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Catholic Voice

 June 21, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Commentary

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Stewardship means living the way God created us to be
 
Touching our loved ones inside the Body of Christ
 
Stewardship means living
the way God created us to be

One of the developments to come out of the Second Vatican Council is stably constituted bodies of consultation to provide for collaboration in decision-making on an ongoing basis. One such body is the Diocesan Pastoral Council, a representative group of people — mostly lay — from throughout the diocese to assist the bishop in discerning the pastoral needs of the diocese and proposing plans and strategies for addressing them.

Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone

I am very grateful to the members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council here in the Diocese of Oakland, who have been a great resource in helping us implement our five-year strategic plan. The Council has determined that, of the five diocesan pastoral plan goals, stewardship is the one we should focus on for this year, since it has the most potential of making an immediate practical impact on parish life.

This recommendation coincidently confirms what I am learning from parishioners and parish leadership during my visits to the parishes. The right goal at the right time is perhaps the best way to summarize the DPC’s recommendation.

A workshop on the theology of stewardship has already been presented to our priests, and another in-service has been offered to personnel working in the central services of the chancery office. Additional workshops are presently being conducted for parish leadership in the various regions of the diocese. All of these presentations are based on the pastoral letter on stewardship to the Church in the United States issued by the U.S. bishops some years ago.

In this letter the bishops describe a steward as follows: “A Christian steward is one who receives God’s gifts gratefully, cherishes and tends them in a responsible and accountable manner, shares them in justice, and returns them with increase to the Lord.”

The very word “steward” already implies the essence of the spirituality of stewardship, which is the practical way that Christians live out their faith in the world. That is, what we have is not our own; rather, everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, is on loan to us from God to give back to Him as a gift.

In the Book of Genesis, God took the couple and put them in the Garden to “till it and tend it”, not to abuse it and not even to treat it as their own. This is really the theological foundation for stewardship. We do not “own” this world. It is for our good use and we are to care for it as good managers.

This is a Scriptural teaching and value that is not generally accepted in our American society and culture. It is contrary to our American work ethic and presumptions: “it all depends on me”; “if I work hard then I deserve all I have because I earned it.”

In fact, this is not the Christian view. We view all things of this world, everything we have, including our very lives and their length, our skills, our money, all our possessions, as gifts from God. Even the things we gain through our own hard work have come to us because we used wisely the gifts of good health and intelligence God has given us.

We are to manage all of God’s gifts wisely, to give Him glory and contribute to the common good; we are to be stewards of these gifts, and we will be held accountable for how we have used them when the “Owner” returns at the end of our lives.

I would make four brief specific points about stewardship.

Stewardship should be an expression of gratitude.

When you say “thank you” to someone, you do so because you are grateful for something they have done for you and given to you. That is pretty basic, yet sometimes we fail to acknowledge that God has done something for us and given us something. In fact, God has given us everything, “the world and its fullness”, as the Scriptures tell us.

So by practicing stewardship, we acknowledge that God is the author and giver of all we have. And we express our gratitude, not because God needs our thanks or that God gains anything from it, but because we need to be grateful.

Stewardship should be planned.

The decision to practice stewardship is just that — a decision. It requires thought, time and reflection so that it may be integrated with the other decisions of our lives. It should be part of a careful, intentional and prayerful response to God’s generosity. If we say and believe that God is important in our lives, then He deserves the time and the reflection it takes to make sure our response and gift are appropriate.

Stewardship should be practical.

It is easy to say “yes” to the Lord in the abstract. Perhaps everyone reading this column, if asked, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” would respond, “yes”. But would our response be obvious to someone observing us?

St. James reminds us: “What good is it to profess faith without putting it into practice? Such faith is useless.” The invitation to follow Jesus had very practical and immediate effects on the lives of the first disciples. When it comes to Time, Talent, and Treasure, it should have similar immediate and practical effects in our lives as well.

Stewardship should be proportionate.

Part of our planning is that we give back to God the “first fruits,” those gifts given first, not last. We don’t give God the “leftovers” after all of our obligations and wants have been satisfied. We don’t give God a “tip” because he has done a “good job”! Our grateful gift should come from our substance, not our excess.

