There are, I like to think, two truly American holidays. Thanksgiving Day (In late autumn, after the harvest) looks inward to the heart and soul of society and so is celebrated at home, at table, among family and friends. Independence Day (in early summer) looks outward to the larger world of nations and states. It recalls when we as a nation assumed that “separate and equal station, among the powers of the earth,” of which Thomas Jefferson famously wrote.
But long before Jefferson and his famous Declaration, the first Europeans to settle this continent brought their Catholic faith and institutions with them, leaving a strong legacy of Catholic culture throughout both North and South America. That legacy is currently being highlighted in so many ways by recent generations of Latin American immigrants. They in turn follow earlier generations of European immigrants, who brought a distinct Catholic sensibility to the American experiment, rooted in their own immigrant experience and its challenges.
In the 19th century, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, who founded the Paulist Fathers 158 years ago this week, emphasized the moral seriousness of citizenship and its responsibilities. As part of his religious mission to evangelize America, Isaac Hecker consistently sought to identify important points of contact between the Catholic faith and its understanding of society, on the one hand, and the political culture of the United States, on the other. While humanity’s truest fulfillment is ultimately to be found in the kingdom of God, Hecker recognized that being a citizen of God’s kingdom has implications in the more mundane and immediate responsibilities of citizenship in society.
In a time of terrible social conflict and political polarization in the United States, Hecker expressed his confidence in what Catholics had to offer to America. Already at his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which,” as the Pope put it, “parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.” [From a letter to the American Fathers, Rome, December 22, 1857]
Hecker’s hope that we act like oil on the troubled waters of a conflicted and politically polarized society remains as relevant today. Unfortunately, economic trends and social and cultural changes have all combined to make society and the social bonds that are its glue that much more brittle. Meanwhile, corrective action in the form of effective public policy has become more and more difficult to achieve. In turn, these trends may further encourage apathy and cynicism on the part of ordinary citizens and increased ideological intensity among the most politically active. The moral and public policy consequences of framing political choices in this way are alarming for the future of our society. Hence, this recent warning from the President of the United Sates Conference of Catholic Bishops: “When we fail to see the difference between our enemies and people of good will, we lose a part of who we are as people of faith. Policies of fear and inflammatory rhetoric will only offer extremists fertile soil and pave the way toward a divisive, fearful future.“ [Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, December 14, 2015]
This same concern also applies to the moral and political judgments and choices which we make about the wider world beyond our national borders, where we must likewise guard against what Pope Francis, speaking to Congress last year, called “the simple reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” [September 24, 2015]
More pointedly, Pope Francis has challenged us as a Church “to give a clear answer in the face of the threats that arise within the public debate." "Believers are citizens,” Pope Francis reminds us. “The nation is not a museum, but a collective work in permanent construction in which the things that differentiate one, including political and religious membership, are to be put in common” [Address in Florence, November 11, 2015]
Indeed, our Catholic tradition of reflection on political principles and on social and economic questions and policies represents a profoundly rich storehouse of moral wisdom - wisdom which fully reflects centuries of human experience and responds to fundamental human needs more comprehensively than contemporary ideologies, whether of the Left or the Right.
Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel [Luke 10:1-12, 17-20] in sending the 72 disciples on a kind of practice run for what they would later be doing full-time after his ascension reminds us that evangelizing (as Pope Paul VI expressed it so well) “constitutes the essential mission of the Church” – in every age and in every society.
Jesus, we are told, sent the 72 in pairs – not as solitary individuals, but in pairs. Ours is a culture which places a lot of emphasis on our private, individual lives and private, individual freedoms. But the Gospel reminds us that we are not isolated, solitary selves, but a community of faithful people, formed by the Holy Spirit into one Church, the body of the Risen Christ, to continue his mission in every town and place. Jesus commanded his disciples to make a difference in their world. So, if we really mean what we say we believe, then what we do in our many relationships and multiple commitments – in our families and among friends, at work or at school, in civil society, and in the wider world – must make a difference and be recognizable as such. Jesus expects us to be on the same side with him – on the side of God’s kingdom. Being on God’s side, having our names written in heaven (as Jesus says), frees us to join Jesus in making a real, recognizable difference in an always challenging, sometimes very welcoming, but also sometimes sadly inhospitable world. It frees us to tell – and retell –the story of Jesus, to speak his word to any and all, so we too can say to the country and the world we love: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”
Homily for the 14th Sunday in ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 3, 2016.