Monthly Archives: September 2020

Angels surround us

I sometimes wonder what to make of angels.

Today is the feast of the three holy archangels whom we know by name – from the scriptures: Michael (“Who is like God?”), Gabriel (“God is our refuge”), and Raphael (“The medicine of God”).

I feel closest to Saint Raphael – for any number of reasons. His presence in the book of Tobit show us the care of God for travelers, for lovers, and for the sick. In addition, I was baptized in the parish of Saint Raphael in Philadelphia and I spent almost 24 years in the archdiocese of Dubuque, whose patron is Saint Raphael.

But what about all these angels and archangels?

We live in a world, especially apparent these days, where evil, illness, depression, and much more weigh us down. The world seems to be filled with all that is negative, that denies life, wholeness, health, and holiness. It seems populated by the principalities and powers of domination, violence, racism, division – from the cases of sexual abuse of minors and killing of innocents that I see around me here in Honduras. And then there are the rulers of this world who use violence, corruption, and divisiveness to keep their abusive power. It sometimes feels that the world is populated with demons – from families to the places of the rich and powerful in many countries of the world, including – sad to say – the United States.

But I think that the feast of angels can be good news for us.

Angels, the messengers of God, not only see the face of God and worship him, but they can help us see the face of God and the presence of grace around us.

The angels show us that, ultimately, the world is not controlled by the powers of evil, the demons, the obstacles to good. They show us the power of God.

Michael reminds us that we are not god and that the rules of this world are not gods or saviors.

Gabriel reminds us that the true God became flesh in the womb of a poor virgin and lived among us, as a poor man and as one committed to God and God’s reign of truth, justice, and love. He was willing to give himself, even to death, so that he might be raised to new life – and bring us access to that life.

Raphael shows us the guiding hand of God. He guided Tobit’s son, Tobiah, to find a wife in a foreign land. He gave Tobiah the wisdom and the power to overcome the assumed power of the demon who had killed all the previous husbands of Sarah on their wedding night. He also gave Tobiah the medicine to cure his father’s blindness. He is the guide for the journey, the healer of the sick, the one who makes the marriage bed a place of life.

The world is filled with the presence of God – and the angels can help us see this. Seeking their intercession, we can begin to turn aside from the negativity around us – the evil of violence and poverty, the divisiveness in the church and in politics. They can help us walk the way of the Lord.

The icon of Saint Raphael is from Concepción Abbey Press.

The reality of a parable: workers and wages

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Matthew 20: 1-16

I have heard today’s parable many times, but I don’t think I really understood it until I spent a few days in Houston, Texas, in 1990.

The parable tells of a landowner who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. He hires men at dawn and then goes out three more times (9 am, noon, and 3 pm). But he needs more workers and goes out at 5 pm and sees more men standing around and asks them why. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply.

When the men are paid, at the end of the day, the last hired get the normal daily wage, as do those hired throughout the day. When those hired at dawn arrive and receive their promised wage, they are upset.

I imagine many of us would also be upset at this employer who gives everyone the same amount and they would complain, and probably never go back to work for him.

In the parable the owner explains that they are getting what they were promised. What’s wrong with that? And then he asks, rhetorically, “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek literally reads, “Or is you eye evil because I am good?”

But this is not a parable about envy, though this is a good lesson to draw from it. It is, as Jesus says at the start, a parable of the kingdom of heaven. It is a parable about what God wants for us – to be fulfilled in heaven, the realized Kingdom of God. But it might also be a parable about the kingdom of God in process in this world.

And so, what could the parable have to do with our daily life?

It might not have a lot to do with the lives of many of us middle class people, but it has a lot to do with the lives of the poor.

The men were day laborers, jornaleros in Spanish, people who go out each day looking for work, depending on what they earn at the end of the day to pay for the family. It’s a very precarious way to try to live and support one’s loved ones. Though the daily wage might not be a just wage and thus may not be enough for a good life, it’s at least something. It may mean the difference between hunger and death by starvation.

