Wednesday, November 28, 2007

33 Sunday C #159

Mal 3, 19-20a
Ps 98
2 Thes, 3, 7-12
Lk 21, 5-19

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
November 18, 2007

Saint Paul was near the end of his days when he wrote this Second Letter to the Thessalonians. More than a generation’s time had passed since Jesus had gone to the Father. Still, many believers expected Jesus’ Second Coming any day, any minute. And so some of them put aside all worldly cares, even their own personal responsibilities. Why go off to work if Jesus is going to put an end to this earthy order of things, maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow? What’s to work for; what’s to save for? The End is near! Years before even Paul seemed to say as much in his First Letter to the Thessalonians. But as the years passed and Jesus tarried, Paul and the community of the Church began to realize that they had better hunker down for the long haul. So in today’s reading, we hear Paul telling people to get to work. That is how we are to understand his words, “anyone unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

Work can be drudgery. It is not meant to be so. Work may be hard and we may win our bread by the sweat of our brows quite literally. But work is meant to be ennobling, all honest work, no matter how humble. Even as a child I knew this. When one of my grammar school teachers warned us, “Learn your lessons, do your homework or you will end up sweeping the floors, like Sam the janitor,” I felt ashamed, not for Sam the janitor, but for my teacher. Sam was doing a job that was worth doing, keeping our school clean and safe, and he did it honestly.

My uncle Charley swept out a courthouse in Brooklyn. He was lucky to have the job. His father had died much too young, a “Christ in Concrete,” the old story, an immigrant worked to death on a construction site. He left a widow and five children, so the oldest boy, Charley, took
a job in construction to support his mother and the family. He was twelve years old. In the heat and strain of it, he collapsed, suffered what they called a sun-stroke, and never recovered his full mental capacity. So a local politician got him the job sweeping the courthouse floor. That’s the way it worked in those days.

Not every job is worth doing (let me suggest advertising) and not everyone gives an honest day’s work and not everyone gets an honest, that is to say, a just day’s pay. But all honest work is honorable. In our society we still tend to look down on so-called menial labor and prize prestige jobs. That’s not the way Saint Paul saw it. Paul made his living as a tent-maker. He was also a student, a scholar of the Hebrew holy books. But he was happy to make a living mending tents.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns the disciples against false expectations and false prophets. And many false prophets there have been, false messiahs in our own time, who have promised an earthly paradise only to deliver death and destruction. Jesus warns of natural disasters and war and persecution, but he assures us that “not a hair of your head will be harmed,” that he himself will deliver us if we keep faith.

There is work to be done. Today’s Psalm tells us that when the Lord comes he will rule the world with justice. Justice is the work of his people on earth, and peace the fruit of justice. You may have read in the news media last week that our bishops have just issued another Voters’ Guideline in preparation for the next election cycle. They put forward issues for us to consider when deciding who gets our vote. The secular news media picked up on only one, abortion, maybe two, embryonic stem cell research. They neglect to say that our bishops include every crime against life, naming specifically racism, unjust war, capital punishment and the denial of adequate medical care to so many of our citizens, and the abuse of immigrants and neglect of the poor. The bishops do not suggest which candidates or what party faithful Catholics ought to vote for, but they warn against “single-issue” voting.

Social justice issues are not tacked on to the preaching of the Christian Gospel. They are not optional – take it or leave it. They are integral, a “constitutive” element, as the Roman Synod of world bishops put it in their 1971 pastoral letter on justice. They are essential to our Gospel proclamation. Justice, social justice, must never give way to sentimental piety. You can not come to God to escape reality, or to Jesus Christ or to his Church to escape reality. Far from it! Quite the contrary! God is the ultimate reality. Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God and the Church is the mystery, the sacrament of the unity of the human race in all its joy and hope, suffering and grief, and his Mystical Body on earth. This is no new doctrine.

