September 09, 2016
Labor Day Reflection 2016
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
4 September 2016
Naturally, there are many ways that one can develop a reflection for this annual September observance. We could talk about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. We could be risky and make some witty comments about the November election and issues like free trade deals, the “Fight for Fifteen” and maternity leave policies. We could talk about the decline experienced in union membership. We could speak about rights in the workplace.
Perhaps a better place to begin is Pope Francis. From the beginning of his Pontificate, my jaw has dropped from his gestures. Days after the conclave, he returned to his pre-conclave hotel to pay the bill himself. I like to imagine him saying, “Oh, yes, I checked in under a different name.”
At about the same time, he called the kiosk in Argentina to cancel his newspaper subscription. Or remember when he visited the Vatican print shop or ate with Vatican workers in the cafeteria. I suspect that everyone finished their vegetables that day before launching into dessert!
What then, might Pope Francis be calling us to, given this example? First, Pope Francis, over and over again, gives witness to seeing the poor who are most often invisible to us.
Second, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asks us to see our participation in the economy more clearly. So much of what he has written in recent years is structured around the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Frankly, I hear him talking about confession far more than his recent predecessors. His recent book, The Name of God is Mercy, recounts stories of Pope John Paul I as a great confessor, and Pope Francis shares advice to priests about being a confessor. On Thursday, Pope Francis’ message for the Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation is structured around the Rite of Reconciliation: an examination of conscience, the confession itself, “a firm purpose of amendment,” and, perhaps a penance in the additional corporal and spiritual work of mercy.
What might it mean for me to see more clearly? There is an old phrase: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” How do I spend and what does it suggest about me? Since February, I go to the Metro Market on Van Buren and Juneau. Sadly, I do not know one employee there by name. They have been kind enough: they direct me to the item I need, they ring up my purchases, and they place my items in my durable bags. They keep the store clean and shelves stocked, and I have not bothered to learn one name. Also, if I reflect upon my purchases, I eat cereal with fruit almost every day for breakfast. Today, I had Honey Nut Cheerios with fresh strawberries. There is a boycott on Driscoll’s right now as some workers in Mexico claim that they are paid just $6 a day for their labors. My short was made in Bangladesh. The workers who made this shirt were probably paid about $2.20, not for this shirt, but for their day’s labor. When we go home for lunch, the lettuce on our sandwich or in our salad was harvested by an underpaid worker. If we stop for fast food or a restaurant, we know the wages cannot care for a family. Our cell phones, chocolate, coffee, and clothing are rife with supply chains that include human trafficking and systemic violations of people’s human rights. Is there anything we can do? Is the Gospel simply aspirational? Or is it programmatic?
The second reading, Paul’s letter to Philemon, suggests a personal way forward. As Catholics, our reading of the Bible is often uneven. Some here may have read the Scriptures cover-to-cover, but, if you have never read a book of the Bible all the way through, here is your chance. Philemon is just 25 verses, and we heard a very significant portion today. To get inside it, we need to understand that we have heard just half of a conversation. Another half– what lead up to it or what follows– is shrouded in a certain mystery, but we can make some educated guesses.
Philemon was a wealthy man is Colossae. He gets a letter from St. Paul, who had baptized him. Paul was writing from prison, “a prisoner for Christ.” Getting a letter back in those days was an important thing, and such a letter would have been read aloud, often in front of an audience. In days before FedEx and UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, this letter was carried by someone close to Paul, by all appearances the letter was carried by Onesimus. Who was Onesimus? He apparently was baptized by Paul, served him during his imprisonment, and, now, Paul is sending a person dear to his own heart to Philemon. But there is another crucial detail about the message and the messenger. Onesimus, a runaway slave, had been a slave to Philemon. Paul’s message: receive Onesimus as a brother.
What is Philemon to do? He has three choices, it would seem. First, he is a runaway slave. If he receives him as a brother, Philemon risks losing all of his other slaves. He also risks a shunning from his social and economic peers. He has every “right” to put Philmon to death. Second, perhaps, he could be merciful and give him a severe flogging or make him a “house slave” rather than a “field slave.” The third, most radical choice, is to do as Paul asks: receive him as a brother, again risking all on behalf of the Gospel.
Given such choices and ramifications, what did he do? I would suggest, as many others have, that he indeed did receive him as a brother. First, that the letter exists today suggests that this true. If he had killed or merely flogged Onesimus, he probably would have destroyed the letter. Instead, that the letter survives suggests that it was lovingly cared for and held in a place of respect. Secondly, and while this is far less assured to be one and the same person, following St. Timothy as bishop of the nearby city of Ephesus was a bishop named Onesimus. The romantic in me likes the notion that a former slave became a bishop in the early church.
