By Father Leonard Peterson
Entitlement. It’s a word that wanders in and out of meanings like the path of a brook; in that it is akin to the word “gay,” which has wandered quite far from its seasonal meaning in the Christmas carol describing holiday clothing. At one point, entitlement traveled with royalty, describing their prerogatives and privileges.
Now entitlement has joined the masses as a label for all sorts of “rights” that everyday people demand. In that context, it denotes a certain selfishness that betrays both Christian and American ideals. I have noticed that entitlement even creeps into certain people’s attitude toward their prayers, making them into a binding contract with God.
I know a case of a fine young man in our parish from a good Catholic family who no longer practices his Catholicism because a young female cousin died ahead of the “expected” time. In his case, I’m also aware that he likes to sleep late on Sundays and dislikes the Church’s moral strictures. Ah, entitlement again!
Notice how entitlement is part of the current universal health care debate. Just for living in our country many citizens expect the government to pay the whole tab when they get sick, forgetting all the while how Uncle Sam funds his checkbook.
Entitlement drifts down to the more mundane. Our church parking lot is a metaphor for regulations governing all but the few who make a habit of ignoring signs. How ironic it would be if they ever had a heart attack at Mass and the emergency lane is blocked for the ambulance by their car. (Do you think their families would sue the parish?)
The question arises: How did we get this way? Were our rights so trampled upon in some past era that now we have to seek revenge in a voracious grab for whatever we want? Was someone in our past so stingy that we have to hoard privileges and rename them “rights?” “I’m entitled,” so many of us say. Even a Friday night binge is judged proper after a hard week at the office. And on it goes.
This time of year is high season for another brand of entitlement that involves the young and therefore impinges on the future. It’s Christmas present buying time. For a variety of reasons, led by a mix of parental need and skilled advertising, most of our youngsters (and I include teens) expect a veritable cornucopia of gifts under the Christmas tree. If they’re absent, then Santa and/or Mom and Dad are negligent, or at least deficient in adoring love for their progeny. The “victims” then bring on the all-complaint Mr. and Mrs. Jones down the street who have indeed provided a slightly scaled down toy department on the living room rug for their own Dick and Jane.
What is so sad is that such entitlement thinking among the young reflects a bad case of amnesia about the Christmas event. The briefest nod beyond Santa toward the Savior would tell anyone beyond the age of 7 that Christmas is more about giving than getting.
Christmas is much more than an economic indicator for fourth quarter reports. It really has nothing to do with long lists of wishes and maxed out credit cards. In short, it’s not about entitlement on our part at all. If anyone is entitled, it’s our loving Lord for devising this plan for our future possibilities in the life after this one.
The Incarnation teaches us that authentic love is not best expressed in diamond earrings or a Lexus tied with a red bow. On a silent and holy night a long time ago we learned from a helpless Infant that real love is not at all about things. Such love abhors entitlement. On that same starry night, when all was calm and bright, Love itself touched our history, and we will never be the same. The perennial question then is not “to what are we entitled?” but “to Whom do we respond?”
A blessed Christmas to you and yours.
Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.