Last autumn I attended the annual priest convocation for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. Most of the agenda was focused on the new translation of the Roman Missal. We gathered in a familiar setting near the ocean and the structure of the week was similar to previous years. I overheard many priests express their anxiety about the new translation and how it would be received in their parishes. I heard many others speaking of the week simply as a time to relax and talk with one another. The view of the ocean through the window that led to the meeting room seemed a compelling enough reason to me to be present at the convocation.
We did receive an education about the translation of the Roman Missal. We listened to words of many of the presider’s prayers and people’s responses. We discussed our responsibility for implementing the changes. We discussed the need for more education about the liturgy in every worshipping community. However, these are not the issues that I found powerful and provocative about the meeting.
We adjourned for a fifteen-minute break after the last session on the new translation of the liturgy. The meeting then turned quickly to another topic. We reconvened to learn more about the dire topic of human trafficking. The sex trade in Portland is so bad that city officials asked the Archbishop if they could address all the priests of the Archdiocese. Portland is the place for pimps. The sex trade has found its home along the Interstate 5 freeway because Portland is readily accessible to Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. We learned how easily young high school girls are solicited in our local suburban malls by conniving johns. Pimps lure teenage girls into prostitution who seem timid or shy, who wander the mall looking lost, forgotten and in need of attention. These men may find such girls after school walking alone in a mall or a city sidewalk. Most often the young girls do not get along with their parents. They are easy targets for a john who promises freedom from parental authority, offers many material possessions and entices her with a chance to travel.
It took me more than a few minutes to make the mental transition from the Roman Missal to local prostitution. I could not comprehend the vulnerability of these young women and the brutality of their johns. In stunned silence we viewed a PowerPoint presentation on prostitution. The attention of every person in the room was directed on the horrifying statistics of poverty, neglect, abuse and prostitution. I realized during that meeting with my fellow priests how many people are lost amidst our inability to translate our faith into the real issues of life.
As we reflect on the liturgical gospels for the Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time until the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, I understand once again the connection of translating the gospel message into the messiness of real life. People need a second chance from the landowner who wants to hire workers for the vineyard. Those of us who listen to the gospels every weekend in the comfort of our sanctuaries must be able to welcome people who come to faith even in the eleventh hour. The addict from the suburbs speaks to me on the phone because he wants yet another chance to keep his children after experiencing a weekend blackout. God’s invitation supersedes our rigid rules and certain limits about who is worthy to receive a daily wage. The last will be first and the first will be last.
I hear the gospel of the son hesitating to work in the vineyard when I experience my own uncertainty accepting the smelly veteran or the woman who has stolen from us. I cannot put limits on people’s response to God and to the invitation to believe in miracles. Our worshipping communities must not write off people we label as lost, mentally ill, dirty, abused or people who just feel they do not belong. Everyone belongs within the mercy of God even when we wait until the eleventh hour to believe in God’s invitation.
Jesus tells us that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of other people. I see this with my own eyes in our parish community. The lives of the marginalized and destitute form our humble worship every day. This is the real, honest and genuine translation of the liturgy that our faith must be lived in real life. I realize my hesitancy to accept the girl who continues to cut her self and the one-tooth man with halitosis. Even when I am most tired, I hold on the holy words of Jesus to believe that God still loves our broken world.
The real translation of the Mass in every generation invites every person to the feast. From the byroads of Interstate 5 to the back roads of city alleys, the feast is always ready for everyone to attend. We gather with friends and strangers alike, filling our sanctuaries. The liturgy sends us out into the world to translate bread and wine into the living Body of Christ.