The following homily was preached on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 26, at Holy Martyrs Parish, Oreland.
As usual, today’s Scripture readings are an embarrassment of riches. For example, I’m longing to unpack the biblical geography: what’s so special about Galilee? Why are these places Zebulun and Naphtali mentioned not only in our Gospel, but also in our first reading, from Isaiah?
Well, the good news is that it’s Catholic Schools Week, and our parents’ association is inviting everyone upstairs after Mass for pancakes and coffee. So, please, ask me later about those things. It’s great stuff.
But for now, let’s start with the medicine that St. Paul is offering in today’s second reading. Here Paul warns against rivalries and factions in the church. Apparently, in the parish of ancient Corinth, people didn’t always get along. They would choose up sides, saying “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas.”
Even today, we’re still tempted to choose sides. The temptation is to join somebody’s gang, to harden our hearts, and settle into perspectives that (for whatever reason) might feel comfortable, but which are something less than the full Gospel.
It’s all nonsense though, a tragedy, then and today, because Paul goes on to say that Christ is not divided. Nobody is baptized in the name of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. It’s only the cross of Christ that saves us.
Here’s a modern example about how we still have factions and need to turn to our faith in its fullness. Last week on Monday, our nation celebrated the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then, a few days later on Friday (the anniversary of the Roe versus Wade decision legalizing abortion), tens if not hundreds of thousands of people travelled to Washington for the annual March for Life.
Now let’s ask ourselves: in the privacy of your conscience, is the stereotype of Monday that it’s kind of a liberal holiday? All that talk about overcoming the racial divide, seeking social justice? That’s for progressives, right? And we know what those people are like.
And is the stereotype about Friday that it’s kind of a conservative thing? After all, Trump spoke at the March this year, and we know what “those people” are like, right? They’re the so-called “deplorables.”
Sadly, we all probably recognize the stereotypes. But we’re not baptized in the name of Martin Luther King, and we’re not baptized in the name of Donald Trump.
But here’s the good news: if we inform our conscience with the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ, life is so much more interesting, so much more grand and magnanimous than our factions. Consider this:
When Dr. King was imprisoned and wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, explaining the motives of the civil rights movement, he quoted the Old Testament prophets, plus Jesus, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.
And when Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, almost every paragraph has a biblical paraphrase, most notably from Amos, Isaiah, and the Psalms.
And when Dr. King taught a philosophy class at Morehouse College, his syllabus included Augustine and Aquinas (again), but also Thoreau, Plato, Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and two different works by Aristotle.
Now please forgive my academic digression, but if you were going to write a book about the pro-life philosophy, an argument for the dignity of each individual human life, you’d have to engage with exactly the same writers!
When we look at the list of great authors shaping Dr. King’s mind, we learn that pro-life and social justice have common roots. We learn, looking at those names, that Dr. King’s mind was shaped by the classics. His soul was cultivated by the Christian faith and the great books. His argument about human dignity — and the justice owed to each child of God — arises from the canon of western civilization, with the Gospel at the core.
Praise God — and some of the people claiming Dr. King’s legacy today might not like to admit it — but Dr. King cannot be neatly pigeonholed as a progressive. His roots were much deeper than today’s identity politics and multiculturalism. However, the awkwardness is a two way street.
Conservatives might not like to admit it, but if we take pro-life ideas seriously, if we really believe everyone is created in the image of God and all that that entails, then we should be finding a lot more time for social justice. Once we’ve gone through our Bible and our classics and realized the inestimable dignity and beauty of each life – no matter how young, born or unborn — which is indeed the foundation and cornerstone — we’re still not done yet. We’re just getting started.
Which brings me to Catholic Schools Week. Christ’s body — the Church — includes our schools. Of the Church’s many ministries, schools are an essential way that we cast light in the darkness.
Consider that in our country, and indeed the wider Church, many are going crazy. People are at each other’s throats. St. Paul would recognize that we have factions. It’s like we have a massive case of amnesia about our values and what really matters. Public life today is exhausted, angry, cynical. We are running a deficit of hope, truth, beauty, and goodness.
But Catholic schools — here is one place where we can fight back. Catholic schools are one of the few places where we have time and space to tell the whole story, the whole Gospel, the explanation for our hope and our values, the story of our civilization and how it all fits together.
Catholic schools are places where we can pray and worship, and then take the time to study our history, our literature, art, architecture, and music, and trace how it all integrates. Catholic schools are places where we can talk about the beauty of math and science, and how it all serves the harmony of our Creator.
The vocation of Catholic schools is to be oases of faith, civilization, and culture, to be havens of sanity in a world going mad.
I’m proud to say that last week, on both the archdiocesan and the Martin Saints Classical High School calendar, we observed both Martin Luther King day and the March for Life. On Monday night, some of us attended an ecumenical service with Archbishop Chaput and plenty of Gospel music. Then on Friday, along with maybe a hundred thousand others, we marched on Washington for life.
Next year, I invite everyone to try both events, whether you’re in school or not, for the Monday and the Friday go so well together. I thank God for the privilege of being in a Church which proclaims not only the gospel of life but also the vision of social justice. And I thank God for our Catholic schools, where we get to pass this beautiful faith to our young men and women, to explain and teach why we do what we do.
Catholic Schools Week exists to celebrate and support this education in the whole Gospel. Please enjoy this week with us. After Mass, everyone is invited upstairs.
Of course, we need your support too. Every Catholic school I know runs on a threadbare budget, and we do not exist without a spirit of sacrifice not only from our teachers, parents, and students, but from the whole church. I thank everyone here today who has bled and sacrificed to make our schools possible.
And as we look to the future, I ask us to rededicate ourselves. Catholic schools are fragile — I don’t know any school in our archdiocese where enrollment is what it really ought to be — and we’ve got our work cut out for us. But it’s good work, it’s important work, and an education in the wholeness and depth of the Gospel has never been more important than today.
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