We are embedded in networks of privilege, prejudice and power so commonplace that often neither oppressors nor victims are aware of them. Hence, the violence and pain that most afflicts us today is hidden: the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relationships between communities and nations, that allows for a slow decay of culture and makes us indifferent. Though not as noticeable as a bomb or a gunshot, these realities are just as deadly. Like Philemon, we must have the vision to see and the courage to act.
We are called to reimagine God’s preference for the poor. We live in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture,” that treats people as things and is tempted to discard the weak and the vulnerable, those without money or power or voice. This story upends that vision and makes “useful” one who was deemed useless. It is life in solidarity, an old word, but our word. Solidarity is not a one-time gesture, but a permanent way of being in the world. The vision to see and the courage to act is about being in right relationship with God, with family, with my adversary, with the low wage worker, with care of our common home. The radical vision of seeing the other as Christ, of receiving the other as a brother or sister, is as powerful today as in the days of Scripture. If we really seek to live it, it will upend our world, and we will upend the world.
September 09, 2016
Today, Pope Francis released a beautiful message to the world on the occasion of World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The message is worth reading in its entirety and can be found here:
The message is imbued with the spirit of the Year of Mercy and structured upon an examination of conscience and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Pope Francis writes: “After a serious examination of conscience and moved by sincere repentance, we can confess our sins against the Creator, against creation, and against our brothers and sisters.” Pope Francis continues in the next paragraph, writing that “Examining our consciences, repentance and confession to our Father who is rich in mercy lead to a firm purpose of amendment. This in turn must translate into concrete ways of thinking and acting that are more respectful of creation.”
To underscore a few highlights, Pope Francis asked all of us to undergo an examination of conscience and to see that:
As individuals, we have grown comfortable with certain lifestyles shaped by a distorted culture of prosperity and a “disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary” (Laudato Si’, 123), and we are participants in a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.” Let us repent of the harm we are doing to our common home.
In 2002, St. John Paul II revised how we pray the rosary, inserting the Luminous Mysteries. In a similar move, this document adds one to both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The new, eighth spiritual work of mercy is “grateful contemplation of God’s world,” and the eighth corporal work of mercy is “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.”
Here at The Human Thread we resonate deeply with this message from our Holy Father. We humbly suggest that our work with the St. Vincent Pledge, which is a simple daily gesture, and our actions on behalf of garment workers and care of creation provide an explicit way to live this new corporal work of mercy.
We join with Pope Francis, who wrote:
The protection of our common home requires a growing global political consensus. Along these lines, I am gratified that in September 2015 the nations of the world adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, and that, in December 2015, they approved the Paris Agreement on climate change, which set the demanding yet fundamental goal of halting the rise of the global temperature. Now governments are obliged to honour the commitments they made, while businesses must also responsibly do their part. It is up to citizens to insist that this happen, and indeed to advocate for even more ambitious goals.
We believe that our work at The Human Thread is deeply aligned with the message of our Holy Father. We also keenly see that citizens must hold governments and business accountable to do their part in the care of creation and the protection of the most poor and vulnerable.
August 08, 2016
Some years back, I remember a policy expert writing about the importance of generating new statistics that might wake the public up to hunger and poverty. The writer insisted that searching out those dramatic illustrations of our condition is an important exercise in hope, hope that things will change, in spite of what the author dubbed “the big shrug.” I cannot find the original article, although I found something from Paul Krugman that similarly invokes “The Big Shrug.” Krugman’s reference is to policy makers more than the general public.
This week, a moving photo has made the rounds. The photo (above), and the story of its origins, has shocked and moved many viewers. It may briefly awaken us from our complacency and draw us anew to ask what we can do. I also recall another photo of another boy from Syria.
This image from a Turkish beach likewise shocked and moved when it appeared in September of 2015. We cannot say that we do not know about these things. Sadly, little has changed in our attitudes and actions towards the violence in Syria.
Similarly, our work at The Human Thread with the garment industry, on behalf of international garment workers, also arises from dramatic moments when our attention shifts to those persons all-too-often invisible to us. The tragic events at Rana Plaza momentarily drew us from our sleep to see the garment worker as neighbor, as brother and sister.
The temptation is fall into complacency, bitterness, even fatalism, in Krugman’s words “a sense that nothing need be done and nothing can be done.” With Syria or with the garment industry, such big forces are at work, what can one person do? We must guard against despair and the litany of temptations that can bring us low and impede change.
In 2015, Pope Francis, speaking of the “globalization of indifference,” invites us to move beyond “the big shrug.” He calls us to learn to see others as sister and brother, no matter their nationality, language, race, or creed. The work of justice, our work, is born of honesty and hope. It sees the world clearly as it is, and it sees the world as it should be, as God made it to be. Our work is to nudge the world as it is to be closer to the world as it should be.
