Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Ever-Expanding Horizon of the Kingdom

Today’s Gospel [Mark 10:2-16] has 2 complementary messages – one focused on human life lived in family and society, and another focused on our life in God’s kingdom. The reading from the creation story [Genesis 2:18-24] reinforces the social message about marriage and family life, while the reading from Hebrews [Hebrews 2:9-11] highlights the Gospel’s second message.

American Christianity tends to focus a lot on family life, forgetting perhaps that Jesus and the New Testament in general were much more focused on God’s kingdom and showed relatively little interest in or enthusiasm about marriage and family life. The Gospel gets at marriage and family life largely by the back-door of divorce. The context in which we talk about divorce today is, of course, different from what it was then. It is different even from what it was 50 years ago. But you hardly need me to tell you how completely social attitudes toward divorce have changed just in my lifetime. What once was relatively rare and obtained with some degree of difficulty, often only as a last resort, and often exposing the divorced persons and their families to some significant social disapproval has now become as common and socially acceptable as marriage itself. (There are even greeting cards you can buy now to send to people when they divorce.)

And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Nowadays fewer people are choosing to get married at all. Less than half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with more than three-quarters of the population half a century ago. And the number of Catholic marriages taking place in the United States has declined even more dramatically during the same time period. 

And then, thanks to increasing economic inequality in our society, there is also a very visibly obvious class component to this phenomenon of fewer people getting married. Marriage is increasingly more likely among the generally better off, better educated, successful classes, while poorer people with fewer social advantages are much less likely to get married. More highly educated people also marry later in their careers, enjoy more stability,  and are much less likely to divorce. Meanwhile, for those increasingly left behind, the Church has less and less of a visible presence.  As a result the "good news" of God’s kingdom, that it is the Church's mission to speak, seems to too many today to be either bad news or, as is increasingly the case, no news at all.

So many young people today face truly challenging prospects - personal and professional, private and public, environmental and economic, social and structural. However distinctive today's context, such challenges are not entirely unprecedented. The Good News of God’s Kingdom offers an alternative of much needed communal solidarity with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness. So one would think the Church would have something to say - perhaps plenty to say to today’s world. Yet so much of what the Church says - or is perceived to be saying - seems to too many people today to be at best somehow off-topic.

This month’s Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocation Discernment, that is meeting in Rome right now represents an opportunity – as Pope Francis said in his opening homily to the Synod last Wednesday - to get up and look directly into the eyes of young people and see their situations.

In that same homily, Pope Francis challenged the Synod delegates – and through them the whole Church - to listen to one another, in order to discern together what the Lord is asking of his Church. And this demands that we be really careful against succumbing to a self-preservation and self-centredness which gives importance to what is secondary yet makes secondary what is important. Love for the Gospel and for the people who have been entrusted to us, challenges us to broaden our horizons and not lose sight of the mission to which we are called.

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 7, 2018.

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