with an abundance of programs, documentaries, movies, audios, and ebooks, to which all parishioners can have access.
One of the programs on “Formed” is Edward Sri’s “Who Am I To Judge: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love”.
I want to tell you about a few stories Edward Sri recounts during the course of that program. He uses the first to illustrate the point that ‘relativism’ is not neutral, but has a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda.
He tells the story of a young woman whom he calls, “Kara”. Kara begins her freshman year in College as an ardent, practicing Catholic. She goes to Mass on Sunday and believes all the difficult moral teachings of the Church. One day in a class she answers a survey affirming that she is opposed to same-sex marriage. After class a young man with apparent innocence asks how she answered and she tells him. In the evening she goes to a party where the man has arrived ahead of her. The man had told everyone about her opposition to same-sex marriage and so upon entering the room everyone jumped on her for being intolerant, judgmental, and bigoted. She left the party that evening feeling like she has been beat up. She had a problem. She wanted to fit in; she wanted to acceptance in the social circles of her college, but she did not want to abandon her beliefs. So she adopted what she thought would be a happy solution. She stopped affirming her beliefs outright, but began adding the qualifier “for me”. “For me, abortion is wrong.” “For me, same-sex marriage is wrong.”
By the end of her freshman year she began doing things she would never have imagined before; she also stopped going to Mass. A couple years later she was scarcely the same person.
It had been a small step from adopting those magic words of convenience “for me”, to thinking that it was, after all, just “my private opinion about right and wrong”. Once she did so, she became a changed person who had adopted the philosophy of relativism; she lost her moral bearings.
Then when a dangerous temptation came along it became easy for her to justify herself with those same words. It would become easy for her to say to herself, “I know I am supposed to go to Mass on Sunday, but I can skip a Sunday or two if I feel like; that is right ‘for me’.” Then, it was just another small step to telling herself, “The Church teaches that pre-marital sex is wrong, but ‘for me’ it is the right thing.” Those two little words “for me” have probably led many young people out of the Church.
The second story is a little more positive. After giving a talk on relativism a young man came up to Edward Sri saying that he thought he might be a relativist. In the ensuing discussion it emerged that he went to Mass and eucharistic adoration and he believed that the Eucharistic was the Body of Christ, but only “for me”. As Edward Sri questioned him to see how far the man would follow out the logic of his position, the young man was led to say that faced with a child who had lost his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11 he would have to admit that the destructive attack was ‘right’ for the terrorists; yes ‘for me’ it was wrong, but ‘for them’ it was right. Astounded, Edward Sri could do nothing more but invite the young man to enter the chapel, kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, and pray with him for a few moments. He also asked the man to ask Jesus if he thought relativism was right. At the end of the conference the man came back to him and with great sincerity told him that the “for me” bit had all been a means of self-justification. He was adding the “for me” to everything because he had wanted to be able to say the premarital sex was right “for me”.
In today’s Gospel we heard Jesus, the Good Shepherd, telling us, My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.
The voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the voice of truth – for everyone, not just ‘for me’.
Before Pontius Pilate Jesus declared: For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who hears the truth listens to my voice. (Jn 18:37)
And earlier he had affirmed: If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (Jn 8:32) The problem is that like Kara and like the man at the conference, we are bombarded by many other voices, hostile voices; they were bombarded with the voice telling them to just add the magic words ‘for me’ and everything would be alright. From the perspective of the altar here in this church, the altar from which the Good Shepherd feeds us with his own Body and Blood, his own life, I can see that many people are pulled away because of the voices they hear at work, in school, or in their family, on television, on the internet, or on the various social media. They are voices that make fun of the faith, voices that dismiss the faith, voices that attack the Church, cynical voices about the Pope, about bishops, or about priests, voices that say the Church should get with the times.
It can be hard to respond to those voices, and indeed sometimes we cannot make an adequate response. It can be hard to respond to those voices, just as it was hard for a woman praying the rosary outside an abortion clinic in Philadelphia to respond to a state legislator who was aggressively berating her and mocking her, while filming her. Whether we give an answer or not, we need to be able to keep our focus, like that woman did, who continued to pray her rosary while the legislator railed against her.
With all the competing voices it requires a great deal of intention and attention to hear the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to hear him, let him shape our thinking and attitudes, and so to follow him by our way of life.
We need to be very intentional about giving time and attention to hearing the word of God as it comes to us through Scripture and Tradition, interpreted authentically by the teaching authority of the Church and in harmony with right reason. We need to be very intentional to let the word of God form not just our minds, but also our hearts, and enter into our lives and actions. We can scarcely do this if we are not also very intentional about giving time and attention to building up a life of prayer. When our lives become anchored in the word of God and in prayer, then we will truly hear the voice of the Good Shepherd; then we will be able to follow his way of life; then we will come to known him in truth; then we will live securely in ‘his hand’ neither distracted nor moved by the cacophony of competing voices; then he will lead us to the place where is one with his Father, to the fountains of life-giving water, eternal life in the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity.
Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.