Author: Fr. John

A City on a Hill

Preaching in the United States has always included themes and teachings found in the Scriptures and in tradition, as has preaching in other countries. But there is another theme which is special to the United States: the theme of chosenness. John Winthrop spoke to the people on the Mayflower. The Massachusetts Bay Company was to be a “Model of Christian Charity.” They would be “a city on a hill.” All would see how they lived.

Their preaching (mostly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) saw God having chosen America for a special role. It would take different forms over the years. At time the preaching would take different sides of an issue, such as supporting and opposing slavery.

Different groups would see different perspectives, but they still saw their position as part of God’s call to America. Southern white preachers would see slavery and later segregation as God’s plan for America. African American preachers (north and south) and Abolitionists would turn to the Book of Exodus and see their call to to create a path to freedom.

American preaching would be a call for moral reform. The Temperance Movement was an attempt at moral reform in support of the family. The Great Awakenings were calls to conversion. But many, many of the sermons were also directed at the challenges of the day, and frequently trying to answer the call of the Gospel for the “New Chosen People.”

The Color of Compromise

A parishioner asked me an interesting question: “Where did racism come from? Where did people get the idea that skin color or race would determine who was more important, more valuable, and so forth?” So I have been reading American history about American slavery and racism.

This book is an excellent read because it does at least three things very well.

  1. It describes the history very well, creating the framework to understand what happened and when. American slavery and racism have changed over the years.
  2. It sets the human context of what people were thinking and feeling: the kinds of explanations of why people did what they did, how they explained it to themselves and others.
  3. What role did the church play in forming people’s attitudes and consciences? Did it support slavery or oppose it? How did the church–people of faith–reconcile that all people are made in the image and likeness of God having a God-given right to life with human dignity with brothers and sisters owning each other and treating some people as they did?

It sets a tone–not of simply making people feel guilty or bad–but with the goal of seeing the truth as it is, so that true reconciliation can take place. It reminds me of the Catholic approach that forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing can take place only by beginning with an honest and forthright admission of guilt and making amends.

First, it lays out the history of how slavery developed in this country. When the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, VA in 1619, they were treated as indentured servants. They maintained the right to marry, to have a family, to own property, etc. Their children were not born into slavery. Their service would end with time. Some like Anthony Johnson would gain freedom for themselves and their family and become quite wealthy.

There was a period when skin color did not determine one’s position or value in society. There were white indentured servants. The economy in the South developed to the production of tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane. The invention of the cotton gin meant that they could produce much larger amounts of cotton. All this required larger amounts of cheap human labor at a time when labor became scarcer from England after the London plague and the London fire.

Second, people looked to various things–including inventing things–to justify slavery: “Africans would be evangelized (despite the fact that the first slaves in 1619 were probably Catholic). Africans were incapable of taking care of themselves and would just die on their own.” The idea of racial inferiority was born, it and justified racism well beyond slavery. Even “science” was used to explain inferiority. The hierarchical and “paternalistic” form of society was just “what God wanted.”

Third, the church had a role in this. Denominations even split so that they could allow, support, and justify slavery. The churches became complicit in slavery and racism. Today all they need to do is remain silent on the topic of racism to allow it to continue.

This is a great book–well worth reading. I was personally particularly pleased to learned that the author is a Notre Dame grad.


There were two neighbors living next to each other. They each had fenced in back yards. One of them liked to buy live animals that he would later butcher nd BBQ. The only problem is that he would put it in his neighbor’s back year. She was a Sister with a heavy East Texas accent. She’d work all day and come home to find a turkey or a goat in her back yard.  She was not happy. One day she scolded him. He would get all pious and mumble some words, like “Jesus loved the animals.” Finally she said, “Dis ain’t got nuttin’ to do with Jesus. Dis is between you and me!”

I mention this because we have a tendency to think that some things have nothing to do with religion or Jesus. There is an attitude that some things are religious and others are just outside the realm of religion or faith or Jesus.

Recently Pope Francis made the comment—often misinterpreted—that we shouldn’t proselytize. We should evangelize.” It was misinterpreted as meaning “Don’t invite people from other religions to become Catholic.” That’s not what he meant. What he meant was, “Don’t just invite them to believe a few things, keep a few commandments and then call themselves Catholic.” And then you’re done.

