What We Cannot See

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston, Texas on Sunday, January 10, 2021 – The Baptism of Our Lord

(Mark 1:7-11)

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay in 1946 that argues strongly that people need to read old books. He didn’t believe all modern books were bad, but rather that old books have a corrective power that new books don’t have. Lewis said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He argues that even those who are sworn enemies in their own time are formed in the same cultural waters and therefore make the same errors that neither one of them can see, but which become glaringly obvious in the long arc of history.

Lewis is right that we never quite manage to see the errors of our own age. It’s the water we swim in. If you were a particularly intelligent fish, perhaps you could determine which side of the bowl you prefer to be on, the side that faces the wall or the side that faces the window. You might even be able to make a good argument to your fellow fish. “The window side is clearly superior! It’s warmer and there’s so much more light.” But would you even notice the water? Probably not anymore than as humans we notice the air we breathe. Of course, you’d probably notice if the water suddenly went from crystal clear to a murky brown. But would you notice if that change happened more gradually, with the water getting just a little bit dirtier and a little harder to swim in every year? Or would it be imperceptible to you until one day you look up and suddenly realize that you’ve been choking?

This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. Like so many Americans, I watched with shock and horror on Wednesday as protesters broke through a police line and attacked the U.S. Capitol building, threatening elected leaders and their staff, causing the deaths of at least five people, including a police officer, and in the words of President Trump in his statement on Friday, “defiling the seat of American democracy.” It was an unthinkable display, like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it seemed to shake a lot of people out of complacency, including some members of Congress who were huddled under their desks as the assault was carried out. How did we get here? How did we become so utterly divided as a nation that violence has become a legitimate means, in the eyes of some, for overturning an election and overthrowing the rule of law?

The situation we find ourselves in isn’t going to get fixed by debate. It’s not going to go away because of a new presentation of facts that’s going to change anybody’s mind. This isn’t actually about that. Yes, we have serious questions that need to be debated, and serious issues that pull us apart culturally and politically, but the reason we’re now at a place where we’re ready to tear out each other’s throats isn’t because we disagree about issues. It’s the stuff that we can’t see that’s killing us. It’s the water that we swim in. It didn’t get polluted all at once; it’s been happening slowly but steadily, over a long period of time. We’ve adopted, little by little, without even realizing it, a whole new moral structure, a whole new way of seeing the world that would be indecipherable to our ancestors. That new morality is shaped less by books, as in Lewis’ time, than by Twitter and YouTube and Tiktok and cable news, by technology that we were told would connect us and make our lives better but instead isolates us and transforms us from people into products. It’s a worldview that’s developed right along with time-saving appliances, televisions with Netflix subscriptions, and wristwatches that keep you connected to your work email even in the middle of the night. 

Whether or not you use any of that stuff, all of it has been shaping us and changing us for a long period of time. And I can’t tell you exactly how. I wish I could. I can’t see the whole board, because I’m on it. I’m not some impartial observer. I’m swimming in this dirty water, just like you. It’ll probably be many years before our great grandchildren look back at this period with the clarity of history and put together exactly what happened to us. But from where we sit today, none of us are going to be able to diagnose the problem fully. And yet, friends, there is an answer.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Baptism is an antidote to sin. It washes away the pollution of our hearts and minds. Jesus didn’t need any of that. There was no sin in Him that needed to be forgiven, no pollution that needed to be washed away. So why did He wade out into the waters of the Jordan and allow John to baptize Him? Because He came into the world to change the waters that we swim in. Throughout His life, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince anyone of anything. He made moral pronouncements that completely baffled the people of His day, but He refused to argue about them. When one group or another tried to bait Him into taking sides on a contentious issue, He would tell them a story that they didn’t understand that revealed the foolishness of the entire debate. The water didn’t change Jesus; Jesus changed the water. He doesn’t convince us to join Him by laying out the facts. He convinces us to join Him by joining us, by jumping into the water with us and taking all the pollution out of it and into Himself so that we no longer have to suffer from it.

