When I was a child, our family frequently visited the farm in Northern Illinois run by my Mother’s people. One of the rituals of departure was standing at the back porch and hearing the litany of names to whom greetings should be sent. This of course was B.C. (before computers). Sending letters was rare and making long-distance calls even rarer. (If phone calls occurred at all, they would happen only during the weekends when the rates dropped). I can imagine St. Paul running out of some house after dictating his letter, standing on the back porch, and listing all the people he wants to thank. The litany of names listed by Paul is not only a homey touch to a very theological letter but it also points to the community of friends which comprised the early church. Paul’s letter to the Roman’s stands as a profound theological testament, one that has served as a great commentary of our faith. Its ending also helps remember that the community of the faithful is a very human one and those members of the mystical body of Christ who are alone or infirm perhaps would enjoy a telephone call or visit.
Today is Martin Luther’s Birthday. No little publicity has come about this year noting the 500th anniversary of his famous 95 theses. Mistakenly, some have identified this as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but this error is quickly refuted by the recognition of the presence of reforming movements prior to Luther’s thesis, including the important role of female reformers such as Catherine of Genoa and Catherine of Sienna. As we move forward in advancing the Kingdom of Christ, we should heed well the guidance of Ignatius and move to what we have in common instead of jumping to what separates us. Conversation about our Catholic faith with non-Catholics should begin with listening to the stories of others and commending them on what is good and true in their own lives of faith. Matteo Ricci wisely noted the importance of friendship and trust in the conversion to Catholicism and in our efforts to share our faith we would be well-advised to follow his example.
Today we celebrate and recall with great affection all of you who have been generous patrons of the works of the Church. Why? Catholicism is a religion which sets its tent among the people of God. That “tent” can be a hospital, a school, a shelter for the homeless, or a University. St. John Lateran was built by Constantine after the persecutions of the previous emperor Diocletian. This is more than a church, it is a manifesto which proclaims and continues to proclaim that God’s continued work in Christ in union with the Holy Spirit is not just some fly-by-night operation, instead it is here to stay to the end of time. Of course brick and mortar is not the Church, but it helps to take a stand in world that frequently rejects the God-given dignity allotted to every individual. The importance of the brick and mortar reality of the Catholic Church is no better argued than the fact that countries who are against religious freedom will not allow churches to be built. We can never substitute the living witness of Christ for a bigger and better building, but those buildings inhabited by men and women of faith can be all the difference for the world.
A temptation has always existed to reduce religion to the lowest common denominator. This is a movement we can all agree upon and subsequently avoid ceaseless and unnecessary squabbles about technical aspects of doctrine or issues of authority. It is tempting to look at today’s reading from Paul’s epistle to the Romans and consider it a simplistic solution to the complexities of religious practice: Love your neighbor as yourself. We often desire simple solutions for complex problems. If all I ever needed to know in life was learned at day care in a sandbox, we would be awfully short of surgeons and pilots. Life is complex and the answer, of course, is love. However, how that love is given, that is, what is best for a person, a family, or a community, requires no little knowledge of frequently complex situations and resources. We can stand with Paul in understanding the importance of Love, but we also know that complexities of life frequently demand more than simplistic responses and pithy one-liners.
In today’s epistle taken from the Letter to the Romans, Paul admonishes the Christian inhabitants of the Eternal City in which those graced with the various gifts of the Holy Spirit should express these gifts. One of the recommendations is that acts of mercy should be done with cheerfulness. Nothing could provide a greater contrast to the dour and sever distribution of charity described by Charles Dickens in such novels as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol than the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her recommendation to begin every encounter with a smile since a smile begins the encounter with love takes great courage. When we think of what Mother Teresa encountered in her life, we are amazed at her great courage and resolve, especially being able to smile in the face of great tragedy, and especially the courage it takes to smile with only 10 teeth. Inspired by St. Teresa of Calcutta, we do what we can with what we have to bring about the kingdom of God.
