Just over a century ago, in 1917, the renowned Anglican priest and writer Ronald Knox was received into the Catholic Church in a small private ceremony at Farnborough Abbey in Hampshire. Shortly afterwards he wrote a brilliant account of the whole process of his spiritual conversion, entitled A Spiritual Aeneid. In this he remarks that shortly after he was received by the Abbot he reflected that ‘I had just joined the Church of Judas Iscariot’. This phrase probably surprised Knox’ first readers and this may be true of you too: surely the infamous betrayer of Our Lord, here shown kissing him in the well known depiction by Giotto, could never be considered part of the Church?
Well the point is that he was. The Church is made up, and has always been made up, of sinful human beings like you and me – at various times in history the Church has affirmed that it won’t be a body of the ‘pure’ until the end of time; in the meantime we all repeatedly need God’s forgiveness and help. Of course there’s a danger here, of being complacent and fatalistic about sin, the danger of thinking that our nature is fixed and that we can’t lead better lives. We have seen examples in recent weeks of unspeakable sins in the very heart of the Catholic Church in our lifetimes all over the world; it rather looks as if indifference to sin was part of the culture which tolerated this level of abuse of children and young people by priests, Religious and teachers. On the part of some in authority there can’t have been much horror at what had been done.
You might even think that after the last few weeks this summer this weekend is not a good time to remind you of the importance in our parish of our process for preparing and receiving converts into the Catholic Church, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). If we acknowledge, as we must, that these scandals have played a part in causing some people to ‘lapse’ or leave the Church, isn’t it a risky time to invite people to think about becoming Catholics? Well, no. There has never been a time in the history of the Church when there hasn’t been scandal, sinfulness and wickedness, ever since the time of Judas Iscariot.
Being aware of our sinfulness, knowing that we are far from perfect, that we should never think we’re better than others, are central parts of what it means to be a Christian. If you’re reading this and think you might become a Catholic, be clear about this: you will not join a pure or perfect community. Indeed part of what we encounter in the Church is God’s free gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. There aren’t limits to this: we do believe that someone who sincerely repents of the most terrible sins can be forgiven by God: that is why the Church is careful not to lose touch with priests and others who have committed the sins which have come to light, and indeed the Church has never said with authority that we know what happened after his death to Judas Iscariot (in spite of what St Peter says in Acts 1:15ff). Indeed, for some people Christian teaching about forgiveness is something which is particularly hard to accept; perhaps we make it so if we give the impression that it is something easy or cheap.
One of the great things about this parish is the way in which each year we support and prepare adults as they go through the process of joining the Catholic Church through our RCIA programme. A new year in its life is about to begin so we are inviting new enquirers; if you’re reading this you may be a friend or relative of a Catholic in our community at St Edmund’s. We invite people to come along initially simply as enquirers, without any commitment. The initial sessions are simply an opportunity for you to see something of what the Church is about and find out about the RCIA programme.
Christianity is an inherently missionary and evangelistic faith; the need for good RCIA programmes in our parishes is greater than ever as fewer and fewer adults born and reared in this country know anything about the Christian faith. The overall programme gives you an opportunity not only to learn but to ask questions and be open about any problems or anxieties you may have.
In our parish we are all engaged in this process of helping people to convert to Catholicism, not just the members of our RCIA team. First and foremost by our prayer; but also we hope that people who want to come into the church find our community a warm and welcoming place. Also in Lent we have ceremonies which enable all those at Mass to show particular support for those on this programme; and of course the culmination of this show of support is our presence at the Easter Vigil, when the new converts are baptised and confirmed. Please pray this weekend for all in our programme and for people who may be contemplating joining the Catholic Church.