Old books are helpful, to be sure, but Jesus is the only long term solution for what has us ripped apart. Yet even in the Church today, we often seem more interested in swimming in our own water than in His. We take our petty squabbles into the Church with us, forming different factions, following the latest dilettante who tells us what we want to hear, even if that means throwing out the pope and the magisterium to get there. If we try to bring our polluted water with us into the Church, that’s a surefire recipe for drowning. We need to swim in water that’s been purified by Jesus, to let go of our pet peeves and our need to be seen as holier than the person in the next pew. Jesus is the only way out of this mess. We must put everything else aside and focus our minds and our hearts only on Him: obeying His words, imitating Him, and allowing Him to pour into us the grace that can change us from the inside out.

The papacy and the call to Christian unity


Jesus says in Matthew 16:13-20, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter is being given the authority to govern the Church. Catholics understand this to be about the papacy, but my Protestant friends often point out that the reason Peter is given this authority is because of his faith, because he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, not because of anything particularly wonderful about Peter himself. Faith, they say, is what should govern the Church, not some man sitting in a building in Rome, claiming to be Peter’s  successor. Faith in Jesus Christ, built only upon the Word of God in Scripture, should be sufficient. Yet there is another way of looking at the papacy that avoids this unhelpful division. What the papacy gives to us is not merely a means of governing the faithful, but a focal point for expressing our love and gratitude.

The pope does, of course, carry out a very important governing function. He’s the pastor of pastors, the bishop of bishops, and we need that kind of accountability. The buck has to stop somewhere. Otherwise, if every person is his or her own authority, we end up with chaos. Even if we say that the individual must be directed by the clear teaching of Scripture – how do we adjudicate disputes when my idea of “clear teaching” conflicts with yours?

Contrary to popular belief, the pope does not have unlimited power. He cannot just say something and then it becomes so. He exercises his authority through established means that make clear the difference between when he’s speaking with the full teaching authority of his office, backed up by centuries of precedent, and when he’s only offering an opinion or sharing an idea. And yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, he’s able to speak a word that settles an argument. He’s a living authority, capable of making sure that the Church never strays from her true teaching.

All of that is often where discussion of the papacy gets stuck, but the role of the pope is much more than that. He’s the embodiment of the Church.

Over the course of two thousand years, most Catholics haven’t been reading papal encyclicals. In fact, for most of history, in most of the world, about the only thing that the average Catholic knew about the pope was his name. But knowing the Holy Father’s name was a big deal, because it meant that you could pray for him. Popes are just human beings. Like Peter himself, they have all had their foibles. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been downright scoundrels who kept mistresses, had their enemies murdered, etc. But the pope is always a living, breathing man, which is what allows him to stand as the embodiment of the Church in any given age. Just as every priest is an icon of Christ, the pope is an icon of the Church.

I was living in Philadelphia in 2015 when Pope Francis made his famous visit to America, celebrating Mass in front of the steps of the Philly Art Museum. I was with the throngs of people who made their way through the security checkpoints. They say there were over a million people. I’ve never been in a crowd that large before. Yet there was so much joy, even though we were packed in like sardines. Some of the Dominican sisters from Nashville were leading people in singing “Ave Maria,” “God bless America,” and whatever else happened to pop into their heads. When I finally saw the Holy Father, from a great distance but still unmistakable in his white cassock, I felt a great swell of love in my heart. It was love for him, but it wasn’t really about him. It was love for Jesus, love for the Church, love for the grace and blessing that God pours out for us in the Sacraments, and most of all just immense gratitude. Here before me was all of that, in a living man who I could see and hear, who prays for me even as I pray for him. And I knew in my bones that this is what it means to be Catholic.

I love the Bible, but I cannot be grateful to it, nor can I expect it to love me back. I love the sacred tradition of the Church as well, but the great genius of the Catholic Church is that she is alive, organic, real. The pope is not a concept. He stands in Peter’s place as an actual living out of the apostolic calling that Our Lord gave to Peter when he was first handed those keys.

It isn’t about choosing between being governed by faith or by a man. It’s about recognizing that as human beings, we need more than just abstractions. We need flesh and blood. We need solid symbols that point us towards the unity and healing that we can only know in Jesus Christ.

