MATER ET MAGISTRA: A HOMILY ON THE FEAST OF THE DEDICATION OF ST. JOHN LATERAN BASILICA
Because St. Peter was the first pope of the Catholic Church, it is very easy to think that the basilica of St. Peter in Rome is the cathedral of the pope. Well, it is the basilica of St. John Lateran. For this reason, celebrating this basilica is like celebrating the whole church. It is important to reflect on what the church is to us Her children. Pope John XXIII , on May 15th 1961 wrote an encyclical titled ‘Mater et Magistra’, which is Latin for ‘Mother and Teacher’. Mater is mother and magistra is the word from which we have words like magistrate. A magistrate is a judge who decides on cases. He is a teacher of the law because he decides on who is right and who is wrong. Magistra is also linked to the words master and mistress. Literally, magistra refers to a female teacher, which will be consistent with calling her mother.
In the first reading, we see the church as a true mother. Our mothers, generally speaking, see to our refreshment. The temple in the first reading is seen to have a stream coming from under the temple and flowing eastwards. The east is the direction from which the spirit of God left the temple, and from which the spirit of God returns to the temple. We became members of the church and her children when we were born again and washed in the waters of baptism. This stream of water gives life and refreshment. This water is surely clean and it gives us health also.
One thing that always fascinates me about mothers is that they are able to tell when the child is sick, even when the child is an infant who is not able to speak. That is the tender love of a mother. The stream of water flows and makes good trees to grow. The fruit of this tree is delicious to eat and its leaves medicinal. In this reading we see at least the sacraments of baptism, eucharist and anointing of the sick. These are sacraments of care. We are born again and washed in the waters of baptism, we drink from the stream of God’s abundance, we are fed with Holy Communion and when we are sick, we are anointed with the Oil of the Sick. What more can we ask of a mother. The ministers of the church are not perfect, but that does not take away the personality of the church as a loving and caring mother.
In the gospel, we see another aspect of the church. Jesus acts like a true magistra. In fact, He is more like a father than a female teacher. Jesus sees the people who are using the temple as a place for business and He makes a whip out of some cord, drove them all out of the temple, scatters the money changers’ coins, knocks their tables over and orders them not to turn his father’s house into a market. How is that for people who paint an image of Jesus looking like a sisi. How is that for those who always ask ‘what would Jesus do?’, and by that they try to say that Jesus would accept everything and tolerate everything, even what is unacceptable and intolerable.
Well, Jesus is tender with those who need His tendernes, but he is hard on those who need to be shaken up. Jesus comforts the afflicted, but He equally afflicts the comfortable. Do people still turn the church into a market? For sure. Most churches judge their success by how much money is in their bank account, and this is sad. Many people become priests and pastors as a means of livelihood. Some people talk of church business. True, the church needs money and people should donate generously to the church, but when all we talk about is money and building this and building that, we may be doing that at the expense of building the individual members of the church. We can be so focussed on the physical building that we forget that the true temple is our bodies, meaning ourselves. It is better to have a church, where the bank account is empty and the church building ugly, but full of saints, then to have a beautiful church, rich priest or pastor, rich bank accounts, but with little or no saints. The Church needs saints more than she needs benefactors/benefactresses. A church that needs more benefactors/benefactresses than saints is a church that has lost its way. There is no two ways about that.
The church may look beautiful, but how is the soul of her members? This is why the church is a teacher as well as a judge. The church, like a good mother, should teach her children what is right and wrong, and demand repentance of them when they go wrong. Imagine on a christmas day, a family invites the priest for lunch, but there were not at church for any of the masses. The priest goes there and all he talks about is how delicious the food is. He is not able to ask why they were not in church. Maybe he doesnt care, as long as the food and the envelopes are coming. Another example is someone who is telling the priest all the wrong things he does to make money and the priest is not able to challenge him towards changing his ways. This is a sad reality.
People should be helped towards repentance. This is why we have the sacrament of reconciliation, otherwise known as confession. All we tell people these days is that God loves them and they are doing well. The church can fall into the temptation of becoming a nice sisi. One of the reason why the recent sexual scandals got out of hand was because some persons who are in the position of authority were so nice to just cover everything up. The things we cover up, and are shy to talk about, in the name of being nice, end up blowing up in our faces.
Sometimes we focus on numbers and having members, and there is nothing wrong with that. We think we are doing well because the Church is full. Maybe the opposite is the case. If you tell people the truth, sometimes they leave the church. People leaving the church is not always a sign that the priest is doing badly. Our world does not welcome anybody who is firm and draws the line. We prefer someone who will accept anything and we call him a nice guy. It is better to preach the truth and have few members, than to execute the truth in favour of having a full church.
We may get the impression that being a Mater is opposed to being a magistra. A good mother would give birth, nourish and look after her children, but when her children go wrong, she would also know how to get them to the right track. Sometimes, she may need a whip. This is why God has given to every parent two hands. The right hand is for tenderness and care, while the left hand is for teaching and discipline. One hand without the other is insufficient. Our church is our Mater and our Magistra.