Whoever receives you receives me. … And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel [Matthew 10:37-42] reflected the high value in which hospitality and welcoming were held in his society, something also illustrated in our reading from the Book of Kings [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a]. The Shunemite woman did more than just give Elisha a cup of cold water. She gave him dinner and furnished a room for him! In this, she foreshadowed the generous women in the Gospels, like Martha and Mary of Bethany, who offered hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, welcoming them into their home, and serving ever since as models for the Church and the high spiritual value the Church has placed on hospitality and welcoming down through the centuries right up to our own time.
Having himself as a child been a political refugee from Herod’s terror, Jesus knew from personal experience the stress of leaving one’s own homeland and facing an uncertain welcome in another land.
Inspired by Jesus’ own words in his parable about the Last Judgment, I was a stranger and your welcomed me, Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks famously prescribes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. Nor have hospitality and welcoming been confined to monasteries. When 17-year old Annie Moore crossed the threshold of the New World as the first immigrant to pass through the new Ellis Island immigration Facility on January 1, 1892, she was welcomed by, among others, Father Callahan of the Mission of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, who blessed her and gave her a silver coin, a symbolic expression of the historic role of the American Catholic community – itself throughout its history a community of immigrants – in providing hospitality and welcome to generation after generation of new arrivals, in this land and nation of immigrants.
Annie Moore’s story – along with the stories of so many others, among them my own grandparents and the parents and grandparents of so many of us assembled here today – ought especially to impress themselves on our consciousness, both as Catholics and as Americans, as we prepare to celebrate another Independence Day holiday this week. For we have always been a Church of migrants and strangers, in this land and nation of immigrants. Immigrants have always been the face of our Church in this country – in our parishes and in our schools and in our other social ministries.
On Independence Day, we honor the great legacy left for us, often at great sacrifice, by generations of citizens past, immigrants to this new land but strangers no longer, with whom we remain linked in a great social compact, bounded by history to one another, both past and present, for the sake of the future. We celebrate our past history as a nation, our present life together, and our hope for our common future.
As citizens, we properly celebrate our national day as John Adams famously proposed: “by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
Nowadays, however, Independence Day is all too often reduced to just hot dogs and fireworks. But, as we assemble today, as we do every Sunday, to profess our faith as migrants passing through this world en route to our final homeland, this week’s national holiday ought to remind us of our country’s complicated history as a land and nation of immigrants: of our admirable civic and religious traditions of hospitality and welcome, worthy of comparison with the Shunemite woman and Elisha, but also of our many failures to live up to that challenge – failures in which we Catholics have been as complicit at times as others in our society. As the US Bishops reminded us several years ago, “today, as in the past, the treatment of the immigrant too often reflects failures of understanding and sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination that deny the unity of the human family, of which the one baptism is our enduring sign.” [Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity, NCCB/USCC, 2000]
More recently, Pope Francis has challenged us to oppose what he has called the “globalization of indifference” and deploring the “throwaway culture” - both so expressive of our way of life today, but so contrary to the biblical emphasis on hospitality and welcome. As the Holy Father said to the U.S. Congress just two years ago, “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic immigrants to the United States were often scorned by those who had gotten here earlier – often on grounds very similar to those nowadays alleged against Muslim immigrants. But that only emboldened the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, to highlight the overlap between the universal reach that has historically been this nation’s exceptional ambition and the inherent universality of the Church’s mission. That mission, he reminded his contemporaries, “embraces the whole human race in one brotherhood” [The Present and Future Prospects of the Catholic Faith in the United States of North America, 1857-1858]. Hecker saw both the Catholic Church and American society as “forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people … giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development than has been heretofore accomplished” [The Church and the Age, 1887].
As a society, we will always inevitably fall short of our own inclusive ideals and heroic ambitions, as just as certainly we will - more likely than not - fall short of Jesus’ challenge of mutual hospitality to one another and to all we encounter. But by baptism into Christ, we are no longer permitted to be strangers to one another, for we have been brought beyond the ordinary human limitations of family, state, and society, and raised instead with Christ to live in newness of life, responding to one another and welcoming one another as we would never otherwise have known how to do or dared to have tried.
As Pope Francis challenged Congress: “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us give opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 2, 2017