Saint Anthony of Padua is a favorite saint among our people. He was a close follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. His statue has a favored place in many of our homes, a brown-robed Franciscan holding the Baby Jesus to his chest, and a lily. So lovely, so sweet! In fact, Anthony didn’t walk around with a lily in one hand and Baby Jesus in the other. He was a terror to the money-lenders of his day. He pounded the loan-sharks so hard that people called him Il Martello, The Hammer. The bankers were not pleased. They told Anthony to keep to the sanctuary arranging Christmas crèches and not to upset people. But no, he thundered “Justice!” from the pulpit and in the marketplace. And he was heard. Anthony inveighed against the abuse of the poor so insistently, so passionately that he moved a council of the Church to condemn usury. And God loved him for that. No less is required of us today. Christ will not tarry forever.

Remember the words of the Prophet Malachi:

“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
And the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving neither root nor branch, says the Lord God of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Come, Lord Jesus!


1,111 words
29 Sunday C #147

Ex 17, 8-13
Ps 121
2 Tm 3, 14- 4, 2
Lk 18, 1-8

Deacon Tom Cornell
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
October 21, 2007

This is one of my favorite Gospel passages, the parable of the persevering widow and the need to pray without ceasing and never lose heart. The judge says, “I must give this widow her just rights or she will persist in coming and worry me to death.” That’s not what the Greek says. Luke actually wrote, “I will judge in her favor or she will give me a black eye.”

Pray without ceasing, and keep from losing heart! How, especially in times like these? We need examples, models to follow, to show the way. There is a spiritual thirst in our world, a sense that things are not going right, that there is something more to life than material comfort and looking out for Number One. It’s not just war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not just global warming and the threat to the environment or the instability of the stock market or the falling dollar or the disintegration of families. It’s not just a coarsening of the culture and a general dumbing down. It’s all these and more. There is a thirst, a hunger in every heart that only God can satisfy.

Peter Maurin warned that the greatest possible mistake a society can make is to keep religious belief private and out of public space, to marginalize God and religion. Do that and you create a vacuum. Something else will take their place, fortune-tellers, astrologers on the one hand and fundamentalist fanatics on the other, and the shopping mall becomes the new cathedral.

When I was a boy, growing up in World War II, there was a general sense that we were all praying, all of us, Jews and Christians and everyone, that the terrible evil we faced would be overcome. Even as staunch a pacifist as Dorothy Day said, “Hitler had to be stopped.” And God bless those who stopped him! The men who fought World War II were only ten or twelve years older than I. When they came back home, they changed America, for the better. We prayed, they prayed. We gave thanks to them and to God that the war was over, that the Nazi threat was over. The human heart needs to pray, to give thanks!

Perhaps some of you saw the new Ken Burns film, The War, on TV last week. If you did you might have seen the program that immediately followed it on some channels, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight. It’s the story of the conscientious objectors of that time, many of them Quakers and Mennonites, and a few Catholics, a very few. These men made America a better place too. They contributed to medical science by lending their bodies to experimentation. Some were the subjects of a study of starvation; others were injected with hepatitis virus, at great risk, sometimes at the cost of their lives. When they were released, they jump-started the civil rights movement with a Freedom Ride in 1947 and stayed with it all the way through.

One of the Catholics was my good friend, Gordon Zahn, of Milwaukee. Gordon spent the war years in a camp for alternative service. After the war, he taught sociology at Loyola University in Chicago. In 1962 he published a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, that documented beyond refutation the support and even collaboration the German hierarchy gave the Nazi war machine. The Church in Germany got a black eye! That made some people angry – not at the Church’s failure but at Gordon for admitting it. Gordon lost his job at Loyola and went on to the University of Massachusetts and was finally vindicated; his work would have its effect at the Second Vatican Council.

The story isn’t all bad. There were priests in Germany and Austria who resisted. In some deaneries even a majority of priests were taken into Gestapo custody, at least for a while, and a few were imprisoned, and some were executed. Gordon wanted to tell their story too. In a book about a martyred priest, Gordon came upon a brief reference to a 36 year old Austrian peasant, Franz Jaegerstaetter, the only Catholic layman known to have refused military service in the Nazi army. Gordon thought there might be a story there, so he secured a study grant and traveled to Saint Radegund, the small village of about one hundred families where Jaegerstaetter had lived. He took a room in the local inn, spent most evenings for a week or so in the pub downstairs to pick up the local dialect. He intended to survey the townspeople to determine what was their attitude toward the sole dissenter, the only citizen of the town who had voted against the Anschluss, Austria’s incorporation into Greater Germany after the Nazi invasion of 1938, and the only one to refuse military service, at the cost of his life.

