2020.6.8 – Catholic
About twenty years ago I was able to visit Lithuania as a missionary. It was a fabulous experience, and one of my primary experiences of being a stranger in a strange land. During my time in the summer camp at which I served I was forced to look at myself in an unexpected way.
One night during the summer camp the youth, in their small groups, took turns putting on skits. One group, in particular, titled their skit, “Americans Come to Lithuania.” I was flabbergasted by how those youth saw “Americans.” The scene was the arrival of an American just getting off the plane. One young person, playing the American, was greeted by two Lithuanians who were hosting her. The “American youth” was surprising to look at. She had on multiple layers of clothes and hats. She had a bag on her back, one slung over her shoulder, another one stuck under her arm, with still another dragging behind her on wheels. And to cap it all off, she had a camera strap clenched in her teach because she had no more room to carry anything in her hands. The kids roared in laughter because the picture struck them as pretty much accurate.
As for me, I was dumbfounded. For the first time I saw how some people in the world view Americans: materialistic. I was deeply convicted at that moment. I saw my own materialistic tendencies displayed right in front of me. God used that moment to help me admit my own materialism and embrace a more modest form of life.
But my purpose in telling this story is not to focus on materialism, but to focus on the feeling I had in being a stranger in a strange land. Feeling, for the first time, what it was to see myself as a foreigner, and knowing that some people lumped me into a simplistic category of “American.”
Today’s Gospel and first reading coincide for us to ask a question: Do we meet strangers according to the fundamental Commandment of Love? It is easy for us to interpret the Gospel Commandments to Love God and Love Neighbor on spiritual terms, or even to discuss the nature of God as Love. But the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” must also be understood in terms of social justice especially in relation to ‘aliens’ and the ‘poor.’ Our first reading reads, “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves,” and again, “If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors… you shall not act like an extortioner.” In short, the Gospel truth about love has grounded, practical consequences in true justice for the poor and the alien.
Both groups of people are very much at the forefront of our social landscape in America today. One issue is race relations and true equality among all people no matter what their economic or racial background. Another issue is the modern day ‘alien’ - immigration - and balancing the dignity of the person with the immigration policies of a nation.
We need to ask ourselves a pointed question: Do I myself treat every human person with true dignity? Do I care for the poor? Do I show true respect to everyone regardless of their nationality, race, or culture? In Lithuania, the instinct of those kids was to see “Americans” as wealthy and materialistic. To a small degree, I felt what it was like to be unilaterally categorized in a negative light. It is a good question to ask ourselves, “Do I “lump” people of similar race, language, or nationality, into a general category that does not respect the individuality of that person.”
We are a Universal Church. It is such a privilege to belong to a Church that is united everywhere around the globe. Whether you find yourself in the USA or Europe, Russia or Mexico, Canada or Africa, China or South America, you can find a Roman Catholic Church and experience there the same faith as we do right here in Wichita, KS.
The word “Catholic” is actually translated “universal”. That is, to call ourselves a ‘Catholic’ Church is commit ourselves to be a truly ‘Universal’ Church. This means that, around the world, we participate in the same liturgy, preach the same truth, and live the same faith in every culture, continent, time, and place.
Have you ever had that experience? Have you ever gone to Mass in another country and, even though they were speaking their native language, you could tell where you were in the Mass because of its signs and gestures? Truth itself is universal. Specifically, the Truth who is Jesus Christ Himself, found in every culture and on every continent, is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) and he has offered Himself to every human person on the face of the earth. Consequently, in Jesus Christ, every human person on the face of the earth is invited to be united in Him.
The Catholic Faith is not a faith limited to a particular race, class, culture, or language. It is preached to everyone equally and unites everyone in “one faith, one Lord, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, an in all” (Eph 4:5-6).
In my life, I have experienced this universality nowhere more than in the seminary, and even more so while I was in grad school in Detroit. In both situations the men who were my classmates were a true representation of a Universal Church. I was in school with men from Uganda, Paraguay, Netherlands, Cambodia, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Burma, China, Korea, Nigeria, India, and even Nebraska 😊. I was literally in class with men from all these countries (and even more)!
What is true of my experience in seminary and grad school, is also true of our own parish, St. Francis of Assisi. Our parish is made up people from Africa, Philippines, Germany, Italy, India, Mexico, Venezuela, Vietnam, just to name a few. And how blessed are we as a parish because of such diversity! Our parish is itself a universal parish. Our diversity (culture, race, class, and language) is a splendorous expression of our unity (one faith, one Lord, one baptism). We are a community made up of a wondrous variety of peoples and cultures, races and languages, and we must both rejoice in this and protect this.
Racial prejudice and bigoted injustice have no place in our world, let alone in our Church or in our parish. As the Catechism clearly states,
1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it:
Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design.
The commandment of love which Jesus calls us to must find practical expression with every person we meet without being “lumped” into a preconceived category. Clearly, we as Catholic Christians must denounce all bigotry and social injustice arising from racial hatred or cultural disdain.
This respect of persons must also extend to immigrants also. The issue of immigration is certainly a complex issue, balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of society. The Catechism summarizes this complexity in paragraph 2241,
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...
[On the one hand] 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, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. [On the other hand] Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
But at its root, we must protect the dignity of every human person, regardless of their status, and meet them in their basic needs, especially when those needs are urgent.
Our first reading and our Gospel coincide today to challenge us to put the Commandment of Love into practical action. We are called to protect the ‘alien’ and the ‘poor,’ to champion human dignity and human respect at every level of society, and to protect the beautiful variety of our Catholic (Universal) Faith, even within our own city and our own parish. Let us never ‘lump’ people into a preconceived category; but rather meet them as individuals deserving of Love.