Monday, November 24, 2014

The King and his Immigrant Peoples

Christ the Pantocrator, "the Enthroned"

Policy, politics and liturgy seem to have converged on one fundamental theme this past week: The question of the King.

Every year as the Catholic Church concludes her liturgical cycle, the same stunning Gospel passage confronts us.  Matthew 25's "Judgment of the Nations" rings out regarding the return of the King who will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, based on one simple criterion:

"Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you...a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?'
...And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you,
whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’" 

(Mt 25:37-40)

The fundamental revelation is that the King is present in the "strangers" or "aliens" whom we welcome--or whom we fail to welcome.  How we treat--or mistreat--them is how we treat or mistreat the King himself.  Therefore, the Christian question regarding immigration policies needs to shift from the merely political to the very personal issue of what our stance will be toward those we see as "outsiders."

Additional questions abound, of course.  For example, in the uproar and furor over the President's recent executive action, will some Anglo Americans give their Hispanic brothers and sisters the not-so-subtle message that they are not welcome?  In the awkwardness surrounding the political polarization on this issue, will Christians unwittingly strike an unwelcoming stance toward the King--suggesting that our nation is somehow impoverished rather than enriched by the presence of hard-working families who want an opportunity to flourish?

Although the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops issued a statement of support for the executive action on immigration, this is still a politically complex matter for many faithful Catholics.  After all, the Obama administration has been an aggressive advocate of the greatest scourge in our nation's history, legalized abortion. Moreover, despite promises made in speeches such as the President's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame ("Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause..."), the current administration has thus far reneged on such guarantees of conscience protection. 

Indeed, the still-problematic HHS mandate not only extends this administration's support for unfettered abortion rights, but it threatens to impose the cost of these procedures on people who are deeply disturbed by this failed public policy.  Hence the call to support federal legislation for what used to be presupposed as reasonable and respectful politics: the "No taxpayer funding for abortion" and the "Abortion insurance full disclosure" acts.

All of this raises additional questions.  For example, will some faithful Christians miss the message regarding the King's immigrant peoples simply because they have legitimate concerns about the current political messenger?  If so, this would be an offense against the King himself.  Conversely, amid enthusiasm over pro-family executive action on immigration, will some faithful Christians feel compelled to accept this administration's other anti-family policies?  This would be tantamount to an attack on the King himself, who is present in the most vulnerable of all of his peoples, the unborn.

These may be uncomfortable issues for Christians to address, but they are questions which Christ the King ultimately asks us in Matthew 25.  Indeed, when Christians use the phrase "rule of law," we should think first of God's law which is written in the depths of our hearts and made visible in Jesus.  We should also dare to think critically about civil laws which most people recognize as inherently flawed--whether it be our "broken" immigration system or our unscientific and illogical defense of abortion on demand.  After all, as St. Augustine succinctly observed, "An unjust law is no law at all."

This is not to advocate lawlessness, of course.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically states that "Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions..."  To confront our flawed immigration policies and to establish reasonable juridical conditions for immigration, however, it is necessary to demand that they always be understood within the prior context which the Catechism articulates in the very same paragraph:  "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin" (n. 2241).

As Christians who strive to follow Jesus more closely each day, Scriptural and liturgical insights should transform not only our personal politics but also our public policies.  Let's remind ourselves that immigrants, as well as the unborn and their mothers, bear within them the seed of hope for any nation; they communicate the very presence of the King. 

The King of kings mysteriously comes to each of us each day, often in "disturbing disguise" (Bl. Teresa of Calcutta).  Whether we recognize him or not, our temporal attitudes and actions toward those in need will determine our eternal destiny.  So let's pray that Christians in the U.S. and all people of good will might respond appropriately to today's challenges and thus someday hear these words:
"Come, you who are blessed by my Father. 
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

(Mt 25:31-34)

Monday, November 17, 2014

These Walls Can Talk

Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica

How do you "read" a church when you walk in?

Are your eyes drawn first to the altar and the sanctuary, or to the stained glass windows?  Are you more of a statue or a painting kind of person?  Do you have favorite symbols or saints whose presence lifts your heart?  (One of my nephews is a great fan of St. Bonaventure, and he feels awfully close to Heaven every time he gets to see his old friend!)

