Church historians and Scripture scholars always smiled when they heard Fr. Andy Greeley discuss present church structure with a representative of the institution. When the latter invariably threw out the statement, "The church isn't a democracy!" Greeley simply responded, "Well, it used to be. How come it isn't anymore?"
In defense of the famous author, historians remind us of the 5th century CE regulation of Pope Leo the Great: "The one who governs all must be chosen by all."
Among many other texts, Scripture scholars point to the obvious implications of today's gospel pericope. In an era in which people lived in tightly structured, hierarchical societies, a religious movement appeared which insisted on the equality and dignity of all its members. To say the least, early Christianity was counterculture. Those who study the first Christian communities tell us that one of the main reasons people converted to this new religion revolved around the importance each individual experienced when he or she committed themselves to imitating Jesus' dying and rising. They themselves became "other Christs," equal members of the communities to which they belonged.
Long before Jesus, the classic Hebrew prophets also condemned anyone - especially leaders - who treated others with disdain. In today's Ezekiel pericope, for instance, we hear the prophet promise those crushed down by unfeeling leaders that one day Yahweh will break into their oppressed lives and actually "shepherd" them. "'I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest;' says Yahweh God.’ The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.'"
Paul carries God's promise to care for all one step further. He reminds his Corinthian community in chapter 15 that whatever happened to the risen Jesus will happen to them. If he died, they'll die; if he rose, they'll rise. The Apostle first takes the readers back to Genesis. "For just as in Adam all die ..." But then he quickly moves to the present. "... So too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each in proper order: Christ the first fruits; then at his coming, those who belong to Christ." The end result is that "God (will) be all in all!" One can't have more dignity than that!
In today's oft-read gospel passage, Mathew's Jesus is concerned that his followers recognize his presence in all those around them, especially in those most in need. It's precisely when we reach out to the needy that we're reaching out to the risen Jesus. "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me!"
Growing up Catholic, I was frequently reminded I should recognize the uniqueness of our parish priests. They were the other Christs among us. Only much later did I discover that I, as a priest, am another Christ not because of what happened to me on December 16, 1964 in Rome's St. Peter's basilica, but because of what happened to me on February 11,1940 in St. Mary's church, when I was baptized.
We usually have little pity for the "goats" in today's gospel who "go off to eternal punishment" for refusing to surface the risen Jesus in the needy around them. But perhaps we should have a little more pity for some of us Christian leaders - other Christs - who, because of present church structures, find it difficult to find Jesus in those other Christs whom we're privileged to lead. Our inability to do what Jesus expects of all Christians might be the biggest "need" we Catholics have in this day and age. Why can't we again become what we once were?