This past week, we celebrated our national Independence Day holiday, commemorating the epic conflict in which our country was created and assumed its place in the larger world community of nations and states.
The great 19th-century observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1835 that a person “will endeavor … to harmonize the state in which he lives upon earth, with the state which he believes to await him in heaven.” As Catholics, of course, we have a long history (going back to the Roman Empire) of thinking seriously about how to relate our faith to civil society – a long tradition of practical wisdom which we need to take seriously both as disciples and as citizens.
For we share with our fellow citizens in both the benefits and the responsibilities of our 21st-century American society. What resources does our faith offer us to participate in civic life? What lessons from centuries of Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition and the experience of Catholic history in the United States can we share with our fellow citizens? What can we do together to promote the common good and care for our common home? The evident seriousness of the issues facing us in the present and future make it all the more essential for us to ask these questions and to share the particular perspectives of our rich Catholic faith and experience.
Over time, the Church has adopted as her own - and adapted to ever changing political and social situations - the ancient philosophical understanding that human beings are social and political by nature, that human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others, and that the most developed and fulfilling form of that is our political association as fellow citizens. This political association as citizens with one another provides us with many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy. At the same time it also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community.
In this traditional understanding, social and political choices – such as whom or what party to vote for, who should benefit from public policies and how to pay for them, what commitments we have to one another and to other countries, and how to relate to other nations and states in the world community – all such choices are ultimately moral choices that express what we value. Such choices identify whom we care (or don’t care) about enough to include, and highlight what kind of nation we want to be and what kind of world we want to be a part of. As Catholics and citizens, we are challenged to be particularly attentive to these dimensions of our common life. As Catholics and citizens, we are challenged to respond in a morally serious way that transcends simplistic sloganeering and emotional appeals to narrowly defined secular identities and group interests
Coincidentally, today’s 1st reading, from the prophet Zechariah [Zechariah 9:9-10], foretells the coming of the Messiah as the ultimate king, whose dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. It reminds us that, over and above all the many inter-related networks of human relationships of which we are a part and which we need to care about – family, work, country, etc. – we are also, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of God, a new, world-encompassing kingdom without borders, in which we are all immigrants but none are strangers, a relationship which gives added meaning and transforms all those other, necessary human relationships, like family, work, and country, of which we remain a part and which we still need to care about.
Likewise, Saint Paul, in today’s 2nd reading from his letter to the early Christian community in Rome [Romans 8:9, 11-13], reminds us that, even while we remain thoroughly engaged in the otherwise ordinary-seeming life of our world, we are simultaneously starting to live a new life, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s idea is that Christ’s new life has become our new life too, thereby reversing the direction of our ordinary existence and empowering us to allow ourselves and our entire lives – public and private - to be re-shaped by the Gospel’s stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.
Of course, the complexities and very real burdens of living in our world do not automatically get erased just by the fact of our becoming disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ words were not simplistic soundbites or campaign slogans, such as we often substitute for serious moral reflection and engagement with the facts we have to respond to in our social and political life. In fact, what Jesus seems to be proposing in today’s Gospel [Matthew 11:25-30] may at first appear as adding yet another additional burden – the burden of following him – to the complexities and burdens we already have. Yet it is precisely this added dimension – this yoke, as Jesus calls it - which somehow puts all the other complications and burdens of living in a totally new context – an insight, which (Jesus warns) is sometimes lost to the wise and the learned of the world.
160 years ago in another time of terrible social conflict and political polarization in the United States, Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker expressed his confidence in what Catholics had to offer our country. 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, the Pope noted, “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.”
Hecker’s hope that we act like oil on the troubled waters of a conflicted and politically polarized society remains relevant for us today and always – especially given the many contemporary trends that seem to go in a contrary direction.
So the rest that Jesus promises us is not a release from our necessary ties to the world and the tough realities and responsibilities of ordinary human life. It is rather a new way of living and being involved in the world. Strangers to one another no longer, Jesus challenges us to a new way of making sense of all our worldly relationships and responsibilities with and for one another.
Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 8, 2017.