Note on the text: This was originally written to be a homily for Sunday, August 23, 2020, however I have been in quarantine since Wednesday because of a possible Covid exposure. Nevertheless, I wanted to share this brief reflection.

 

The Civil Rights Issue of Our Age

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at St. John XXIII College Preparatory on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 – Memorial of St. Vincent

(Mark 3:1-6)

This past Monday was Martin Luther King day. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has long been a personal hero of mine – and I want to emphasize the reverend part because I think that often gets forgotten these days. He was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jesus. His letter from a Birmingham jail references St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Scripture. The reason that he spoke out against the injustices in this country that were being perpetrated against African American people was because he believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King wrote, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He believed that, as Christians, we’re required to stand up against injustice in all its forms, and especially to stand with those who are weak, those who are oppressed, and those who can’t speak for themselves.

Dr. Alveda King is the niece of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1973, shortly after Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in all fifty states, Alveda King had two abortions in quick succession. She did it because she was told it was the right thing to do by her doctor, by her friends, and especially by the men in her life. It’s not an uncommon story. A lot of young women get abortions because they don’t know what else to do, because they’re scared, and because the men who should be stepping up to be fathers of their children instead say that they’ll be happy to pay for an abortion, but that they won’t be paying for anything if the child is born. So Alveda King aborted her children. And for several years after that, she became a pro-choice activist. It was the only way, she says, that she could come to terms with what had happened to her. She believed and repeated the lie that abortion was the only way that women could be free and that a child in the womb is nothing more than a clump of cells.

But then, in 1977, she became pregnant again, and this time the man in her life said to her, “This is my child. Please don’t kill it. I will be there for you and for our baby.” And King says she suddenly saw abortion for what it really was: not a tool of liberation but a tool of oppression. Today she’s the mother of six living children and a proud advocate for the cause of life. And she sees that cause as deeply connected with the cause for which her uncle fought and died decades ago.

In the Gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees who want to see if He’s willing to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath so that they can get Him for it. The Sabbath is a law of God, not a law of man. But the Pharisees want to twist that law and use it for their own purposes. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” The purpose of the law is to save life, not to take it away. A law therefore that tells us that some lives are more valuable than others isn’t a just law, and it’s our responsibility as Christians to resist such a law by speaking the truth in love.

Yesterday was the Church’s annual day of prayer for the legal protection of the unborn, and last week was the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. Many Catholics participated in that march, including our own Sr. John Michael. I participated in the march myself back in 2012. Many people, though, including some Catholics, object to the Church’s involvement in these things. “The Church has no business being involved in politics,” they argue. And indeed, politics is the lens through which most people see this issue. Increasingly in our society, that’s the lens through which we see every issue. Politics has become the new religion of our society. And it’s a very dark, unforgiving religion – You’re either good or you’re bad; it’s us vs. them, take no prisoners. But the Church’s objection to abortion has nothing to do with modern American politics. The Church has been on record opposing abortion since at least the writing of the Didache in the late first century. Does the Church’s teaching have political implications? You bet. But that’s always true. It was true when Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up against segregation laws in the American south. It was true when Jesus stood up against the Pharisees.

You guys may think there’s nothing you can do about this because most of you aren’t old enough to vote yet, but there are so many ways that you can witness for life in our culture, not just by speaking out when the opportunity presents itself, but also by sharing your time, your energy, and your love with people in need. Stand up for young mothers and young families. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center or at another organization that supports single mothers and poor mothers. Work to eliminate poverty, which is one of the major social causes of abortion. Pray the rosary for the victims of abortion – which include not only the children who have died but also the women who’ve been lied to and used as pawns in a political chess game.

In 1958, black people in this country could not vote in most of the south, could not drink from the same water-fountains as white people, and could not even show their faces in many establishments. In 2008, a black man was elected president. And we’re nowhere near done fighting racism in our society, but that’s a heck of a lot of progress in fifty years. It didn’t happen by magic. It happened because many people–and particularly many Christians–stood up and fought for what’s right. It’s time for us to do the same thing with abortion. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In the name of Jesus, may the voice of your generation be a cry of justice for the millions of your brothers and sisters who aren’t here to cry out with you.