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SEPTEMBER 30, 2012: TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Numbers 11:25-29
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Today's first and third readings dovetail perfectly with our upcoming celebration of Vatican IIs 50th anniversary.

Standing with thousands of others in St. Peter's Piazza that Thursday morning, watching the 2,500 bishops process into the basilica, I had no inkling of the changes the upcoming council was destined to bring about. At most, we liturgical "movers" would have been more than content if the bishops eventually permitted the two Eucharistic Scripture readings to be proclaimed in the vernacular. We weren't hoping for much more.

Of course, within just one week, everyone was surprised by what was happening. The council participants were deliberating in and with a spirit no one anticipated. Our church has never been the same since.

That's one of the reasons I'm surprised by the claims of some today that there never was a "Vatican II spirit." According to them, the council is just the 16 documents the council issued, nothing more.

When pressed, I remind these "spiritless" individuals of what happened during a September 1963 workshop given North American College students by the well-known social justice priest John Cronin. At that point, the first council documents were still three months down the road. Yet Fr. Cronin shocked all of us with a personal confession. "Because of what's happened at the council," he said, "I now regard as serious sins some of the things I did as a young priest working in the National Catholic Welfare Conference office - especially copying and forwarding Vatican letters to bishops and priests informing them they had been silenced and swearing them to secrecy about the silencing." No document changed the famed Sulpician's morality. His turnabout could only have come from the spirit the council was surfacing.

Notice in our Numbers pericope how Yahweh's spirit breaks through the rules and regulations Moses set up for the reception of the spirit. Eldad and Medad weren't even present, yet they still received Yahweh's spirit. No wonder Joshua wants them silenced. The pair is operating outside the accepted institutional envelope.

John must not have known about this event, else he wouldn't have tried to stop someone "who does not follow us" from driving out demons in Jesus' name. It's clear from Jesus' unexpected response that he has a broader concept of the spirit's presence and work than some of his followers. "Whoever is not against us is for us."

It doesn't seem to be an accident that Mark's Jesus immediately follows his Johannine encounter with a warning about causing "one of these little ones who believe in me to sin." Given the context, I presume at least one of our Christian leaders' sinful actions is trying to limit the work and recognition of Jesus' spirit. Because of our church's present hierarchical structure, it takes lots of faith and courage for those exercising authority to faithfully remind themselves and their "little ones" that they don't control that spirit. As the council documents emphasized, that spirit can be found not only in all Catholics and in our "separated Christian brothers and sisters," but even in non-Christians, and eventually in all people.

Though we can identify with James' irritation with those in his community refusing to relate to the poor and disadvantaged as the historical Jesus commanded us to relate, it's even more difficult to relate to them as the risen Jesus' spirit encourages us to relate. Frequently that spirit expects us to go beyond institutional limits.

It certainly was the risen Jesus' spirit, alive in Vatican II, which eventually forced Fr. Cronin to judge, from a completely different perspective, how he once carried out his institutional obligations. No written document prompted that honest, memorable confession.