The townspeople remembered Jaegerstaetter fondly as a lusty, a rowdy youth, always ready for a brawl, and a little less fondly as a man who had undergone a conversion from nominal Catholic to committed daily communicant and sexton of the parish church. They attributed his conversion to his wife, a pious and very beautiful woman who bore him three daughters. He still enjoyed a beer or two, but Franz’s visits to the tavern became less frequent after his conversion, largely because they often ended in political arguments about the benefits of the Nazi regime. Jaegerstaetter operated a small farm, but he refused any government subsidy or any cash allotment for his children from the Nazi state, again, the only one in town to do so. And when he was greeted with “Heil Hitler,” he responded with “Pfui Hitler!” That annoyed some of his fellow citizens.

Gordon visited Jaegerstaetter’s widow and their children, a few times. He dropped in on the widow just before his departure back to the States, to say good-bye. He thought his work was over. He had collected all the data he needed for an attitudinal study of a social deviant in Nazi Austria. But just as he was about to take his leave, the widow, Franziska, told Gordon she had been keeping something up attic she had never shown anyone before. She handed Gordon a packet of letters that Franz had written her from prison, and a series of essays he had written on the nature of Nazism and the responsibility of a Christian in the face of it. Here was a peasant, hidden away from the world of ideas, a man of grammar school education, but a man who saw what few others saw: the evil, pagan, idolatrous nature of Nazism. He recalled in one of his essays a dream he had. There was a train, a brightly painted and decorated train winding its way around a mountain. Men and women ran and jumped to board it, and children too. Then a voice was heard over a loudspeaker: “This train is going to Hell!” And yet the people scrambled over each other to get on board. The train, Franz wrote, stood for Hitler and the Nazi program. He would not board that train to Hell! He refused the military oath and was beheaded in Brandenburg on the 9th of August, 1943.

Franz Jaegerstaetter had no reason to think that anyone anywhere outside his small village would ever know of his sacrifice. That is why Gordon Zahn entitled his story In Solitary Witness, published in 1964. That book inspired and encouraged many young men of the Viet Nam war period. But the book also opened old wounds. It exposed, once again, the black eye the Church in Austria and Germany had given itself during the Nazi years. After the war, Jaegerstaetter was proposed for canonization as a saint, a martyr for the faith, but many bishops thought this was an implicit criticism of themselves and their support of Hitler’s wars and took offense. But now, sixty-four years after his death, this coming Friday, October 26, 2007, at the request of the entire body of Catholic bishops of Austria, Pope Benedict has authorized the beatification of Franz Jaegerstaetter, at a ceremony to take place in the Cathedral of Linz, the town where he had been imprisoned. He is to be held up as a model of authentic Christian discipleship for our time, a model for youth to imitate.

It wasn’t politics that motivated Franz Jaegerstaetter. It was the Christian Gospel. It was the love of Christ, his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer and in his Church, no matter how compromised it may have been. Franz Jaegerstaetter had found a way of praying without ceasing, of perseverance in the faith. His was the triumph. His widow, now 94 years old, will be there at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Linz next Friday. But Gordon Zahn will not. He will be in his room at an old folks’ home in Milwaukee, deep into his Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe, for a moment, he will be aware of the great things that have come from his work and his faith and his perseverance.

Now it is for others, younger, to take up the task, lest the Church of our time and country suffer a black eye. There’s a train at our station too. It’s bright and shiny, but it is a train to Hell. It’s not Nazism, thank God. It is egoism that denies community and the common good. It is materialism and consumerism. It is an unsustainable life-style that requires pillage and murder and war to feed itself.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on this earth?

1,637 words