A few weeks ago while celebrating Mass at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in Flourtown PA, the reading for the day was from the Gospel of Saint Luke 4:21-31. This was the lectionary reading from the Sunday before my Monday morning CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) class that I am taking at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. This CPE class is for active clergy, and is open to all denominations, but I am the only Catholic Priest in the program.
The Gospel story will have Jesus speaking in the Synagogue near his hometown. He is speaking to the people from the Isaian text and talking about release from imprisonment and giving sight to the blind. I am giving the Morning Prayer on that day for the CPE class. I put on my Stole, stand up and read the Gospel, to my fellow classmates. Most of who are Rabbis, it was quite a morning to behold.
Luke 4:21-35 New International Version (NIV)
21_He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22_All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23_Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24_“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25_I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26_Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27_And there were many in Israel with leprosy[a] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28_All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29_They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30_But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
I am so very thankful to be part of the Old Catholic Church. I love what I do, and know how many people and souls we are touching and helping. The journey for me, was a long one. I fell in love with “Church” and God, the first day of Kindergarten at Sacred Heart Catholic School in northern New Jersey. And even though I knew God was calling me to serve, I would detour a few times, first into a Police uniform for over 20 years trying to be a “peacemaker” and safe lives. I taught college after that and tried to help young students understand the need to serve their fellow citizens; while teaching both Education and Criminal Justice. And after many mistakes and falls, I finally heard God telling me it was time. The message becoming more and more clear, that saving lives is important, but saving souls is more important. It is now 7 years of formation, seminary training, and my third year at Saint Miriam. It is indeed, the road less traveled, and what a trip it has been!
When I shared the Gospel and its message with my Jewish brothers and sisters, I also wondered how much I am still not able to see, and how long I will hold myself within my own self-imposed prison of guilt and unworthiness. I can’t be more thankful for the experience of Saint Miriam and the Old Catholic Church. These are places where everyone is welcome, no matter who you are, what you have done, or whom you love. This ever-changing journey of faith I seem to find myself on, can be an amazing gift from God. But so often I become caught up in the challenges of day-to-day ministry, worried that I am not nearly good enough to be doing this work, and constantly perplexed by the lack of faith of so many people, as well as the lack of compassion of the church itself throughout the world. I wonder why this gift of faith is not working all the time, why so many are drifting away, and hoping I do not become one of them.
The passage I read on that day in CPE class, the one I read to a congregation the day before, so often has been used as a tool to separate different faiths and believers. When I was a boy the Gospel would so often be interpreted and used to condemn people of the Jewish faith as the first attempt to silence and stop Jesus. What a terrible injustice to the great nation of Israel, but also to so many of my dear friends, many of whom, through their Rabbinate continue to save the world and a community of believers. How terrible the Roman Church could be and sadly still is to so many people within the margins of society, and how can I still be so dedicated to my own Catholicism? The answer is clear, because we in the Old Catholic tradition, we at Saint Miriam, know the call to welcome all, no matter what!
Reflecting upon these sacred words, I wonder if the message is simply one about the blindness all of us may have, or well maybe just me, when it comes to faith. The words we all speak, but especially those that I am called to speak while wearing a Roman Collar, are supposed to be not only based on truth, but I think need to ignite passion as well. The words of Jesus caused a community to nearly push him off a cliff. I can find myself among that crowd at the Synagogue; I can see myself today, resistant to hearing words that challenge me. And maybe in a way, I worry that my words can cause people to want to push me off a cliff; or even in a way, if I should be striving for that?
What path to God are you on today? What message do you bring to the faithful when you share the Gospel of Jesus. The message, is a simple one, to love one another and to bring people closer to Christ. Churches have been trying to do this for thousands of years, and sadly, the pews keep getting emptier. Maybe the words of Karri Egan, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and Hospital Chaplain…can help us to see a different path to think about. “We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully – just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.”
I worry, that the Church itself could be in danger of dying as well as those we are called to minister to. There is so much in my world that is imperfect, harsh, and sometimes even downright destructive. Some are just forces of nature, fate, and sadly some are from my own doing. The people in the Old Catholic Church and at Saint Miriam, teach me what God is supposed to be. All of you are examples, in words and deeds of what forgiveness needs to be. The missteps and mistakes I have made along my journey are far too many to count. But my faith, and all of you, especially my Bishop James St. George are helping me to see that, and to see the need to leave the past where it belongs, in the past. And in doing so, to look and strive for a better tomorrow for me, for all of you, and maybe if we are lucky, even the world itself! I took the road less traveled to find God, the path of the Old Catholic Church, and that has made all the difference!
(The Rev.) Father Joseph Ciccone, Ed.D., M.Div. is the Parochial Vicar at Saint Miriam Parish & Friary in Flourtown, PA. Fr. Joseph is a retired New Jersey Police Commander, College Professor, an LGBTQ Equality and Social Justice Advocate and graduate of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, ’13.