Again, not because God needs our gift but because we need to put God first in our lives, and there is no better way to show and do that than to give back to God the first and the best.

Obviously, a disposition and perspective that sees all we have as coming from and ultimately belonging to God radically changes our view of ourselves, our accomplishments, our world and our talents, and thus the way we live and even the way we pray. That is why a true understanding and practice of stewardship can have such a radical effect on the way we live our lives.

In essence, stewardship means living the way God created us to be: giving for others, with generosity and gratitude. It is what you do after you say “I believe.”

It is the way we practically live out the implications of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus by putting our love into practical action. This is what leads to true and lasting happiness, and that, ultimately is what God most wants for us: to be happy with Him forever.

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Touching our loved ones inside the Body of Christ

Twenty-eight years ago, I wrote a piece that I entitled “Binding and loosing inside the Body of Christ.” Among all the things I’ve ever written, I have probably received the most feedback on this.

What is the concept? How can we bind and loose each other inside the Body of Christ? Here are the essential lines:

Imagine you are a parent who has a child who no longer goes to church, no longer prays, no longer observes the Church’s moral commandments, no longer respects your faith, and is perhaps even openly agnostic or atheistic. What can you do?

You can continue to pray for them and you can live out your own faith convictions, hoping that the example of your life will have power where your words are ineffectual. You can do that, but you can do more:

You can continue to love and forgive them and insofar as they receive that love and forgiveness they are receiving love and forgiveness from God. Your touch is God’s touch. Since you are part of the Body of Christ, when you touch them Christ is touching them. When you love them Christ is loving them. When you forgive them Christ is forgiving them because your touch is the Church’s touch.

Part of the wonder of the incarnation is the astonishing fact that we can do for each other what Jesus did for us. Jesus gives us that power: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. . . . Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven.”

If you are part of the Body of Christ, when you forgive someone, he or she is forgiven.

If you love someone, he or she is being loved by Christ because the Body of Christ is not just the body of Jesus but is also the body of believers.

To be touched, loved, and forgiven by a member of the body of believers is to be touched, loved, and forgiven by Christ.

Hell is possible only when someone has put himself completely out of the range of love and forgiveness so as to render himself incapable of being loved and forgiven. And this is not so much a question of rejecting explicit religious or moral teaching as it is of rejecting love as it is offered among the community of the sincere.
Put more simply:

If someone whom you love strays from the Church in terms of faith, practice and morality, as long as you continue to love that person and hold him or her in love and forgiveness, he or she is touching the “hem of Christ’s garment,” is being held to the Body of Christ, and is being forgiven by God, irrespective of his or her official external relationship to the Church.

How?

They are touching the Body of Christ because your touch is Christ’s touch. When you touch someone, unless that person actively rejects your love and forgiveness, he or she is relating to the Body of Christ.

And this is true even beyond death. If someone close to you dies in a state which, externally at least, has him or her at odds with the visible Church, your love and forgiveness will continue to bind that person to the Body of Christ and will continue to offer forgiveness to that individual, even after death.

G.K. Chesterton once expressed this in a parable:

“A man who was entirely careless of spiritual affairs died and went to hell. And he was much missed on earth by his old friends. His business agent went down to the gates of hell to see if there was any chance of bringing him back. But though he pleaded for the gates to be opened, the iron bars never yielded.

“His priest also went and argued: ‘He was not really a bad fellow; given time he would have matured. Let him out, please!’ The gate remained stubbornly shut against all their voices.

“Finally his mother came; she did not beg for his release. Quietly, and with a strange catch in her voice, she said to Satan: ‘Let me in.’ Immediately the great doors swung open upon their hinges. For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the dead.”

In the Incarnation, God takes on human flesh — in Jesus, in the Eucharist, and in all who are sincere in faith. The incredible power and mercy that came into our world in Jesus is still with us, at least if we choose to activate it. We are the Body of Christ.

What Jesus did for us, we can do for each other. Our love and forgiveness are the cords that connect our loved ones to God, to salvation, and to the community of saints, even when they are no longer walking the path of explicit faith.

Too good to be true? Yes, surely. But how else to describe the mystery of the Incarnation!

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website.)

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