Jon 3, 1-5. 10
1Cor 7, 29-31
Mk 1, 1-15
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 25, 2015
Deacon Tom Cornell
Nineveh was an enormous city, once the largest city in the world, but that was long ago, over two thousand years. Now it lies in ruins. Its massive wall remains, and little else. A few days after Christmas, 2002, before the US invasion of Iraq, a small group of us stood under the arch of what was once a Nineveh city gate to read the whole Book of Jonah. Then we went across the Tigris to Mosul. A giant bell tower with a large Christian Cross to mark a Catholic parish and school rose above the city. I wonder if it’s still there. St. Thomas the Apostle founded that church. It is now almost entirely gone. Christians have been forced either to convert to Islam or to flee, to abandon their homes, their shops, their livelihoods or to die. How much of it is our fault, we must ask ourselves! Why should we care? Because we are one body, one church.
Today’s Gospel reading from Mark tells of the calling of the first apostles. “Come, follow me; I will make you fishers of men.” They left their father and his hired men and went off with Jesus on the spot. For three years they travelled with Jesus, walking through Galilee, up the Syrian coast, through Samaria, finally to Jerusalem, learning from him of the approaching Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ mission was to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 10, 5-6). But it was through Jesus that the promise to Abraham that his children would be a blessing to all peoples would be fulfilled. It was only after his death and resurrection that Jesus’ ultimate purpose was revealed to the Twelve, the Apostles, their mission: “Make disciples of all the nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Mt 28, 19-20).
From Jerusalem the apostles went out. None of them established as many churches as Paul with the possible exception of Thomas, who traveled as far as India, where a vibrant Catholic church thrives today in the State of Kerala.
The church is local and it is universal, governed by all the bishops gathered around the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, whose primary function it is to symbolize and to guarantee the unity of the Church spread throughout the world. We have been blessed with wonderful popes during my time. And what a Pope we have today! We knew, from the very first words he spoke to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square after his election that a new day is dawning. We expected to hear Latin, something like “Laudetur Jesus Christus,” “Jesus Christ be praised,” which is fine, but what we heard was, “Buona Sera!” “Good afternoon!” Instead of blessing the crowd, the Pope asked their blessing, and bowed.
Pope Francis will not change the doctrine of the Church. No one can do that. But he will forward a fundamental purpose, to serve the people, especially the poor and those who have no one else to speak for them. For the Church speaks to people’s material as well as their spiritual needs, good news to the poor. What does good news to the poor sound like? “You’re getting a disability check right now, about a thousand dollars a month. We’ll cut that back to eight hundred next year.” Does that sound like good news to you, to the poor? "We can’t afford to educate your children past high school because we’d have to raise taxes?” Does that sound like good news to the poor? Redistribution of wealth may not be good news to the super-rich, but they can take it.
When the Holy Father speaks of the need for the redistribution of wealth, some people think he’s talking some kind of new and dangerous idea. Not at all. It comes right out of the Prophets of Israel and the Jubilee Year of the Old Testament and out of the social doctrine of the Church. Listen to this:
“Workers have been surrendered… to the hard-heartedness of employers and to greed… so that a small number of the very rich have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery.” Is that Karl Marx? No, it’s Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, On the Condition of the Working Class, in 1891. Our society has made great advances since then, due largely to organized labor, but we have also taken steps backward. The gap between their productivity and workers’ pay and the gap between rich and poor have been growing step by step along with the decline of organized labor.
The social doctrine of the Church continues to develop by way of
papal encyclicals and the teachings of bishops’ synods and national conferences of bishops. The Synod of Bishops in 1971 decreed that work for justice is a constitutive, that is an essential, element of the preaching of the Gospel. It’s not optional, something you can tack on if you want it. Some people didn’t like that and have been trying to water that teaching down ever since. They won’t get far with Pope Francis in Rome.
Our archdiocesan seminary has commissioned me over the past several years to teach Catholic Social Doctrine to deacon candidates, like our dear Vinny Porcelli. Deacons have a special responsibility to convey our social teaching to the people because of the very nature of our order, the diaconate. We are not priests. Ours is not a priestly office. It is an office of justice and charity on behalf of our bishops. Charity is a hard word. No one wants to be the recipient of charity. It is demeaning. And to offer as a handout to the poor a small part of what was stolen from them is an outrage crying to heaven. Let us rather say justice and mercy.
We all agree on the right to life from beginning to natural end by virtue of our humanity, made in the image and likeness of God. If that is so, then it follows that we have the right to the means to life, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, purposeful work and decent living conditions. This again is nothing new. Read it in Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth, 1963.
Let me get back to Nineveh, and Mosul in Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. The vast majority of Muslims want the same things we do, peace and honest work to raise our families. How is it that fanatics should murder in the name of God in a wave of barbarism one would have thought impossible in this day and age? Saddam Hussein’s day looks good in comparison. If Iraq needed a regime change, and it did, we should have left it up to the Iraqi people themselves to do it.
Why say these things in church? Because justice is a constitutive element of the preaching of the Gospel. Amen. W