At our youth group's spaghetti supper last night, two young parishioners shared their opinions of my beard. The preschooler told me it's "handsome," while her 3rd grade sister said it makes me look "sophisticated." (Guess who's gonna be my Valentine this year?)
And then today, at a luncheon following a baptism, the grandmother shared that one of her other granddaughters (4-years-old, I'd guess) said she'd taken a nap during my homily because "God was talking too loud." (Anytime you get mistaken for the Lord it's a good thing, no?)
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time B
I spent this past week on a little vacation,
visiting friends and relatives around northern New York.
A couple of observations from my travels
seem pertinent this Sunday morning.
In the four homes in which I stayed,
I found myself surrounded by children—toddlers, in particular.
And I loved it.
(Fr. Stitt is not nearly as much fun to play with!)
But one particular encounter with little folks stands out.
I ran into a group of preschoolers
who were wrapping up a hard day of coloring, snack- and nap-time,
all bunched up together and giggling
as 3- and 4-year-olds are wont to do.
I instantly noticed that one of the boys
had a rather misshapen face and head.
It was not at all grotesque, but nonetheless quite startling.
I tried my best not to stare,
but observed the scene long enough to realize
that none of his peers seemed to notice anything different about him.
It’s amazing—isn’t it—how children don’t make distinctions?
For our first few years on this earth,
we don’t seem to care much about differences
of gender, age, skin color, or disability.
But how very quickly and dramatically that all changes!
By junior high, much of our time and attention is consumed
by what’s cool and what’s not, who’s in and who’s out:
ready to change our looks or change our behavior—
whatever it takes to fit in, to feel like we belong.
And the second observation.
Driving more than 500 miles over the course of the week
gave me a lot of time to listen to the radio in my car.
And switching between stations as I traveled along,
I noticed a lot of discussion about the Catholic reaction
to the recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ruling
on contraceptives and abortion inducing drugs
as mandated health care services.
Interspersed with sound bites from Catholic Bishops and politicians
speaking in passionate defense of religious liberty,
I heard survey results which claim to show
that 98% of sexually active American Catholic women today
use artificial birth control,
and that nearly half of American Catholics
think abortion should be legal in most circumstances—
regardless of what their Church teaches.
Such data—the pundits argued—show the U.S. Bishops
to be grossly out of touch with the people in the pew.
Why, then, all this fuss over insurance coverage?
The majority of American Catholics are just like everybody else.
So…what’s the connection between these two observations?
The way I see it, in our desire to be accepted, to belong, to “fit in,”
we Catholics in America have—unwittingly—gone too far.
Not wanting to stand out as different from the rest,
we’ve been too willing to compromise.
In order to better understand out current situation,
I want to take you back—way back—
to the second half of the second century.
Among the Church’s ancient treasures is the text of a letter—
known as the Epistle to Diognetus*—
written not much more than 100 years
after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We’re not sure who wrote it,
though the author was certainly a Christian.
And we’re not sure to whom it was written,
though it’s certainly addressed to a non-believer.
It comes from a time when Christianity was not well understood,
and the predominant culture was increasingly suspicious of it—
a time not unlike today.
Listen to how this letter describes the place of Christians
in the wider world:
Christians cannot be distinguished
from the rest of the human race
by country or language or customs.
They do not live in cities of their own;
they do not use a peculiar form of speech;
they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.
In clothing and food and other matters of daily living,
they follow the customs of whatever city
they happen to be living in…
See—you might be tempted to think—
Christians have always tried to blend in!
And yet [the letter goes on]
there is something extraordinary about their lives. …
Listen to what it says is so distinctive about the followers of Jesus:
Like everyone else, they marry and have children,
but they do not expose their offspring.
It was not only socially acceptable,
but approved and even encouraged,
for unwanted newborns (especially girls) to simply be abandoned:
left exposed to the elements to die.
Roman law actually obliged a father to do so
with a deformed infant.
Abortion—usually induced by poison—
was officially frowned upon (although frequent enough),
not out of any concern for unborn babies,
but because it violated a man’s right to dispose of his own children.
The letter continues:
[Christians] share their table with each other,
but not their marriage bed.
Divorce was easy and common.
Prostitution was legal and widespread.
Erotic paintings decorated the walls of many upper-class houses.
It was acceptable for men—single or married—
to have lovers of one or both sexes,
including those much younger than themselves.
In light of these, marriage and the birth rate
were in such marked decline during the reign of Caesar Augustus
that he imposed higher taxes on unwed men and women
in an effort to reverse the trend.
(Now there’s a government policy guaranteed
to make both liberal and conservative heads spin!)
Given such notable differences, the letter goes on:
Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. …
They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. …
They are reviled, and yet they bless;
when they are insulted, they still pay due respect.
So…the earliest Christians were distinguished
from the surrounding culture by:
(1) the way they treated little children,
(2) the way they treated sexuality and the institution of marriage, and
(3) the way they treated those who hated them for this.
Sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it? Or…at least, it ought to.
My fear—and I’m not alone here—
is that we’re quickly losing our hold on these things
which have made us rightfully different for the last 2,000 years.
Archbishop Charles Chaput has made this observation—
one I heard repeated over the car radio the other day:
The Church in the United States has done a poor job
of forming the faith and conscience of Catholics
for more than 40 years.
And now we’re harvesting the results—
in the public square, in our families
and in the confusion of our personal lives. …
[U]nless Catholics have a conversion of heart
that helps us see what we’ve become—
that we haven’t just “assimilated” to American culture,
but that we’ve also been absorbed
and bleached and digested by it—
then we’ll fail in our duties to a new generation… .
And a real Catholic presence in American life
will continue to weaken and disappear. (Toronto, 2/23/09)**
And what is this “duty”? the purpose of this “Catholic presence”?
Again, from that second century letter…
To put it simply:
Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body. …
It is by the [invisible] soul, enclosed within the body,
that the body is held together,
and similarly, it is by Christians, detained in the world…,
that the world is held together. …
It is to no less a position than this that God has appointed them,
and they must not try to escape it.
Everyone wants to belong—to be accepted, to fit in.
Little wonder the Church has a ritual—as we’ve just witnessed—
to accept and welcome those in the process of joining her ranks,
greeting them right at the church doors.
When Jesus cured the leper,
he restored not only his health, but his human dignity
by making it possible for him to be part of the community again.
We Christians are to continue that work today:
to stretch out our hands to the untouchables,
to welcome in the outsiders,
that people from everywhere might keep coming to Jesus—
their hearts to be cleansed, their wounds to be healed.
But in our efforts to be accepting
and—as St. Paul instructs—to avoid giving offence,
we must not be afraid of being different ourselves—
true to who we are and to what we stand for.
In the vigorous debate over federal insurance mandates,
opposing voices want to characterize it
as an issue of either health care or religious liberty.
In reality, it’s both…and it’s more,
for it comes down—I believe—to a genuine desire
to be Catholic and American, and to be each without compromise.
We serve our nation best, my dear friends
by being faithful sons and daughters of the Church.
God has called us to be this world’s soul!
Which means that—sometimes—we must dare to be different,
and not just like everybody else.
* You can find the full text of the Epistle here.
I used a few different English translations in composing this homily.
**Archbishop Chaput's complete address can be found here
Then of Denver, he's now the Archbishop of Philadelphia.