Evangelization has two dimensions. Jesus refers to the first one in the Gospel. Our faith is not simply about keeping some rules, especially if we look for loopholes. It is about becoming his disciple and modelling our lives on his life and teachings. We can use different words:

  • Being a disciple,
  • Having an encounter with Christ,
  • having a relationship with Jesus,
  • Jesus is my personal lord and savior,
  • God is my co-pilot,
  • I am in love with Jesus Christ.

All of these try to express that our Faith goes to our very core. Personal conversion and faith and trust in Christ is at the center. Christ is more than some one we know about. Christ is some one whom we know and who is at the center of our lives.

And there is a second dimension. It doesn’t remain only internal and personal. Our faith is not just a Sunday event, it is a 24/7 event. It changes the way we see and act in every dimension of our lives. It changes our perspective on the world. It challenges us to see the world through the eyes of faith;

That is why Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II begins: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Christ’ disciples see and act in the world differently than others. We see the world, each other, and others through the eyes of Christ.

Our baptismal call, our being disciples of the Lord, our being Catholic calls us to first develop a deep love with Christ which transforms us. It changes our vision. It makes us see everything in the light of the Gospel.

We don’t see our Faith as only being how we feel about God, or something that we do as a private, personal hobby with others who share those interests. But now we see our faith and relationship with Christ. St. John Paul II authored part of Gaudium et Spes that speaks of how the Church relates to the world: But out of this religious mission itself come a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law. As a matter of fact, when circumstances of time and place produce the need, (the Church) can and indeed should initiate activities on behalf of all people, especially those designed for the needy. Gaudium et Spes, No. 42

Our relationship with Christ, our baptismal call to holiness sends us into the world. We are on a mission from God.  God places our baptismal call, our sharing at the Eucharistic table before us: He wants to be our God and for us to be His people. As the book of Sirach says this morning:

Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.

In a few moments, we will again profess our Faith in God. We will offer Him gifts from the bounty He has blessed us with. We will recognize that though they are made by human hands and the fruit of the earth, they come to us through His goodness. We will renew our commitment, that He is our God and we are His people by renewing and celebrating the new and eternal covenant once again. Then we shall be sent into the world as His disciples.

Love Is Work

“Love is work.” So begins Scott Peck’s book, “The Road Less Travelled.” Scott Peck was a psychiatrist who believed that half of the people who sought therapy wouldn’t need it, if they just understood some basic things of life, such as “What is love.”

We begin life by experiencing love as something that others do for us, especially our mothers. They gave us life, they feed us, care for us, nurture us, pick us up when we fall down, and protect us. Later we begin to experience love as an emotion, when we “fall in love.” But as Peck says, we need to understand that love isn’t just what others do for us or an emotion we feel. As adults we need to learn to do for ourselves. The feelings of first love disappear, and “the thrill is gone,” or at least it is not the same. As we mature as human beings, we need to learn love is what we do, especially for others.

This is true, not only in our human development, but also in our spiritual growth. We may have moments of great emotion in our relationship with God. I once heard an old monk describe how he felt overwhelmed with joy when he realized deeply and fully that God loved him with all his flaws and failings. We might feel such things, especially in receiving forgiveness from sin or God’s protection from harm. These are good things. They help us grow. They can sustain us. We gather for Eucharist precisely so that together we may experience the joy of the Lord’s death and resurrection.

But our faith and relationship with God is more than feeling.

When Yahweh appeared at the burning bush, he did say that he knew the pain and suffering of the Hebrew slaves.  But he didn’t just say, “I feel their pain.”  He also said, “I mean to rescue them with mighty hand and outstretched arm by sending you to Pharaoh and to lead them to freedom.”  On the last day, Jesus won’t ask us how we are feeling. He will judge us on what we did or didn’t do for the least of his brothers and sisters.

“Love is work.” We grow in love and in our relationship, not so much by how we feel, but rather by what we do.

You will discover, if you try it, that we can change our feelings about others by what we do. We often choose to help those for whom we already have good feelings. We help our friends. We give to the charities we like.

But there is another approach: “Love your enemies. Do good for them.” If you do good for those for whom you do not already have good feelings—of even have bad feelings–if you pray, if you do good things, if you are genuinely kind to them—even though it may be hard—especially at first–you will discover that after a while your feelings will change.  If you do good for them, you will eventually grow to love them.

Today Jesus tells us that we are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. We are not to just blend in with the rest of the world, but to be exceptional, to be different. We become the salt of the earth, not by what we believe or how we feel, but by what we do. This morning the Church suggests we think of Isaiah’s examples:    Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own….remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted;   …Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you.