[NOTE: The following is the keynote address given to the Social Ministry Convocation for the Archdiocese of Baltimore on March 7, 2015.]
In the theme of this year’s convocation, “The Joy of the Gospel: Called to Celebrate and Serve,” I find both a challenge and an invitation.
I would like to begin these remarks this morning with a question…
- What is in the Gospel that we are to be filled with joy about?
- What is it that makes the Gospel so attractive and alluring that we cannot but radiate joy?
- Who is this Gospel?
- What is the Gospel…this Good News? I believe the Gospel, this Good News is the selective narrative of one who came as the fulfillment of a promise. It is about Jesus….who he was and is…how he lived his life…what he stood for…and the legacy he left us.
So, who was/is this Jesus? He came as all of us did: through a wrenching, pain-filled birth in a common space in a common alcove in a home in the Middle East, that is Bethlehem, in Palestine.
He was born into a faith-filled family of 2 parents who had no pretensions of being special. Like any first-time parents, he was the joy of their life and, of course, like no other child! To keep him safe from oppression, rumors, and threats from the Roman government and local the foreign occupation of the town from which they came…that is Nazareth, Jesus and his family disappeared for a while, and became immigrants in exile in Egypt for an undetermined amount of time.
Once back in Nazareth, we have no reason to believe that he grew up any differently than any other child within his particular family, his particular culture, in his neighborhood, and as a member of a local community. We do get a glimpse into his pre-teen years when at the age of 12 he disappears from his family, stays in an unfamiliar city and when found by 2 frantic, distraught and not too happy parents, claims rather forcefully and stubbornly that he had to be about his ‘Father’s business’…and is surprised when his parents “don’t get it.”
(Now isn’t that a familiar refrain for those of us who were once teenagers and those of you in the audience who have teenagers…isn’t that a very familiar refrain…you just don’t get it!).
We next see Jesus in Cana at a wedding with his family, unable to figure out why in the world his mother is telling him the wedding party has run out of wine.
There are long gaps in the story of Jesus that we can only guess at. What is clear is that somehow during that time, he developed a vision, an outlook on life that was vital and substantive; that guided him in his life. Jesus’ vision, as well as ours, gets formed from life experiences, from watching and listening to others, from seeing through the eyes of others and finding or observing meaning. A vision is discovered in looking back at the sometimes fragmented and seemingly disjointed events and encounters in our lives and seeing the meaning of life within them.
As a young Jewish boy Jesus learned from his family, from the Temple elders, from studying the Torah and questioning, memorizing, praying, working hard, watching behavior, wondering and finally allowing a vision to emerge alongside a relationship with his God that would guide the whole of his life.
What we know about this vision is that Jesus wanted all that kept people divided from each other to cease. He claimed that truth, mutual respect, and love trumped all other qualities and that justice needed to be restored to the people and the land.
Intuitively he knew he could not actualize this vision alone…he needed co-workers, associates, companions and disciples. He also knew that the rugged individualists who followed him had to have a stake in this vision. So he began to expose them to words, to actions, to meeting all different types of people that they had not related to before…thus making it clear that it did not matter if the people they met were beggars, lepers, sinners, tax collectors, the sick, the wealthy, or the possessed. Whatever their human condition…they were persons who were worthy of being loved, healed, liberated, and released from whatever bound them or stood in the way of their living a fully human life. His apostles and disciples, if they were to follow Jesus, had to get out of their comfort zones, their routines, their mindsets and see things in a new way.
However, Jesus was not without his own biases and he was influenced by the personal prejudices that existed in the Palestine of his time. We clearly see his prejudice in his ignoring the Canaanite woman who asked for healing for her daughter. His initial response borders on rudeness: “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” meaning “your kind of people.” But her come-back of “even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table” catches Jesus up short, highlights his prejudice against the Canaanite people, shows the incongruence between his vision and his attitude (he’s not practicing what he is preaching) and Jesus clearly experiences a transformative moment…his heart is changed. This same dynamic plays out with the Samaritan woman at the well and she also becomes the vehicle that changes the heart of Jesus of Nazareth. These incidents point out that it is ONLY with honest and open dialogue and listening that transformation has a chance to happen, to take root, so as to bring about a change in the human heart.
As time went on, Jesus became more aware of the oppression he and the people were living under. His preaching became provocative and, in effect, dangerous. His direct and constant condemnation of the unjust status quo got him the attention of the leaders of his time, and ultimately Jesus was captured, tried and executed. His vision cost him his life. It was the price he paid for fidelity to his vision, fidelity to his passion for justice and fidelity to his God.
