A Cardinal, a Vineyard, Judgement and Holiness

A conker tree still producing fruit
His Emminence Cardinal Levada

On Michaelmas it was my privilege to concelebrate the mass of St Michael and all Angels (as it is called in the Ordinariate Ordo) with His Emminence Cardinal Levada along with the other ordinariate clergy.  The mass was splendid and was celebrated in the seminary chapel.  Although the mass was the common Roman Rite we tried to make it Anglican in the way it was performed. So we sang it with full ritual, singing a few Anglican type hymns but chanting the full setting of the mass. We also used Merbecke's setting for the Our Father.

Much could be written of the lecture Cardinal Levada delivered to the ordinariate clergy.  I will just say that it was wonderful to hear the thoughts both of the Cardinal, his prece of the ARCIC process and the hopes of the Holy Father for the ordinariate. It is clear that it is a significant and new approach to ecumenism by the Holy See.  While talks and reports may continue to still happen, it seems unlikely that any more significant ground can be made this way.  This can hardly be surprising when Anglican governing bodies have gone back on agreements, practicing something different to what they have agreed.  So the vatican's response to Anglicans, who saw how ecumenism has stalled, was the creation of space within the Catholic Church for Anglicans to live truly as Catholics, and also share their particular charisms and traditions, thus enriching the whole Catholic church. It was gratifying to actually hear these things from the lips of the prefect of the congregation of the doctrine of the faith.

27th Sunday per annum

“Why is it that the church seems to be struggling so much? Why is it that we cannot point to our church as a “success” in order to convince people that they should be part of it?” 

One sometimes hears these sorts of questions, and even sometimes think them ourselves. It is of course much easier to invite or even argue that someone should be a part of the church if the church can be seen as a success, or exemplary in all it does. But that is not the case. Critics of the church can so easily find problems with the church: examples of how its members fall very short of the teaching of their Lord. And we might pray to God, ‘why has this happened?’

In the readings of today, we are presented with the image of the vineyard, and are told that this
vineyard is the people of God. God has planted the vineyard, each vine plant he has tended
and encouraged to grow. In the prophecy of Isaiah, despite the efforts of this tending of the
plants, the vines produce fruit that is sour. Nobody likes sour grapes! And in the prophecy
Isaiah says that because of this the vineyard will be laid waste, overgrown and grazed upon. In
the final verse Isaiah makes it plain that what this means is that God, who expected a righteous
people living in the ways He had revealed to them yet finding the opposite, will visit judgement
upon them.
 
Now this sounds very dramatic, especially when we employ the word ‘judgement’. Judgement
is not a popular idea in the modern Christian’s mind despite its Biblical origins. What I think
people are actually rejecting when they say something like,“I don’t like the idea of the judgement of God”, is actually an image of God; they reject an image of a vengeful God who visits punishment on His wayward children for their wickedness.

So how should we view judgement? Judgement is not about revenge on God’s part.
Judgement is simply the consequences of not doing God’s Will - it is the consequence of doing
our own thing and ignoring what God wants for us. So in the context of Isaiah’s prophecy the
downfall of Israel is connected with their lack of faithfulness to God expressed as injustice and
bloodshed. Isaiah’s prophecy reveals to God’s people that the consequence of their infidelity to
God is disaster. In the time of these prophecies the disaster that befalls them is the Babylonian
exile. Despite being God’s special people, their nation is torn apart and their beloved city of
Jerusalem is destroyed, and vast numbers of the people deported into servitude in Babylon.
The lament of God’s people is captured in the psalm of today. In the second stanza, the psalm
asks God with regard to the vineyard, “why have you broken down its walls? It is plucked by all
who pass by, it is ravaged by the boar of the forest, devoured by the beasts of the field.” The
once well tended vineyard has been truly laid waste. This is how the people must have felt -
bewildered by being forsaken by God.
 
In the gospel today, our Lord takes this theme from Isaiah and the psalms and develops it
further as He presents a challenge to the leaders of the Jews in His own time. He likens the
chief priests and elders to tenants of the vineyard. Religious leaders are called to tend the
vineyard for God. Yet these tenants are found to be doing it not for God but for themselves.
They do not want to send the owner of the vineyard His dues, but rather keep it all for
themselves. And Jesus says that this was manifested in bloodshed and injustice against the
prophets, persecuted for speaking God’s word, and is also true for Him, God’s Son. Not only
will they not respect God’s Son, they will actively try to destroy Him.
 
The challenge was aimed at the chief priests but is of course applicable to the church and
especially those of us called to leadership in the church. Later in the first century, the church
would see the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans just as the Babylonians had done
before. But this warning of the parable also applies to the leaders of church today. Anyone who
takes on leadership in the church does so knowing that if they fail to tend the vine and allow
it to produce sour grapes or fails to produce fruit at all, will have to answer for this. I was very
conscious in my own ordination of the weight of the responsibility one is asked to bear. But it is
not just true for clergy but also those who are catechists, eucharistic ministers, or lead the music group. If by our words or actions we inhibit their growth in faith, then we will have to face the judgement. Those of us with responsibility in the church need your prayers.
 
But let us not think that this parable could only apply to leaders - it is tempting for the laity
to think it only applies to the clergy, the clergy to think it applies to the bishops, the bishops
perhaps to the pope...! We all have a share, a responsibility to make sure we are people who
produce the fruit that God wants. And the fruits God wants from us are lives of virtue, of holiness
 
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. (RSV CE)

We might wonder about the church and why it isn’t successful in some way, but the only
measure of success that we should be concerned with is our growth in holiness, in the virtues
St Paul talks about. These virtues might not make us a success in the eyes of the world, and it
might even lead to our persecution, but it does mean we are doing what God wants of us and
producing, by His grace, the fruits He wants us to produce.