In his Lenten message of 2015, Pope Francis urged three actions to resist the globalization of indifference:
As individuals too, we are tempted by indifference. Flooded with news reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness? First, we can pray in communion with the Church on earth and in heaven. Let us not underestimate the power of so many voices united in prayer!
Second, we can help by acts of charity, reaching out to both those near and far through the Church’s many charitable organizations. Lent is a favourable time for showing this concern for others by small yet concrete signs of our belonging to the one human family.
Third, the suffering of others is a call to conversion, since their need reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters. If we humbly implore God’s grace and accept our own limitations, we will trust in the infinite possibilities which God’s love holds out to us. We will also be able to resist the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves.
Let us then commit ourselves anew to prayer, to personal acts of charity, and to conversion. May this shape our hearts and give us strength to do walk the long road to justice, the long road to see all as our sisters and brothers.
May 05, 2016
St Peter’s Square
Wednesday, 18 May 2016
Poverty and Mercy (cf Lk 16:19-31)
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Good morning!
I should like to pause with you today on the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus. The lives of these two people seem to run on parallel tracks: their life status is opposite and not at all connected. The gate of the rich man’s house is always closed to the poor man, who lies outside it, seeking to eat the leftovers from the rich man’s table. The rich man is dressed in fine clothes, while Lazarus is covered with sores; the rich man feasts sumptuously every day, while Lazarus starves. Only the dogs take care of him, and they come to lick his wounds. This scene recalls the harsh reprimand of the Son of Man at the Last Judgement: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was […] naked and you did not clothe me” (Mt 25:42-43). Lazarus is a good example of the silent cry of the poor throughout the ages and the contradictions of a world in which immense wealth and resources are in the the hands of the few.
Jesus says that one day that rich man died: the poor and the rich die, they have the same destiny, like all of us, there are no exceptions to this. Thus, that man turned to Abraham, imploring him in the name of ‘father’ (vv. 24, 27). Thereby claiming to be his son, belonging to the People of God. Yet in life he showed no consideration toward God. Instead he made himself the centre of all things, closed inside his world of luxury and wastefulness. In excluding Lazarus, he did not take into consideration the Lord nor his law. To ignore a poor man is to scorn God! We must learn this well: to ignore the poor is to scorn God. There is a detail in the parable that is worth noting: the rich man has no name, but only an adjective: ‘the rich man’; while the name of the poor man is repeated five times, and ‘Lazarus’ means ‘God helps’. Lazarus, who is lying at the gate, is a living reminder to the rich man to remember God, but the rich man does not receive that reminder. Hence, he will be condemned not because of his wealth, but for being incapable of feeling compassion for Lazarus and for not coming to his aid.
In the second part of the parable, we again meet Lazarus and the rich man after their death (vv. 22-31). In the hereafter the situation is reversed: the poor Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom in heaven, while the rich man is thrown into torment. Thus the rich man “lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom”. He seems to see Lazarus for the first time, but his words betray him: “Father Abraham”, he calls, “have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame”. Now the rich man recognizes Lazarus and asks for his help, while in life he pretended not to see him. How often do many people pretend not to see the poor! To them the poor do not exist. Before he denied him even the leftovers from his table, and now he would like him to bring him a drink! He still believes he can assert rights through his previous social status. Declaring it impossible to grant his request, Abraham personally offers the key to the whole story: he explains that good things and evil things have been distributed so as to compensate for earthly injustices, and the door that in life separated the rich from the poor is transformed into “a great chasm”. As long as Lazarus was outside his house, the rich man had the opportunity for salvation, to thrust open the door, to help Lazarus, but now that they are both dead, the situation has become irreparable. God is never called upon directly, but the parable clearly warns: God’s mercy toward us is linked to our mercy toward our neighbour; when this is lacking, also that of not finding room in our closed heart, He cannot enter. If I do not thrust open the door of my heart to the poor, that door remains closed. Even to God. This is terrible.
At this point, the rich man thinks about his brothers, who risk suffering the same fate, and he asks that Lazarus return to the world in order to warn them. But Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them”. In order to convert, we must not wait for prodigious events, but open our heart to the Word of God, which calls us to love God and neighbour. The Word of God may revive a withered heart and cure it of its blindness. The rich man knew the Word of God, but did not let it enter his heart, he did not listen to it, and thus was incapable of opening his eyes and of having compassion for the poor man. No messenger and no message can take the place of the poor whom we meet on the journey, because in them Jesus himself comes to meet us: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40), Jesus says. Thus hidden in the reversal of fate that the parable describes lies the mystery of our salvation, in which Christ links poverty with mercy.
Dear brothers and sisters, listening to this Gospel passage, all of us, together with the poor of the earth, can sing with Mary: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk 1:52-53).
Originally posted on the Vatican website here.