On the surface, JOY is defined as happiness, pleasure and delight. On a much deeper level, JOY is defined as an inner radiance, a shining through. This depth of JOY is found in experiencing deep pleasure, being silly, laughing at a memory, the retelling of a funny incident, holding your son/daughter/grandchild for the first time, and in the special and sacred moments in family and community life.
JOY is not excessive teasing, making someone laugh at the expense of another, telling racial/ethnic jokes, putting people down or bullying them so as to get a good laugh from a group of friends.
The JOY found in the Gospel is a deep inner radiance of goodness that seeps through the life, words and actions of Jesus. It is that quality found in the followers of Jesus who make no big deal of the work that they do quietly and unobtrusively. Radiating joy is that marked, yet elusive quality of someone who once she/he has encountered this Jesus, there is never a turning back, a returning home by the same road.
A true experience of Jesus in the Gospels will “spoil” you forever, for you will never be the same. You will never again remain self-absorbed or indifferent to the plight of oppressed people near at hand in Baltimore or across the world. Pope Francis reminded and urged us in his first writings that: “With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, Jesus makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.” (The Joy of the Gospel, #3) and I would add: day after day, after day, after day.
And that is exactly what is required of us if we are CALLED TO CELEBRATE AND SERVE.
- We are called by God by our Baptism…
- We re-affirmed that call from God by our Confirmation…
- We proclaim our belief in that call in the Creed…
- We study that call by reading the Scriptures…and interpreting the signs of our times
- We marvel at that call when we look at the scripture of our lives…the twists and turns that have brought us to this day…made us into the human beings that we are …and daily pushing us to be ‘more.’
- That call is nourished by the Bread of Life, the Eucharist…
- That call is fed by our families, our communities, our co-workers, our colleagues, friends, neighbors, and at times even strangers…
- That call is the familiar (and at times unfamiliar) nudging by a God whose name is Love and whose claim on us is unconditional
- That call is the invitation to be reconciled when we have severed our relationship with another and consequently with the community
- That call is reaffirmed and made sacred at various moments of our life when we need that extra energy to heal and be made whole…the fabric of our sacramental life
- That call is made manifest when we want and work for freedom for all members of God’s beloved community so we sign petitions, call and visit our elected officials, write letters to the editors of our local newspapers, or demonstrate and march for human rights for all people
WE ARE CALLED TO CELEBRATE…to be celebrants…
- of the goodness we find in ourselves
- of the goodness we find in our children and in one another
- We are called to celebrate the human dignity of all people regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, employment or economic status, health, intelligence or any other differentiating characteristic. Yes, even the most offensive are worthy of human dignity.
- We are called to celebrate the sacredness of ALL life, from the unborn to those inmates on death row to those facing catastrophic illnesses, to those who will die on our streets today from gun violence
- We are called to celebrate when all people take part in the decisions that affect their lives, to work for the common good and to hold all institutions especially our church and country accountable for the care of those labeled the ‘least’ among us
- We are called to have a preferential option for those among us who are poorest and most vulnerable. This is at the heart of a follower of Jesus…it is not an option if we call ourselves Christians
- We are called to be our brothers/sisters keeper regardless of who the brother/sister is.
- We are called to a reverence for all of creation…to live in such a way so as to conserve the limited resources of water, land, air, fire, for these are the thresholds into the beauty and lavishness of our Creator…and they are a gift to all
- We are called to live in such a way that ALL people have enough to eat, that ALL people reach their full potential, and that the human dignity of everyone we encounter remains intact.
I sincerely hope that in listing these “calls to celebrate” you have recognized the Social Justice Principles of our Catholic Church community…one of our best kept secrets. These principles are foreign to many of us for they have not been widely taught in our schools and religious education classes and even less proclaimed from our pulpits.
