One summer when I was in seminary I spent seven weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico for a Spanish immersion program. Cuernavaca is a beautiful city located in the mountains outside of Mexico City. I was living with a host family and I would walk a couple of blocks each day to the language institute for my classes. The previous semester in seminary I had taken a class on the writings of St. Paul and I decided to also read through all of Paul’s letters that summer. So, each day in the afternoon after class I would walk down the street to a little neighborhood park with my Bible and Spanish books and read a little bit of St. Paul and study some Spanish, read some St. Paul and study some Spanish. St. Paul became my Spanish study companion.
Reading Paul’s letters though I started to note how he often emphasized and encouraged the fledgling Christian communities in their collections and support for the needs of the church. At first I thought this was just about the reality of money and how you just need it in order to get things done. But the more I read St. Paul, the more I realized that the collection itself was not the primary thing for him rather it was what the giving of support itself represented in the growing spiritual maturity of the community. The willingness to give to support the needs of the church community (whether local or not) was a reflection of the gospel taking root in one’s heart – either the heart of an individual or that of a community. It was a sign of one’s ability to let go of self in order to focus on the needs of the other. Paul realized that the ability to give was an important demonstration of maturity in discipleship; so by encouraging these communities in their support he was actually encouraging their growth in discipleship.
This Sunday the Church celebrates the Dedication of the Basilica of John Lateran in Rome and in our own parish we also mark this as Stewardship Sunday. An historical note – the actual “cathedral” of the Bishop of Rome is not St. Peter’s but the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Before the Basilica of St. Peter we know today was constructed the bishop of Rome (the Pope) resided at St. John Lateran for hundreds of years and this basilica is still considered the actual cathedral seat of Rome. The Church celebrates this Feast of Dedication as a moment to reflect on our unity as Church throughout the world and our understanding of the Bishop of Rome having a unique authority given by Christ for the shepherding of his Church.
It is also a good moment to reflect on the reality of what it means to be “Church” and the gift of faith we have been given and the gift we are called to pass on to others. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters: you are God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:9-11) We are collectively and each individually “God’s building”. We are the Church – more so than any building, even more than magnificent buildings like St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s or the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico – we are the Church, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit in our world. But if we listen to Paul’s words and we take them to heart we realize that we also are “builders”. We are not the foundation – that is Christ our Lord, but we are builders and Paul advises that each of us “must be careful” in how we build upon this foundation. Our lives matter, how we live our lives of faith matter and not just for us but also for others.
I have shared that both of my parents are deceased and now looking back in hindsight some of the fondest memories and, I think, most formative moments for me were when my parents demonstrated their faith. Nothing earth-shattering rather these were daily things like prayer before a meal, saying the rosary, making the sign of a cross when we drove by a church. To this day I remember how every so often on a Saturday morning my Dad would gather my three brothers and I in our car and drive us to church to go to confession and God knows we needed it! But standing in line as a young boy with my father, who was not a perfect man, left a strong and lifelong impression on me. Whether he knew it or not my father was building upon the foundation he had received both for himself and for me. Without saying a word he was witnessing the need for forgiveness and mercy in our lives. Our lives matter. How we live our lives and our faith matter.
On this Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran and Stewardship Sunday it is good to reflect on what it means to be Church, on what we have received and the call for each of us to be wise builders. St. Paul knew this. The ability to give and to support is a reflection of our own growing maturity as disciples, of how the gospel has taken root in our lives. How we live our lives of faith matter, not just for us but for others – especially those who come after us.