But, back to Houston.

I was stuck in the city for a few days and staying in a barrio where many Central Americans lived. Every day I would leave to go seeking a visa to visit El Salvador and then returning in late afternoon. Every day I passed a corner where many men were standing around. I wondered what they were doing (and, of course, assumed the worst.) But one day as I walked by, a pickup truck stopped and the men ran to the cab of the truck. Some got into the back of the truck and it drove away.

The men were standing on that corner waiting and hoping for work. Some of them at the end of the day would say the same as the men who started work at 5 pm, “No one has hired us.”

Yet they, as well as those who worked from dawn, were hoping to bring home some money to buy food or clothes or medicine. They lived, as many poor do, from hand to mouth.

The economic system says, “Too bad. You don’t have the skills we need and you weren’t in the right place at the right time when we were hiring.”

But the economics of the Kingdom of God is different. People are continually being called to work and are paid what they need.

Maybe we won’t succeed in having a society like that, but I think we could do much better. People could be paid a just living wage, as the Popes have been advocating this at least since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Image by Cerezo Barredo

Saint Peter Claver and racism

Today the Church fittingly celebrates Saint Pedro Claver, the Spanish Jesuit who spend over thirty years ministering to the slaves brought into the New World at Cartagena, Colombia. He died on September 8, 1654, at 74 years of age.

Over 10,000 slaves arrived in Cartagena from Africa every year – while another 5,000 had died on the infernal ocean voyage. When a slave ship arrived at the port, Padre Pedro and several others, including interpreters, would enter the holds of the ships and minister to those who were dying or extremely ill or wasted away from hunger. They brought food and more. After the slaves were sold, he would try to visit those who were being enslaved near Cartagena.

Though his work appears to be mostly a heroic act of charity, it was not appreciated by the slave merchants and owners who fear he was undermining his efforts. He tried to help the slaves recover their sense of worth. He also worked to evangelize the slaves and, according to some reports, baptized 300,000 after a catechesis adapted to the needs of the slaves.

He called himself the “Aethiporum servus,” the slave of the Ethiopians, which was a name given to the slaves from Africa, though many of the slaves he ministered to came from the area later known as Angola.

Peter Claver’s response to slavery and the slave trade lacks the critique that others rightly made. See this article. Even the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas in the sixteenth century finally recognized that his defense of black slavery was wrong.

Though we should lament that Peter Claver didn’t openly challenge the slave trade and slavery, he reminds us of the need to treat everyone as a servant of God. We who have the capacity to challenge systems of racism can look to him, recognizing that our challenge to injustice should also respond to the needs of those who are enslaved, impoverished, and oppressed.

In Venezuela, the opening prayer of the Mass of St. Peter Claver reads as follows:

O God, Father of all peoples, who filled Saint Peter Claver, priest, slave of the slaves, with a flaming love and an unbreakable patience, to serve his brothers [and sisters], human beings without any distinction of race or social class; by his intercession and merits grant that we may overcome all social discrimination, in order to love all with a generous heart and be the principle of unity among your children. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…

Conflict in the community

This Sunday’s Gospel comes from chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew, a chapter which pulls together some of Jesus’ words about the community, the church.

The final verse of Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 18: 20, tries to make it clear that the church is not just a grouping of persons, but the Body of Christ, where Christ is present: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”

As a community, we are called to live in communion and mutual love, as Paul wrote to the Romans 13:8: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

But we know that this is often not the case and so Jesus leaves us a process of becoming a community in the midst of sin and division.

Jesus offers us four steps. In many ways, they seem all too reasonable. But we often don’t do what Jesus calls us to do.

A few months ago, I read John Paul Lederach’s Journey Toward Reconciliation. Lederach has worked in reconciliation and peacemaking in many parts of the world, particularly in Latin America. His work has influenced the work of Caritas International in its peacemaking efforts, in particular its manuals for Conflict Transformation. Lederach is a Mennonite and has taught at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Notre Dame. In chapter 3 of Journey toward Reconciliation, he provides a practical exegesis of this Sunday’s Gospel. This has influenced me in what I will preach tomorrow – first of all in a community that just experienced a brutal killing, but which is a community with many divisions.

