One of my previous pastoral assignments was a very large parish with a growing population. The northern part of the parish was composed of new neighborhoods under development. A few members of the growing population were very vocal about their desire for the Diocese to provide a new parish located in their neighborhood. When (then), Bishop Favalora grew tired of their phone calls he instructed me to establish a mission, and begin to work toward establishing a new parish.
With the help of the Chancery real estate office I located a place to rent for weekend Mass. The mission was an immediate success. We outgrew two rental locations in quick succession. Eventually, the fledgling community moved into the auditorium of a local high school, and filled it with new parishioners.
You can imagine the amount of planning and work that went into establishing first a mission, and then a parish, in a growing area with a somewhat transitory population. The mission had a Saturday Vigil Liturgy, Religious Education for school children, lay liturgical ministers and an active social life among its members.
During the first years of that mission I was contacted by an Episcopalian priest who was trying to establish a new church in the same neighborhood where my parish’s mission was located. He asked what I did to make the Catholic mission so successful; he was struggling to attract parishioners. Jokingly, I responded that Catholics have a high degree of “brand loyalty”; a Catholic parish in any growing neighborhood was bound to be successful because of the strong identification that Catholics have with their faith tradition.
Interestingly, none of the people who had been very vocal about wanting their own Catholic parish were involved in building that new community; when there was work to be done, they were not to be found. The work of building up that mission was done by people who lived in the neighborhood and had been previously involved in the parish where I was pastor. It was a small cohort of active parishioners who shifted their involvement from their home parish to the new mission.
I had fun joking with the Episcopalian priest, but I felt real sympathy for him as well. He didn’t have the benefit of being supported by an established parish; he had to create a new community from nothing. It wasn’t the Catholic “brand loyalty” of those living in that growing neighborhood that made the mission a success; it was the personal faith of a few committed and active believers. This is the point that Jesus tried to make to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading.
If the widow’s action in this story in Mark’s Gospel seems imprudent to you, that’s because it was imprudent. The economy of the society in which Jesus lived was very fragile, and depended on everyone’s efforts to maintain a high degree of stability. The widow’s action of contributing “all she had” (Mark 12:44), to the Temple Treasury would have had two likely consequences: she would have become personally impoverished, and she would have caused instability in the local economy by making herself a financial burden on her family or neighborhood. What the woman did was considered a serious social sin; she had endangered the delicate balance of a subsistence economy.
Jesus marveled at her seemingly unwise behavior (Mark 12:43-44), but saw it as an apt metaphor to describe the life of a faithful disciple. There were many during Jesus’ lifetime who identified passively with their religion, but whose lives remained unchanged by their religious practices. Today’s Gospel reading began with a warning about some of the religious leadership who enjoyed the public recognition associated with devout religious practice but whose piety did not translate into even the slightest concern for those in need. (Mark 12:38-40) According to Jesus, religious practice that does not lead to interior transformation is religious practice devoid of faith.
Most of those who contributed to the Temple Treasury on this day described in the Gospel did so because they felt a certain amount of affinity to their religion and its rituals. Jesus did not criticize their loyalty to their religion, but he did point out that it was insufficient on its own. “Brand loyalty” alone is insufficient to connect us to God because God is not a product or a brand. A living faith that produces a real connection to God, and therefore a life of actual holiness and virtue, is one that results from one’s complete giving of oneself to God. Token gestures, occasional fervor or part-time interest are no more effective than having no faith at all; faith is a way of life rather than an occasional activity.
The widow contributed “her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:44) to the Temple. That wasn’t a wise financial choice, but it was an expression of real faith. What is the measure of your dedication to Jesus? Do you give token attention to Him, or have you given your whole self?