The pope has been in the news a lot lately. He was recently talking about the upcoming year of mercy, which begins on December 8 in honor of my birthday the following day. (Actually, it’s the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican Council 2…) The pope announced earlier this week that any priest this year of mercy is able to forgive the sin of abortion. Here’s what’s behind that. There are certain sins known as “reserved sins.” These things can only be forgiven by the Apostolic See, or in some cases the local bishop. Why are they reserved? Because they carry with them excommunication—which is not a punishment but a serious call to reform. The list is short, don’t worry, and most of it deals with us priests. If I blow the sacramental seal, or if I and another priest are in cahoots in some murder. There is a list of this stuff. Three things deal with lay folks: profaning the eucharist, being a schismatic, and procuring an abortion. Do these things and you’re excommunicated. These things carry with them what is called “latae sententiae.” In English it means “Sentence already passed.” There is a never a moment when any of these things can be okay. Never. So what Pope Francis was saying was that this year of mercy, every priest can absolve the sin of abortion and lift the excommunication that goes with it. Now our bishop, like all bishops in the country, has already given permission for every priest in good standing to be able to absolve abortion and lift the excommunication, but there are places around the world where this is not the case, so this year of mercy will be a happy moment for many souls to find their way back to God. So that’s what all that was about.
But I want to think for a moment about another line from the Pope. He recently said, “God never closes off horizons.” This is the message of our readings today. Isaiah in the first reading talks about those whose hearts are frightened, those who for whatever reason feel their horizons were pretty bleak, pretty austere. Isaiah has a nice litany about the power of God. When he comes, Isaiah says….
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.
All these things….they are examples of how God opens up horizons to us that seemed to be closed to us, beyond reach, locked off. The blind never thought they’d be able to see again, then sight. The deaf never thought they’d be able to hear again, but then hearing. The desert never thought it’d see a drop of water, but then a stream. I think we all suffer some blindness, some deafness, some hunger, some thirst. We all have some desert in us and in our lives. It’s tempting sometimes to think that there is no future beyond whatever crisis I’m in. Maybe some are dealing with a bad health report or a lost job, a broken relationship. Who knows. We all have something. There is a horizon beyond it. There were days before our present crisis and there will be days after it. There is a happy horizon in front of us. That is something to celebrate!
The Gospel has a similar theme as Isaiah. There we also find some deaf and blind folks. What they suffered was pretty bad. Of course there was the difficulty of not being able to see or hear. But there was also the bigger pain: being separated from the community. Blindness and deafness, these were seen as punishments for bad living, so anybody who suffered from them must be a horrible sinner, the thinking was. So they were isolated, cast off to suffer alone. But Jesus heals them. Why? James tells us why. He says there are to be no distinctions among us, that no one is meant to be cut off from the horizon that is life with God in the church. We often make such distinctions to keep people out. But that isn’t how things are meant to be. Fr. Rick Nagel spoke to the priests recently and said one day, at daily Mass, the CEO of Lily was in his communion line while, at the same moment, a homeless man was in the line next to him. This is the Church. As James Joyce said, “Here comes everybody.” That is the Church. Just as there are no divisions in heaven (there is not a Hispanic heaven, a white heaven, a black heaven, a rich people heaven, etc), there are to be no distinctions here on earth either. No one ought to be cut off from the greatest horizon there is—Christ’s body the Church!
Today, we thank God for the horizons he has in store of us, especially life with him, in his body the Church.