Jesus proposes four steps:

Step 1: Going Directly
Step 2: Taking One or Two Witnesses Along
Step 3: Telling It to the Church
Step 4: Relating as with a Gentile and Tax Collector

First, if someone has sinned against you, go directly to the person, alone. Don’t talk about the conflict behind the person’s back. Don’t air the dirty laundry in public. Go directly to the person – not seeking to win, nor to extract an apology, nor to justify oneself. Go to bring the person back into the community. Lederach suggests that this requires “prayerful vulnerability,” “responsible discernment,” and “interactive engagement.” We don’t go as one who has the answers, as the person who is in the right, but looking carefully at myself and the problem in a humble and open way.

In the bombed shell of Coventry Cathedral

I know that it is easier to castigate the “sinner” than to go and speak directly to him. This happens in communities here where it is very hard to speak directly about conflicts and so gossip abounds. I would also suggest that this is what is happening in the Catholic Church in many parts of the world. “Fraternal correction” in private has been replaced by accusations.

But Jesus says go directly – to gain one’s brother or sister.

Secondly, if that doesn’t work, take one or two witnesses. They might help keep the discussion focused and be able to pint out where we are defensive or offensive, where we are not listening. They may even be able to help us point out places of agreement that we and our opponent don’t see. In addition, I believe that the presence of witnesses can say to the person that we are concerned about her or him and want to be in communion.

But, if that doesn’t work, bring in the community. The Greek uses the word ekklesia, most often translated as church. This is one of the few places where this word is used in the Gospels. But the Church must be one that is working for community, that knows who it is, that knows its weaknesses and its strengths, that is honest and transparent in its workings.

Finally, what do we do when nothing seems to work?

Jesus’s words have often been mistranslated or misinterpreted. The Greek reads: ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης. This literally means, “Let him be to you as the pagan and the tax collector.”

Sometimes this has been interpreted as saying that we should shun the person, turn away from her or him. But Lederach opens up an interpretation that I believe is more faithful to the call of Jesus.

How does Jesus treat the pagan and the tax collector?

In the Gospels, Jesus heals the servant of the Roman centurion and the daughter of the Syro- phoenician woman. That is far from shunning, though the encounter of Jesus with the woman suggests that his culture preferred to refrain from dealing with pagans.

In the Gospels, Jesus invites himself to dinner with the tax collectors. Note the stories of the call of Matthew and the encounter in Jericho with Zaccheus. Jesus wants to eat with them.

Jesus shows us the creative imagination of God.

Eating is a way of connecting with another, putting oneself at the same level as the other person. It is a place where we can be vulnerable and can interaction with others, even though we don’t agree. It is not a surefire way of reconciling, but it can open up a place.

In all this, we need to remember that what Jesus wants is communion, community, solidarity, mutual love. There will be conflicts, but can we still love the other? Can we seek out creative ways to foster reconciliation and justice? Lederach’s question is critical: “How do we make the church community a place where this mission of encounter, growth, and reconciliation can take place?”

This is not easy, but I believe it is what Jesus wants, what Jesus calls us to be.

I’ll close with an extended quote of John Paul Lederach:

“The entire purpose of working through conflict is aimed at bringing back together what has been torn apart through earlier actions, behaviors, and responses. The primary goal is reconciliation, understood as relationship ship and restoration, the healing of personal and social fabrics. In this process, it is impossible to separate personal from social healing. Clearly, these are like steps in a journey. It begins with a personal journey within, for the purpose of identifying the source of pain, what is wrong, and understanding it. The process then moves us toward the source of our anxiety and pain that is welling up in the relationship. What rises from this journey is commitment to relationship and interdependence.”