On Dec. 16, 1964, my family had to detour around 2,500 Vatican II Council benches to reach the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica for my ordination. Beginning my ministry during a period in which centuries of reform dreams were being fulfilled was an incomparable blessing.

That's why, in some sense, I can identify with the authors of Sunday's three readings. Each lives at a time their ancestors in the faith could only dream about. Yet, like myself, each discovers that, through the externals of faith have been reformed, real reform has touched the heart and mind of only a small group of individuals.

Failures

Malachi, for instance, is actually living in Jerusalem! The Babylonian Exile ended in a generation or two before. The temple is rebuilt; priests are stepping into authority positions. What could be better?

Yet, things aren't going as planned (Mal 3: 19-20). The "proud and all evildoers" whom Yahweh will turn into stubble and set on fire are the very people whom Malachi thought should be leading the Jews to glory. As Sister Mary Margaret Pazdan says in the Collegeville Bible Commentary, "priests were irresponsible leaders, failing to correct abuses."

Malachi's one hope is that at least a few individuals will "fear Yahweh's name" and be healed by "the sun of justice." He now understands that only a reformed heart will bring about a reformed faith.

Paul experiences a similar phenomenon (2 Thes 3: 7-12). Having created a series of Christian communities by his preaching and hard work, he also sees his plan failing apart. In the Apostle's mind, nothing better symbolized a commitment to the risen Jesus' presence than love-filled, communal living. Yet, in Thessalonica, one of his oldest communities, Paul must confront something which, left unchecked, will destroy the church he brought into existence.

"We hear," he writes, "that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others." These people are using the community's generosity for their own selfish ends.

"We instructed you," Paul reminds is readers, "that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat." How could something begun with such optimism be reduced to the nitty-gritty of worrying about freeloaders?

Writing 25 years after Paul's death, Luke likewise sees the hope generated by Jesus' faith ground into dust by rumors of His return (Lk 21: 5-19). Some were trying to sidetrack the faithful, claiming "I am he!" and "The time has come!"

Working hard

Luke's community has also experienced horrible persecutions. Jesus' words about people being "handed over by parents, brothers, relations and friends" have already come true. Members of a movement which started 50 years before with much joy and expectation, now nod their heads in agreement with the statement, "You will be hated by all because of my name!"

No wonder Luke ends the reading with Jesus' assurance, "By your perseverance, you will secure your lives." The salvation Jesus achieved will only be attained by those willing to work for it.

In a recent Call to Action conference, theologian Anthony Padavano offered a reflection which can serve as a commentary on these readings.

Reminiscing about his Council expectations and disappointments, he stated, "It was great to have been part of such an era in human and Church history. It is, after all, life itself which breaks our hearts and mends them, not a particular moment in history....At any point in which we went the river of life, we may find that the currents are different....It is not possible to find an ideal place to enter the river. In any case, the river runs to the same sea. It is there that we find God who teaches us to look back on the journey with joy....If the passage was more difficult for one of us than the other, for such a person the same is more splendid."

(11-15-01)