Sunday, July 7, 2019

"The Kingdom of God is at hand"

Exactly 161 years ago today, on July 7, 1858, Father Isaac Hecker and three other priests – Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker – founded the “Society of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle,” known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” Three days later, the Archbishop of New York assigned them the care of a new parish on Manhattan’s west side – placed, like the Paulist Fathers themselves, under the patronage of Saint Paul the Apostle. 

In addition to serving as Superior of the new missionary community, Father Hecker also became the first pastor of the new parish, which gave him the opportunity immediately to start implementing his vision for the Paulists in a pastoral context.  Hecker’s vision of the mission of The Paulist Fathers was a monumental one – the conversion of America to the truth of the Catholic Faith.  He envisioned his Paulist parish as simultaneously a vibrant Catholic parish reaching out to evangelize locally and a center from which the Paulists would reach out in mission to the entire country.

As part of his religious mission to evangelize 19th-century 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, in 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. As the former Bishop of Knoxville, now Archbishop of Louisville, said several years ago: “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 has called called “our fear of ‘the other’, the unknown, the marginalized, the foreigner” [Message for 2019 Day of Migrants & Refugees].

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.

Note that Jesus 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.

“An individualistic spirit,” Pope Francis has reminded us, “is fertile soil for the growth of that kind of indifference towards our neighbors which leads to viewing them in purely economic terms, to a lack of concern for their humanity, and ultimately to feelings of fear and cynicism” [Message for 2019 Day of Migrants & Refugees].

But 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 (as Jesus says) our names written in heaven, 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 this world we love: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”

I’ve long been especially fond of this Gospel which was read at my ordination as a priest 24 years ago. In founding his community, Isaac Hecker sought to imitate the 72 disciples in the Gospel in announcing : “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”

As a result, all of us now share the mission of the Paulist Fathers in the mission of the Church. This includes a commitment to evangelization in all its forms, a mission both within and beyond the parish community to draw people of all ages and backgrounds to Christ and his Church, especially those without faith, or with fragile or minimal connection with Church, or who have withdrawn from the community of the Church, perhaps because they feel unwelcome or rejected by it – all of whom need to hear Jesus’ message: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”

Homily for the 14th Sunday of the Year and the Anniversary of the Founding of the Paulist Fathers, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 7, 2019.

No comments:

Post a Comment