Bottom line: May America continue to be a place where people can, as St. Paul says, "excel in every respect."
In these days before the Fourth of July, our bishops have asked to pray, study and thank God for the gift of freedom. They direct our attention specifically to religious freedom because it is under attack in our world - and even our own country.
In this homily I will focus on the relationship between freedom and faith - or, to be more concrete, democracy and religion. As we saw last Sunday, our first president, George Washington, considered religion an "indispensable support" for the democracy to succeed. There are three reasons for this:
First, religion (specifically the Christian religion) calls a person to repentance: to turn from self-indulgence and to embrace habits of virtue - honesty, fairness, hard work, generosity, self-control and so on. Our founding fathers envisioned a "Republic of Virtue." They knew that democracy cannot survive unless citizens strive for virtue.
The second way religion supports democracy is by bringing people together. We will see more about solidarity when I get to the body of the homily.
The third indispensable support is the most difficult: Religion, Christian faith, teaches us to push back, to resist when government overreaches. Our bishops have identified seven areas where national and state governments are attacking religious freedom.* They invite us to join with them in pushing back.
So, religion supports democracy by promoting virtue and solidarity - and by resistance to unjust laws. Today's second reading relates to virtue and resistance, but it does so by focusing on solidarity.
You might smile when I say this, but in the second reading what we see is St. Paul taking up a collection! If you sat down and read all of St. Paul's letters, you might be surprised how much time he devotes to collections. Specifically he asks the more prosperous "Europeans" (Corinthians, Romans, Macedonians, Celts, etc.) to aid the "mother church" - Jerusalem and Judea.
When you think about it, a collection is a political statement. It says that we are an association apart from the government - and that we are not waiting for the government to solve our problems. We can work together. And we belong to a Body that has a right to exist not from the government, but from God himself.
We can see this in the way St. Paul motivates the Corinthians to give. He asks them to focus on Jesus. He was rich, says Paul, but he made himself poor. Why? "So that by his poverty you might become rich."
Jesus is God. His being contains the wealth not just of our tiny planet, but of the entire universe and more. But he divested himself to become one of us - limited by time and space, subject to misfortune and mistreatment. He does this so that we can become rich, that is, participate in God's nature as adopted sons and daughters.
That thought might make one a little dizzy, but Paul brings it down to earth: If God is so generous to us, should we not be generous to others? Paul doesn't ask anyone to go overboard - for example, to sell one's home. He does, however, appeal for a certain equality. He quotes Exodus: "Whoever had much did not have more and who had little did not have less." If we focus on God, things have a way of leveling out.
The generosity of St. Mary parishioners has impressed me. You have admirably supported our parish, even in difficult times. Not only have you shared financial resources, but also time and abilities. You have made possible a wonderful mission here and beyond. You have supported parish groups like St. Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbus. You've given to special projects such as World Youth Day and our new bell tower. You've reached out to help Catholic Charities, the Archdiocesan Appeal and the work of the Holy Father.**
By your Stewardship of time, talent and treasure, you are making a powerful statement. You are saying that you want to be pro-active - and not leave the job to the next guy or to the government. You desire to do your part, to live what St. Paul says today, "excel in every respect." You have given yourself and in the process you have been blessed.
One of the beautiful things about democracy is that it encourages people to excel. For all its problems, mistakes and failures, this is a good country - and you and I are grateful to be part of. People throughout the world want to come here. A few years back in Peru they surveyed young people about their dreams. They mentioned things like becoming a professional or having their own business. But do you know what dream came in first place? To come to the United States.
People see our country as a place where they can (as St. Paul says) excel in every respect. We have a beautiful country, but we could lose it. That why we need to return to religion. It provides an indispensable support because: 1) it calls us to repentance - that difficult word, virtue; 2) it promotes solidarity - not waiting for the government but solving problems on the smallest possible level and 3) when government makes unjust laws, to push back or resist.
Virtue, solidarity and resistance: St. Paul illustrates them in a surprising way - by taking up a collection. It's a way of saying that we don't sit back, but dive in to solve problems. We have a society with much freedom to act on our own. We are grateful to God for the freedoms we enjoy. When government encroaches on those freedoms - particularly freedom of religion - we join our bishops in pushing back. May America continue to be a place where people can, as St. Paul says, excel in every respect. Amen.
*The most notorious example is the HHS mandate. How a homilist speaks about it obviously depends on what the Supreme does or does not do this week. The bishops have online homilies that addresses the issue:
"the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services, which requires employers, including Catholic institutions, to violate the moral law by providing contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans.
"Less noticed, but equally offensive to both Catholic doctrine and the constitution, is the determination by the government of what constitutes a religious institution. The HHS mandate grants an exemption to parishes, but it defines religious institutions in such a narrow way that it excludes, for example, Catholic universities, hospitals, food pantries, publishing houses, and social services.
"According to the HHS definition, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Knights of Columbus wouldn’t qualify as religious institutions! Indeed, according to the federal rule, if we serve people who are not Catholic in our agencies, or educate them in our universities, or employ them in our institutions – we cease to be religious. If we provide for the needs of the sick and the poor, but don’t ask whether they are Catholic or teach them catechism – we are not religious.
"It is an absurd position and a clear violation of the Bill of Rights. Our first freedom is religious liberty, and the First Amendment explicitly forbids the government from establishing religion, which means that a government department doesn’t get to decide what religion is, and what the proper work of the Church is.
"In our second reading, Saint Paul gives us a picture of how the early Christians lived. Those who had abundance shared with those who were in need. The early Church lived this way because Jesus Himself, though He was rich, became poor for our sake. All of our vast charitable works, including health care, social services and education, exist because of our faith in Jesus Christ! They are not optional extras, but essential.
"As Catholics we care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the unemployed, the orphan, the expectant mother in distress, because of our faith. It is the necessary fruit of faith, and without it faith is dead (cf. James 2:26). The government has instead claimed the right to restrict our religious life to the liturgy and doctrine. That is what is at stake in this great battle for religious liberty.
"Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, reminded us that the works of charity are as essential for the Church’s mission as is preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.2 The Catholic Church can no more abandon the sick in our hospitals or the immigrant at the border than she can set aside the Word of God, or the Holy Mass.
"We cannot separate the fruits of faith from the faith itself. The tree that does not bear good fruit is condemned by Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:18-20). To definitively separate the fruit from the roots is to cut the tree down. In the garden of American liberty, the government may not cut down the tree of faith."
**Note to fellow homilists: You should have no trouble adapting this paragraph to your own parish.
From the Archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish
Parish Picture Album
Cuzco, Machu Pichu and the Sacred Valley with link to Mary Bloom Center video
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
(new, professional website)
National Petition to Stop HHS Mandate - important updates