They were written 124 years ago by Pope Leo XIII because his heart was moved and broken by the inhuman working and living conditions of the people who were working in the developing industries during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. He was appalled by the unfair wages people were earning which did not allow them to adequately care for their families…the lack of affordable and safe housing…the homelessness of too many…the high crime rates and vagrancy…the harsh conditions that women and especially children were forced to work under…the lack of adequate health care when workers were hurt in factories, and their lack of recourse to address these conditions…DOES ALL OF THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? We who are living 124 years from the writing of these Catholic Social Teachings about the right to demonstrate, to unionize, to demand justice and participation in decisions that affect our lives…we had better ask ourselves WHY we’ve not heard about these before or why they have not been proclaimed from the housetops to all of us who call ourselves Catholic with a capital C. I suspect that the reason that they are one of the best kept secrets of our Church is that these Catholic Social Teachings are very dangerous if taken seriously. They would definitely challenge the status quo, upset all of our comfort zones, introduce responsibility and accountability of all God’s people to the parish structures we’ve built over time. All of our meeting tables would be round…those sitting around the table would be the faces of those whose lives would be impacted by whatever decisions would be made at the table. There would be no judgments, no criticism, no privileged positions. The “common good” of the most vulnerable among us would be the criteria of all that would be decided. It would be an altogether healthy and holy Church…one envisioned by Pope Francis. And yet you cannot help but notice the push back he is getting when he articulates his vision. Catholic Social Teach MUST become more than a historical lesson buried deeply in the archives of our churches.
Which brings us to the final phrase in the theme: The call to celebrate and SERVE.
I like to think of the word SERVICE as having twin sisters: One twin is called Charity and the other twin is named Justice.
226 years ago (in 1789) the diocese of Baltimore was born. Three years after that (1792), Bishop John Carroll well aware of what he was seeing in the newly declared state of Maryland (no longer the English colony of Maryland) declared that a portion of ALL parish revenues be set aside “for the relief of the poor.” He also knew first hand that one of every 5 Catholics in Maryland in the late 1700’s was black, both slave and free and that they had little to no opportunities to begin providing for their families. Thus began the work of Catholic Charities. By the mid-19th century services were focused on caring for orphaned immigrant children since Baltimore became the point of entry for more immigrants than any other U.S. city outside of New York.
Over the course of the years the work of Catholic Charities and of the Arch. of Baltimore evolved into caring for and treating neglected and abused children and those with disabilities, developing programs for people with developmental disabilities, the poor, the homeless, the hungry and unemployed. All of these found a welcome place to receive services and meals. Homes, adult day care, assisted living, along with rehabilitation and nursing services, were provided for the elderly.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore can hold a candle to any diocese in this country. As an agency it valiantly tries to live its motto Cherishing the Divine Within in the midst of some very difficult situations.
Catholic Charities relationship with the local and state officials is unique in all the world. It is respected and it is held up by public and private institutions alike. You are welcomed and truly listened to in the chambers of the State House in Annapolis and in the local Mayor’s office. This is a model that has withstood the test of time for it appears that it has combined both service and justice as a way of life. And in many ways it has. Catholic Charities proudly boasts being one of the largest employers in the area of 2,000 talented employees. It has over 12,000 individuals of all faiths, and ages who selflessly volunteer and along with 13,000+ donors try to improve the lives of over 160,000 individuals and families. You prepare and serve over 370,000 meals for people who depend on you for a daily hot meal. You host 80 programs at 200 locations throughout the state of Maryland. What a legacy!!! And yet I cannot help but wonder why the demand for these services is increasing every year and not diminishing?
If the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Catholic Charities, Justice & Peace groups, and local parishes are doing such a great job shouldn’t these requests be diminishing? Shouldn’t all people in this area be empowered to claim what is rightfully theirs, if we are living out our Catholic Social Teachings?
Have we spent too much time being ‘do-gooders’, performing works of charity to the neglect of the demand for justice? Shouldn’t Baltimore be one of the most integrated cities in the U.S.? Shouldn’t the divide between rich and poor not be so blatantly obvious as it is in Baltimore?
You have done a marvelous job serving with the first of the twins: CHARITY.
Now let us examine SERVICE’s other twin: JUSTICE. Our parish systems were set up to take care “of our own.” We developed geographical boundaries around ethnic enclaves and today still find it difficult when our insulated lives bump into other people who want to belong to our parishes or settle into our neighborhoods. They bring new languages, attitudes and perspectives that are jarring to those who “got there first.” Just try merging parish communities to get a glimpse of the results of such insulation.
Unfortunately in the U.S., the concept of justice is equated with fairness. (Give example of freshly baked bread brought into the room, one loaf for everyone. Fairness would divide the number of people with the amount of bread and give everyone the same amount…hungry or not. Justice asks who has not eaten in a couple of days and is hungry or who knows of a neighbor who hasn’t had a good meal recently. The bread would be given to those who were hungry while the rest of us would not get a loaf. If no one here was hungry, the bread would be split between Our Daily Bread and My Sisters Place and dropped off at their respective sites.) (The difference between fairness and justice is very difficult for parents to teach their children since children are keenly aware of what’s “not fair.”)
