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(Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B): This homily was given at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. on February 9, 1997 by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23.)

A great saint once said, “In what is essential, there must be unity; in what is not essential, there may be diversity; but in all things there should be charity.” I thought of this quote when I was reflecting on today’s second reading–this passage from 1 Corinthians, chapter 9. Let me read this section of Scripture to you again–in it’s entirety–including a couple of verses that were left out of the lectionary. St. Paul writes:

Although I am not bound to anyone, I made myself the slave of all so as to win over as many as possible. I became like a Jew to the Jews in order to win the Jews. To those bound by the law I became like one who is bound (although in fact I am not bound by it), that I might win those bound by the law. To those not subject to the law I became like one not subject to it (not that I am free from the law of God, for I am subject to the law of Christ), that I might win those not subject to the law. To the weak I became a weak person with a view to winning the weak. I have made myself all things to all men in order to save at least some of them. In fact, I do all that I do for the sake of the gospel in the hope of having a share in its blessings.

“St. Paul, great apostle to the gentiles, we need more people like you in the Church today. In fact, we desperately need more men and women like you in the Catholic Church of the 1990’s. I say that, St. Paul, because you understood that very important distinction between what is essential and what isn’t. You were clear in your mind about what was essential to the Catholic Christian faith, and what was not essential. In today’s Church, unfortunately, that understanding is not as common as it should be. And it’s causing many problems in the Body of Christ.”

Fr. Ray, what are you talking about? What are you getting at?

Well, let’s go back to the first quote I shared with you: “In what is essential, there must be unity.” This means, quite simply, that in matters of faith and morals, we are not free to decide for ourselves what’s right and wrong. The essentials of the faith are objectively true. They have been revealed to us by God. These essentials are found in Scripture and in the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. And they cannot be changed. Consequently, they’re not true because I say they’re true or because the Pope says they’re true or because the majority says they’re true. They’re true because they are. Which means that they’re there is supposed to be unity–full unity in the Body of Christ on these matters. (In what is essential, there must be unity.) But regarding those things which do not fit into this category, there may be diversity in opinion and in practice.

Now the reason I said that we need more people like St. Paul around today is because of the fact that Paul was able to separate accurately the essentials from the non-essentials. Which is what our second reading today illustrates so beautifully. Remember what was going on when Paul wrote these words to the people of Corinth: Some Jewish converts to Christianity were telling prospective gentile converts that they had to observe all the precepts of the Old Testament law of Moses. What’s the big deal about that, you ask? Well, gentlemen, if you were a first century uncircumcised male who was thinking about becoming a Christian, and you were told that before you could be accepted into the Church you’d have to be circumcised–how anxious would you be to go under the knife? Remember, circumcision was the external sign of God’s covenant with Moses. Personally, I’d think twice before I said “Amen” to that procedure! But it was not only circumcision. These Jewish converts were telling gentiles that they had to observe all the ritual and dietary laws of the Old Testament if they wanted to be a part of the Church.

St. Paul knew better. (Thank God St. Paul knew better–right guys?) Paul rightly understood that living out the ritual prescriptions of the Mosaic law was optional. If individuals wanted to do it, that was fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with their faithfulness to Christ. But it was not essential! Paul himself did observe the prescriptions of the Mosaic law when he was evangelizing the Jews, because he knew they would listen to him more attentively if he did. As he says in that text, “I became like a Jew to the Jews in order to win the Jews. To those bound by the law I became like one who is bound (although I am in fact not bound by it), that I might win those bound by the law.”

However Paul didn’t observe these Mosaic rituals when he was evangelizing gentiles. Listen again to what he says in the very next sentence–and pay particular attention to the important qualification he makes in the middle of it: “To those not subject to the law I became like one not subject to it (not that I am free from the law of God, for I am subject to the law of Christ), that I might win those not subject to the law.” See how clear Paul was? He says, in effect, “I don’t need to observe the ritual laws of Moses–those are not essential. But I am bound by the law of God, the law of Jesus Christ! That I am not free to disregard! Accepting that in it’s fullness is essential–for me–and for everyone else.”

I had an interesting thought when I was preparing this homily. If St. Paul were alive today and ministering as a bishop in the Church, he would probably write another letter–another epistle–and call it, “The Letter to the Catholics–especially the Cafeteria Catholics (i.e. those who like to ‘pick and choose’ which doctrines they accept).” And in his correspondence, he would no doubt address this very timely issue. He’d probably say something like this: “My fellow Catholics, members of the Body of Christ, some things don’t change in 2,000 years. Unfortunately, many of the problems I dealt with in the Corinthian church still exist. And now they’ve spread throughout the world. Confusion is rampant, because people often get essentials and non-essentials all mixed up. Therefore, every Catholic must take it upon himself (or herself) to learn to distinguish one set of ideas from the other. In this regard, every Catholic should own a Bible. Every Catholic should own a New Catechism. And every Catholic should read them both!!! In this way, every Catholic will realize, for example, that believing in something like limbo is not essential. [That may surprise some of us, but the Church teaches that belief in limbo is optional–and it always has.] In this way, every Catholic will also realize that belief in private revelations–even the ones approved by the Church–is optional. And in this way, no Catholic will deny any of the defined doctrines of the faith. No Catholic, for example, will deny the existence of purgatory or hell. No Catholic will accept the idea of women priests. No Catholic will deny the sinfulness of abortion or euthanasia or artificial birth control or sex outside of marriage. That’s because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, through his Church, has spoken definitively on all these matters and many others like them. This is the gospel that I, Paul, preach. This is the gospel I have always preached.”

Then, at the end of the letter, the great saint would probably quote Jesus himself. He’d write something along these lines: “Jesus once said, ‘the truth shall make you free.’ But the truth can only make us free, if we know what the truth is, and live accordingly. By the grace of God, may we all make the sincere effort to know it clearly, and live it faithfully. Amen.”

Father Raymond Suriani served as associate and pastor of Saint Pius X 
Church in Westerly from 1988 to 2016. Upon retirement, he remains 
active in the parish for masses, confessions etc.

Visit his blog site at Father Ray’s ‘Other’ Corner