Perhaps there is no greater presence of social land mines than the dinner party or the fund raising event in which people need to be seated at tables numbered from 1-100. Oh the agony that goes into deciding who sits at the table numbered with single digits, who sits below freezing (below table 32) or where you put people like myself who usually end up at body temperature, around table 98, seated with the photographer’s spouse and an older Jesuit whose fond memories stop around 1987. Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel that at least on some occasions we need to mix it up with some people that normally would not even be invited into the room. It would be remiss of me to ridicule the fund raiser or the benefit auction. After all, Catholic education and various Catholic institutions need money and it would be likewise remiss of me not to remember the great kindnesses shown to our institutions by so many people who make tremendous financial sacrifices to promote education and health care. Today’s gospel reminds us that among our many kinds of works, we need to spend some time, just time, with the simple, the confused, the ignorant, and the poorly dressed.
The gospel admonition that we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing provides a paraphrase of today’s gospel. Jesus reprimands those who seek honors, recalling that dignities received often are the first step in separating and tearing apart the fabric of the human community. So often we are placed in difficult situations when the well-being of an organization or development of a program is based on publicity. Instead of the left hand being ignorant of the right hand’s activity, in most cases the left hand holds a video camera to document every act the right hand is doing. And yet the gospel does ask that our light should be put on a stand for all to see. Of course, the solution to this apparent contradiction may rest in answering the question what exactly is being illumined. Or, to phrase the question in a grammatical context, who is the subject of the sentence? In the missionary reports of the Jesuits during the first centuries of the order’s existence, credit always went to God when a success was achieved and sinful human behavior provided the reason for failure. Although these literary devices may not pass muster today, they do point to an important tendency of the early Jesuits to give Glory to God, who in turn returns that glory to us in the love of his son’s Sacred Heart.
The recent revelations about the Society of Jesus holding and selling slaves may give an unbalanced view of the Jesuits and their work among different types of people. The story of the Jesuit’s relation in terms of race, and the very use of the term inaugurates all sorts of problems, is a complex but in many cases an inspiring story. Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), a Jesuit who spent decades of his life working and caring for the slaves who came to port in Cartagena, Columbia. Joined in spirit by his Jesuit brothers throughout the globe, these faithful Jesuits saw no distinction in color and heritage but instead saw each and every person as sanctified and redeemed by the blood of Christ. Perhaps the most beautiful understanding of differences in race was painted by the Jesuit Andrea Pozzo in the late 17th century for the Church of St. Ignatius, the “student chapel” for the great Roman College. In this vast view of the heavens portrayed by Pozzo, the four corners of the ceiling are populated by various peoples from Asia, Africa, the New World, and Africa. All these nations are portrayed in their native dress (or lack thereof) and all move in equal space and time towards Jesus carrying the cross. The message to the students at the College was clear: the salvific work of Christ is for all men and women and difference made no difference. The Jesuit story dealing with race is marked with light and shadow but today’s saint certainly shines as one of our greatest lights.
Of course we really don’t know the exact day when Mary was born, but if we hold that Jesus was born of Mary and Mary was human then she had a birthday. Although much in Catholic tradition about Mary may appear as decorative ornament, these stories usually point to the firm foundation of the truths about Mary and her place in salvation history. From the writings in the gospel describing Mary, through the Council of Ephesus which identified her as the Mother of God. Including the documents of the Second Vatican Council and into recent encyclicals on Mary, such as St. John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater, we find church teaching reiterating this fundamental concept. This concept holds that Mary, through the redemptive work of Christ,responded freely to the work of that divine grace and because of her yes, cooperated in a unique way in God’s plan for salvation. So much can be said about Mary and John Paul ‘s encyclical certainly would merit a careful reading in order to help us understand the magnitude of her place in helping us move towards the Lord. Perhaps the best birthday present we can give is our simple and sometimes awkward attempts at imitating her yes to God.
There is something so exhilarating, so enthralling about today’s gospel describing how Peter, after the miraculous catch of all that fish, dropped everything and followed Jesus. At times, we may be so tempted to drop everything and start fresh, like in the movies when people ran off to the circus or get on horse to ride to Omaha. Unfortunately, because of our commitments to spouse, children, and work, dropping everything and heading to the proverbial west is out of the question. Perhaps today’s gospel can encourage us. Instead of dropping everything, identify just one thing we can drop that will help us move closer to the Lord. Ignatius of Loyola wisely recommends in the “First Week” of the Spiritual Exercises an examination of conscience in which we direct our attention to one fault and work for its eradication. Wise spiritual director that he was, he admonished those who undertook this exercise not to be fooled into thinking more is better. Progress towards spiritual growth comes more surely in small steps, not in vast intentions.