What was the best homily Jesus ever preached? I think most priests would say his teaching on the Bread of Life, or his words of farewell to the apostles, both in the Gospel of John.
But I think the Our Lord's best homily might well be his shortest. (Even priests sometimes like a short homily!) We find it in the fourth chapter of Luke's Gospel, and it's just one sentence: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
My homily today won't be as short, and my words won't be a self-fulfilling prophecy like those words of Jesus. But I will begin with them, and try to show you how today's Gospel is being fulfilled in our parish, by our parishioners, at this very moment.
At first glance, the Gospel we've just heard seems far distant from 599 Keith Road in West Vancouver. For one thing, Jesus is talking about the Last Judgment. For another thing, he's talking about the starving, the naked, and prisoners. We have no naked in West Vancouver—it's against local bylaws. And if you're starving, there are all kinds of soup kitchens, just over the bridge.
And don't try building a prison in one of Canada's wealthiest neighborhoods. "Occupy Vancouver" would be kid stuff by comparison to the protests we'd have.
So how can I possibly stand here and tell you that 'today this scripture is being fulfilled in this parish'?
Before I answer that, I'd first better make one important point: this Gospel text isn't being completely fulfilled today—if it were, the Lord would be sitting on His throne before us, and the sheep would be here and the goats there.
But the fact is that the members of our parish community, as subjects of Christ the King, have decided to obey his command to the letter. And so, on our feast day, I am announcing that the parish has signed an agreement with the Government of Canada to sponsor a family of Iraqi refugees.
This decision was taken over many months by the parish pastoral council, with the support and approval of the parish finance council. It was taken with considerable courage, since our current financial situation shows a small deficit, and the commitment we have made is substantial and binding.
By the way, our government takes the sponsor's obligations very seriously. I had to sign a form saying I was not currently detained in a penitentiary, jail, reformatory or prison. It also asked whether I'd been convicted of murder. (I'm not making this up!)
When the possibility of sponsoring a family first came up, the immigration department asked how large a family we'd be willing to sponsor. So I asked the councils for advice. Their answer: as big a family as they could find. As it turned out, we were assigned a family of five: father, mother, a son aged 16, and two daughters aged 10 and 5.
The Shaboo family are Iraqi Christians. As many of you know, Christians in Iraq have been harshly persecuted; when I was in Rome, I attended a funeral Mass for a young priest who had studied there and who had been murdered on the side of the road in Iraq together with three others. (Thanks to my friend Rob's comment below, you can read the story here.)
They are truly naked—exposed to their enemies. Unlike even the poorest of Canada's poor, they desperately need to be taken in; they need to be liberated from the benevolent prison of the refugee camp. They need, in a word, the help of those whom the Just Judge calls "the righteous."
Some of you will simply rejoice that our parish has taken to heart those timeless words "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me." You'll be the first to get involved with our resettlement committee, which will need many generous people to assist the Shaboo family when they arrive sometime in the New Year.
But others might say "who me?" Is belonging to a generous parish enough to get me a spot with the sheep?
To answer this, we must first talk about what a parish is. Is it simply an association of people? In his apostolic exhortation on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful, Blessed John Paul says simply that the parish is where you find the Church—that's Church with a capital "c."
The parish, he writes in this document (known by its Latin title Christifideles Laici), is the "place where the very 'mystery' of the Church is present and at work." It's "not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather, 'the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit,' 'a familial and welcoming home.'"
From this it follows that the parish has a mission, and that we can—and must—carry it on together.
Here's what the late Holy Father says on that score: "Church communion, already present and at work in the activities of the individual, finds its specific expression in the lay faithful's working together in groups, that is, in activities done with others in the course of their responsible participation in the life and mission of the Church."
In other words, when we work together on our common mission, the very nature of the Church as communion is more clearly visible.
And we see something else about the Church when the parish works together: without the activity of the lay faithful, the apostolate of their pastors "is generally unable to achieve its full effectiveness," as we read in one of the documents of Vatican II. Without the active participation of parishioners, all the money in the world would not be enough to meet our sponsorship obligations to the Shaboo family, who will need to be welcomed, not just sheltered, clothed and fed.
They'll need help shopping and job-hunting; they'll need baby-sitters and tutors; they'll need movers and handymen. In fact, the one thing they won't need from our parish is priests—like most Iraqi Christians, they belong to the Chaldean rite of the Catholic Church, which has its own priest here.
I truly wanted to follow our Lord's example and give a short homily today. I ended up following Pope John Paul's instead—I don't think he ever gave a short homily. Once I started reflecting on what he had to say in Christifideles Laici, I just didn't know where to stop. He completely connects the dots between our parish sponsoring the Shaboos and the calling we have as individual Christians.
Blessed John Paul writes that "The lay faithful ought to be ever more convinced of the special meaning that their commitment to the apostolate takes on in their parish."
"Ever more convinced." In other words, there's something extra-special about making the parish your base for service of the poor. John Paul quotes Vatican II to make this point: "The parish offers an outstanding example of the apostolate on the community level, inasmuch as it brings together the many human differences found within its boundaries and draws them into the universality of the Church." (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 10)
He continues "The lay faithful should accustom themselves to working in the parish in close union with their priests, bringing to the Church community their own and the world's problems…"
And he concludes: "As far as possible the lay faithful ought to collaborate in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by [their parish]."
Let me conclude: today's Gospel is being fulfilled in our parish. The King's commands are already obeyed with joy and zeal by the dedicated members of the parish conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. And when Faris, Lilyan, Yousif, Rita and Maryam get off the plane, and our parish community greets them as brothers and sisters of the King of Kings, we will be that much closer to hearing those words "come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."