We live during an age in which most people are visual learners.  So we should take the opportunity to explore the visible symbols in our local churches, in order to allow ourselves to be drawn closer to the invisible realities represented.  We should strive to develop the spiritual eyesight which is so necessary for Christian discipleship.  And we should look for opportunities to explore the meaning behind such rich signs.

Many representations of saints depict them holding the instrument associated with their death (if they were martyrs), or with some great insight or pivotal moment from their life.  So who's the guy with the grill, or the young man holding the rocks?  With google images now at our finger tips, it's possible to discover answers to such riddles with relative ease.  (These two examples come from the widows in the chapel of the Diocese of Joliet's Blanchette Catholic Center, by the way, and the searches proved them to be St. Lawrence and St. Stephen, respectively.)

How about the tabernacle which holds the Blessed Sacrament or the mysterious and pivotal presence of the altar, which signifies Christ?  Every church is a treasure trove of real signs which help make present the realities that they represent.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Birth of Counter-Cultural Catholicism

Cultural Catholicism is dead.  Just going through the motions because of ethnic or familial allegiances has proven to be an inadequate response to the challenges posed by radical secularism.

What will replace it is only beginning to emerge, but the birth of counter-cultural Catholicism will undoubtedly require the same the heroic virtue of great Christians from centuries past.  At the very least, this counter-cultural Catholicism will:
  • Not shy away from the call to discipleship, but will purposefully and intentionally follow Jesus, embracing his revolutionary way of life.
  • Not just "sacramentalize" members of the Church, but will promote effective evangelization--helping all Catholics know that the story of Salvation History is their story, that the good news of Jesus is their Good News.
  • Not reduce Christian charity to mere volunteerism or philanthropy, but will see life in terms of a gratuitous gift of one's self--including one's time and money.
This counter-cultural Catholicism will be neither pre-modern and reactionary, nor post-modern and complicit with the nihilism of our time.  Rather, as some observers have noted, it will be "trans-modern." Drawing from the rich treasury of resources within the Christian tradition, it will cut across the assumptions of modernity and open up new horizons for encountering the living God here and now.  Counter-cultural Catholicism will be transformational, changing hearts of believers person by person and so helping to rebuild society.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Naming our Holy Souls

So what's the cast of characters look like on your All Souls Day prayer list?  And are you able to "connect the dots"--in retrospect, of course--regarding how they helped reveal the face of Christ in your life?

Without having to canonize every family member and friend who has gone before us marked with the sign of the faith, the Church's celebration of All Souls Day invites us to commemorate and intercede on behalf of all those who are being purified on their way to full communion with Almighty God.  To pray for such holy souls is a spiritual work of mercy, and the Catechism reminds us that, "Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective" (CCC, n. 958). 
This year my thoughts have returned to a pivotal time and a most memorable group of people.  It was the late '80s in a blighted neighborhood of North Philadelphia.  During a year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I was assigned to work in a day center for adults from the neighborhood who lived in nearby boarding houses and who had a variety of mental and emotional needs.  Many of them were also killer UNO players :)
The Center was housed in the rectory basement of Our Lady of Holy Souls parish.  Little did I know how aptly named the parish was!  It also took me a while to realize that the fun-loving, Philadelphia Philly fanatic, Religious Sister of Mercy named Sr. Mary Agnes (a.k.a. "Sr. Freddy" to her friends) was creating an environment of hospitality and love which reflected our Lord's recommendation.  "When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Lk 14:14).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Our Spiritual Fathers


Some people live under the sign of their horoscope.  But what if, as Catholics, we are spiritually linked to the Holy Father who was pontiff when we were born?

My gut intuition is that our spiritual Holy Fathers have something personal to say to each of their sons and daughters.  So do you know who was pope when you were born?  Do you have a favorite saying or inspirational passage from your spiritual Holy Father?  Are you a Pius XII, a John XXIII, or a Paul VI Catholic (like me)--or are you part of the "Catholic boomer" generation, born during the epic papacy of John Paul II?  Wherever each of us falls demographically, we are blessed to be on an incredible run of holy Holy Fathers, so we can rest assured that they are interceding on our behalf.

Maybe our spiritual Holy Fathers complement the work of our earthly fathers and our baptismal Godfathers, supplementing where there were deficiencies or failures and reinforcing where there were solid foundations laid for us.  In honor of the recent beatification of Pope Paul VI, I'd like to share some "gratitude attitude" for his ongoing role in my life.

After guiding the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion, Paul VI stood courageously and prophetically on at least three major issues which have helped shape who I am: