Like a Good Neighbor


Catholic speaker Jeff Cavins tells the story of a friend of his, a Dominican priest, who was on a trip to Calcutta to teach a short seminar. He returned to his room after teaching, and his window was open to the everyday street noise of the big, bustling city of Calcutta. Then suddenly, the Dominican priest smelled this terrible stench coming from outside. He looked out on the street, and laying below his window was a poor man who had a huge gaping wound in his side, and maggots had infested the infected wound. He was groaning in pain. The priest pushed the window closed, and sat down on his bed. He thought about the fact that he didn’t want to go out and do anything about it because, being honest with himself, he didn’t want his habit to smell. As he sat on his bed, he then heard two women outside his window, an elderly one and a younger one. He could hear the younger woman say, “Mother, I will do it myself. You are tired. Go inside.” And the older one, Mother Theresa, he heard say, “No, I must take care of this man.” The Dominican priest went to the window, and saw Mother Theresa bend down and pick this man up, with his wounds, and roll him into her habit. And that point, the Dominican priest broke. He went down his knees at his bed and cried. He asked God, “What is wrong with me? How come I’m not willing to touch those who are sick, those who are diseased, and yet you stooped down to touch me? And at that moment his life changed. Because he saw one person, Mother Theresa, acting as the Good Samaritan, the neighbor. Mother Theresa won the Nobel Prize for doing what Moses instructed us to do. It is not far away in the sky, or across the sea; it is very near to you, already in your hearts. You only have to carry it out.

It means going outside of your comfort zone. It means taking your religion into your life, into your heart, and into your actions. Not comfortably, but sacrificially. It’s your brother who is homeless and hungry, smelly, dirty, drug-addicted, alcoholic, hungry, sinful, and selfish. It is your sister. Your father. Your mother. Your son. Your daughter. No matter their race, their culture, their sexual orientation, their beliefs. Go to them, tend to them, love them. “For whatever you did for these, the least of My brothers and sisters, you did for Me.” As Jesus first loved you, go and do likewise.

But let’s look at something else about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It wasn’t the Israelites who treated their fellow Israelite with compassion, those who knew the Law, (both of charity toward the wounded, or burial for the dead) and for whatever reason, failed in their obligation of the Law. It was only the Samaritan who did what was righteous. The Samaritans were those descended from the Northern tribes who were left behind when the Assyrians dispersed them, and brought in pagans to take over the land. They considered themselves the faithful remnant, both after the Assyrian dispersion, and the Babylonian Exile. They had set up their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, and their sacred writings were the Torah, but not with the later writings. The Israelites considered them genetic and spiritual mongrels, part Israelite and part pagan, and so they were both impure and heretical. They didn’t live the right way, they didn’t worship the right way, and they worshiped in a false temple. And yet the Samaritan is the hero in the parable Jesus is telling to the scholar of the law. The Samaritan might not know the law, but he lives it, at least in this act of kindness.

This does not mean to say that right worship is unimportant. Worshiping God is the most important thing we do, and the second is like it: taking that worship of God out into serving God in love by our serving our neighbor in love. And God has given us, through the scriptures, through Tradition, through the magisterium, the way he desires to be worshiped: through weekly active participation in the Mass, and through the other sacraments of the Church.

But it is to say that, as the Second Vatican Council did, that we are to cooperate with others outside the Church who are responding to the call to relieve suffering, to promote justice and virtue, to serve the poor, and build up others in love. We can’t throw liturgy or the true faith under the bus for the sake of playing well with others, but we can seek to fulfill common goals and projects together that serve God and our neighbors.

On Friday, a parishioner and I accepted the invitation from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to join them in a breakfast to welcome their new bishop. Do they believe things that we don’t believe? Yes, of course. And we can have conversations that help us to really clarify what we believe, and help us to understand each other better, and work together better.


(Click on image for link to article)  Bishop Gainer, with the Rev. James S. Dunlop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod (ELCA) and the Rev. Robert L Driesen of the Upper Susquehanna Synod (ELCA), are together as they sign a pastoral letter calling on Roman Catholic and Lutheran Clergy and laity to explore the joint statement, Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist “in their preaching, teaching, and parish planning.” (Photo credit – Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness)

Last month, Bishop Gainer met with and signed joint statements with the local bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran communities to encourage a deeper mutual understanding and cooperation.

Can we work together? Yes, we can.

Can we worship together? In a limited way, yes. Catholics have the requirement to participate in Mass weekly, and the divine liturgy of the Catholic Mass is a very different thing in its essence than other Christian Sunday services (even though there are many common elements). So going to another church’s Sunday Service does not suffice as attending the Mass. Catholics can attend another church’s service, but they must also go to Mass, perhaps on Saturday evening.

And since in the Catholic faith, sharing in the celebration of communion (the real presence of Jesus, sacramentally and really present, body, blood, soul, and divinity) is reserved to those who are in full communion with the Catholic faith, and living that life faithfully, communion cannot be shared between our faith and others. Catholics should not take communion in non-Catholic churches, and non-Catholics (and Catholics in mortal sin, and those in a living arrangement inconsistent with Catholic teaching) cannot take communion in a Catholic Church. Again, those with whom we do not share full communion, we can still cooperate with them, we can still serve with them, we must certainly love them, and we can certainly show hospitality to them, but we must also acknowledge the tragic divisions within Christianity, and cannot sweep them under the rug in a false gesture of peace and tolerance. Because it is only in acknowledging our differences that we can truly make progress in reconciling them. But those differences do not need to dominate our relationship with them to the point that we cannot appreciate, love, and serve with them in some common ministries, activities and celebrations.

Finally, as one of my friends said on Friday, “The world needs Jesus. We need peace – Jesus is peace. We need love – Jesus is love. We need unity – Jesus is unity. We need strength – Jesus is strength. We need forgiveness – Jesus is forgiveness. We need justice – Jesus is justice. We need Jesus.”  (Thank you, Annie Celotto)

The fullness of all that God is—power, perfection, forgiveness, healing, hope—united himself with all that humanity is—need, sinfulness, woundedness, distrust, fear—and the two meet in Jesus. In him, all of our need meets all of his gift. All of our woundedness meets all of his healing. All of our division meets all of his forgiveness. Jesus is where, or in whom, it all comes together. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

He came to us, he ministered to us, he laid down his life for us, though we were sick and infected in our wounds. Because he loves us each intimately, as members of his own body. We have an example. It is not far away in the sky, or across the sea; it is very near to you, already in your hearts. You only have to carry it out.



Be Radically Christian



What are we as Christians to do in the face of the problems of our society? That’s a burning question most of us have, or should have. How does God want us to respond to the rising frequency of difficulties for us to live as faithful Christians?

We already have the answer, we’ve known it in the past, and we’ve applied it in the past, and it’s always time to apply it again.

babylonian exileWhen the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians and deported in the Exile, they spent a lot of time reflecting on why God allowed that to happen—how God, who promised always to be faithful, and always be with his people, could allow his people to be led away captive to a foreign land, far from God’s presence in his Holy Temple, in his Holy city of Jerusalem, which was left abandoned and burned.

The conclusion they came to was that they, not God, had been unfaithful. They may have been God’s chosen people, but they were not living by the precepts that set them apart, they who had enjoyed the unique favor of being given, by God himself, the law of how to live. They had become corrupt, they had gotten too involved in international affairs, and had neglected the precepts of purity and worship that God required of them. So while they were in Exile, they added to their sacred writings to make clear that God’s blessings were contingent on their faithful response, and that righteousness and purity needed to be kept at the center of their cultural identity. It so happened that as they did this, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, and the Israelites were permitted to return to their land—an event that the Israelites had no doubt was by the hand of God, particularly in response to their having learned their lesson.

Our first reading, from near the end of the book of Isaiah, looks lovingly toward the restoration of Jerusalem, the mother of the people of God, the daughter of Zion. The reading recounts the blessings that God will shower upon Jerusalem, and the people, and inspires them to prepare themselves for the journey home, and once again to feel the comfort of their mother’s embrace.

The Church is the new Jerusalem, the place where God came to be with his people. The titles applied to Jerusalem–“Mother of the people of God”, “Daughter of Zion”–are also titles for Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus, and so by adoption, mother of all who are brothers and sisters of Jesus, his body, the Church. On feast days honoring the Blessed Mother, we often have readings that praise the holy city Jerusalem.

They probably also should have noticed that central in God’s instructions were not just requirements for purity, but also for protection for the widows, the orphans, and the poor, who are close to God’s heart. Perhaps then they wouldn’t have had the terrible friction between the two at the time of Jesus: the pharisaic legalism focused on purity, but neglecting their duty of charity and generosity toward the vulnerable and suffering.

The Islamic world figured it out, too. Discontent with the mediocrity of cultural Islam, fundamentalists looked back at their history to see what was different about the golden ages when Islam was a powerful force in the world. And they, too, saw that it was radical fidelity to the principles of Islam. A fundamentalist and literal application of the ancient texts of Islam takes as given the notions of war and fighting as a political and cultural clash between those who are faithfully living Islam by this strict, fundamentalist interpretation, and everyone else. That is the difference between Islam and Muslims, and Islamism and Islamists, who corrupt the teachings of Islam to spout anti-Western condemnation and strap bombs to themselves in the name of Islam and God.

For more information, read this.Muslim vs Islamist

It’s tempting to buy into some of the sweeping-generalizations that Muslims, in general, are a threat, but we must also keep in mind that it is a misrepresentative group of Muslims who espouse this aggressive interpretation. The majority of Muslims do not. And just as there are Christians who are wrong people who do wrong things, we must treat Muslims as we want to be treated: to be judged on our own merit, our kindness, our charity, and our faithfulness, and not those who misrepresent our faith with violence and hatred.

That isn’t to say that even moderate Islam is not without some genuine concerns in terms of its relationship with Christianity and Western culture; and also how “anti-Western” non-Islamist Muslims might be. But we can respond to this with fear, or with dialogue and interaction. Those who are here legally have as much right to be here and celebrate their faith, and enjoy their legal protections and rights (and obligations) as any of us. We would be charitable to give the benefit of the doubt to particular Muslims and their communities, and show them gracious hospitality. In the words of Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

And so how do we respond to the challenges of the world? By being radically Christian. I don’t mean Christian radicals or Christian fundamentalists–those who take some aspect of Christian teaching, and then violently and hatefully spreading that bit of the message apart from the whole (such as the KKK, Westboro Baptist Church, or those who violently attack mosques, synagogues, abortion clinics, or do any violence in the name of any Christian belief). Not radical Christian, but radically Christian. Blessed Mother Theresa, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, Dorothy Day, Pope Saint John Paul II, were radically Christian. How so? By living by the message and life of Christ: to live by the cross, as a living sacrifice; taking up our cross daily, denying ourselves, and following him; by a simple life of prayer and service in love of God and all his children.

Our second reading is the end of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. St. Paul proclaims his abandonment of himself and all things for the way of the cross. He says, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Is that difficult? It’s darn near impossible, but for the grace of God. He gives us this grace through our relationship with him—the most important relationship in your whole life. We strengthen that relationship by our worthy reception of the sacraments, by time spent in learning the Word of God, and by practicing the virtues and the works of mercy.

Jesus said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” We often use these words of Jesus to promote vocations to the priesthood. It is right and just, for we do need to encourage that, especially in a culture which so pervasively promotes the opposite (namely, self-centeredness and sexual indulgence). But in itself, the reading is not a call for more priests, it is a call for radically engaged Christians. Those who love Christ—such that their love overflows into sharing the treasure they have found with all they meet, with generosity and love. And that doesn’t just mean evangelizing to non-Christians or even non-Catholics. We are also engaged in what the Church calls “The New Evangelization,” which is to replant the seed of the love of Christ and his Church in areas and people who already received the Gospel, but where it has not (or has stopped) bearing fruit.

So what are we as Christians to do in the face of the problems of our society?

  1. We are to live the gospel—which is to live and love the cross, which is to embrace the persecution we encounter, and return a blessing; to pray for our enemies. It is to live the teachings of the Church, and oppose secular errors such as abortion, artificial contraception, artificial conception, non-marital sex, pornography, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage.
  2. We are to share the gospel, to spread far and wide—starting with those closest to us—the closeness and mercy of God as he has drawn near to us, and the divine truth of human nature, that supports why so much of what is being promoted by society is contrary to healthy human fulfillment.
  3. We are to love the gospel. We are to put God first in our lives, and all other priorities in terms of our worship of him, and our love of him. Which includes our active participation in the Mass and the sacraments, arriving early and staying until the end of Mass, every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, being dressed modestly and nicely, and refraining from receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. It means taking unpopular stances, saying unpopular things, in love, because they are right. It means prudently choosing what battles to fight and how; to avoid formal cooperation in sinful behavior; and providing faithful Catholic formation for our children.

Immaculate ConceptionIf we want to make America great, then we do so by being great American citizens, and we do that by being faithful Catholic citizens: hard-working patriotic servants, by being God’s good servants first. We remain faithful to the law of God, and then to the extent possible, to the law of the land. We stand up for the poor and vulnerable, and for truth and virtue. We pray for our families, our neighbors and our leaders.

Through the intercession and protection of the Immaculate Conception, the patron saint of our country, may we be, and always remain, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice, for all.