Biblical justice on the other hand, is based on need and that all people have equal access to the resources of the earth. The demands of such justice are rigorous:
- Justice demands that we end all forms of discrimination and recognize that all are deserving of human rights
- Justice demands an end to all forms of violence and brutality, torture and unequal protection
- Justice demands full employment for all people with an equitable salary and a living wage for the work that they accomplish
- Justice demands decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings and not infested, condemned, abandoned, unsafe buildings
- Justice demands freedom from mass incarceration and an end to the prison industrial complex
- Justice demands the demilitarization of local law enforcement across the country
- Justice demands funding for and community support of alternatives to incarceration
- Justice demands congressional hearings and investigations into questionable treatment of individuals and a fair level of accountability from those entrusted to serve and protect everyone
- Justice demands that we enact laws that protect the earth and not increase its pollution by pipelines, fracking and carbon footprints
- Justice insists on face-to-face dialogue, negotiations and diplomacy for achieving peace for all the parties involved and NOT war, preparations for war, the use of drones, the selling of arms, espionage and the motto ‘might makes right’
- Justice demands advocating for the plight of immigrants and those being trafficked for our sexual and economic interests
- Justice demands that all of us have conversations about race and coming out from behind the wall of silence that believes that race is the problem of communities of color, and not the problem of those in the white community
- Justice demands that we take a long and honest look at ourselves, our neighborhoods and our parishes and see if they pass the Biblical mandate of being welcoming to all (and I mean ALL people)
- Justice demands that we look at our correctional system and deal adequately with substance abuse, along with the mental and physical health issues of inmates
- Justice demands that we pay attention to the staggering numbers of people – primarily young African American and Latino men and women- locked up for non-violent, mostly drug-related offenses…while their white counterparts are either ignored or go free
- Justice demands that we look at the re-districting going on in our counties, along with the push-back of the Voter Registration Act and how much more difficult we are making it for people of color to exercise their right to vote
- Justice demands that every child be in a safe school with well-qualified, caring teachers, up-to-date textbooks that teach the “real story” of struggling peoples and access to the technology and services that the suburban schools enjoy
How much have we heard in our parishes about any of these justice demands?
When was the last time we Catholics were asked to stand for something more than the rights of the unborn?
When was the last time, after hearing a sermon you commented “Wow, that took courage!” and affirmed the person who proclaimed it?
The twin sisters of Service: Charity and Justice, are both so necessary and, like twins, they cannot be separated from each other.
In closing: I believe my brothers and sisters that we now stand at a critical threshold in our Catholic community.
We can remain the same, be comfortable, stay insulated, grow old unchallenged and become stuffy. We may end up being good Catholics…but will we have been good Christians?
The requirements to follow Jesus today are no less demanding than they were in the times when Jesus walked on our planet earth. He gave us the Beatitudes to keep us out of our own way
- if you are poor in spirit…heaven is yours
- if you’re grieving…you will be consoled
- if you’re hungering for justice…you got it
- if you need mercy…it’s yours
- if you work for peace…you’ll be persecuted
Jesus gave us the Sprit…the promise that we would never be alone. The early Christian community believed and proclaimed that “the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:10). What a revolution could happen if we truly believed that THE SAME SPIRIT THAT WAS POWERFUL ENOUGH TO RAISE THE DEAD JESUS IS ALIVE IN US…today…now…in this auditorium…in your parish…in Baltimore…in the whole of our world. What a revolution that belief would spark!!!!!
Is this Spirit alive in YOU or is it dormant, asleep, inactive, bored? Is our vision that of the man from Galilee who was willing to pay a very high price to be faithful? Or is the cost too great for us? We have a pope, who like Jesus, calls for mercy and NOT judgment. We have each other to lean on when it gets hard, where we can go to be healed, soothed and sent out again…and again…and again. We have a city aching for the smile, the hello that brings forth the beauty of the woman who sleeps in an alley way, or under the bushes of a local church…or the staggering drunk displaced by the VA system whose mental illness is going untreated. We have a world that is also aching with complex ideologies, diseases, philosophies and brokenness that hardly knows where to begin to make sense of it all…
Yes, we stand at the threshold. We can remain comfortable or we can walk into the future that has yet to reveal itself.
If we chose to walk into the unknown…
If we chose to step away from the cliff of comfort…we do so knowing…that we will be taught how to fly by the One who said:
I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS…EVEN UNTIL THE END OF TIME.