Douglas P. McManaman
Homily: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 3, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

The Second Reading caught my eye this time around. In particular, I was struck by the following verses: "For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Sit here, please, " while you say to the poor one, "Stand there, " ...have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?"

So even as early as the first century, we see a kind of corruption creeping into the Church, against which the Letter of James speaks forcefully. Those people with means are treated well, while those who are without means are relegated to the back, so to speak. The reason for this is very simple. Without divine grace, we love people primarily for what they do for us. Those with great wealth can do more for us, in certain respects, than those who have little. And this is a corruption from what we have become in the Person of Christ, through our baptism.

When a person is converted, his or her life takes on a new direction. What happens in conversion is that we discover how much we are loved by God. We are given a certain interior light that allows us to see in a way we never did before, that we really are known and loved by God. Such an experience changes us; it gives our life a new direction, a new center. Before that conversion, the self is at the center, and we would evaluate everything according to how it affects us, and we would see others primarily in terms of how they are useful to us. In short, everything is about us; everything is about my happiness, my convenience. And, unfortunately, we are deprived of the light that allows us to see how corrupt this is.

But with conversion, all this is left behind. God becomes the center. We are so moved by the love that God has for us that our only desire is to love Him back. And not only do we want to love God in return, we want to love all that belongs to God; we want to love all that God loves, and the light of faith permits us to see that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, belong to Him, and so those who undergo a conversion experience begin to see human beings differently; they begin to see them in relation to God, not in relation to themselves, and they know that to love individual human beings will please God, because they are His and He loves them. And so human beings are now loved not for what they do for me or the rest of us, but they are loved for their own sake, or better yet, they loved for God's sake, insofar as they belong to Him.

And that's why as society drifts away from God and we as a culture begin to make ourselves the center around which our lives revolve, the more loveless the society becomes. The evidence for this is that we begin to place a value on human beings, a value that corresponds to their usefulness; those who are productive are valued much more than those who are no longer productive; and so the measure of our love will be in how we as a society treat those who are least productive in economic terms, the infirm, the shut ins, the elderly, the developmentally disabled, etc.

This pandemic has revealed quite a bit about human beings in our immediate vicinity, some good and some not so good, but one thing it has revealed that appears to be universal is how deficient has been our treatment of the elderly. One author wrote:

How our society treats the elderly is one of the issues thrown up in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when considering how we treat our most at risk groups. This demographic has been let down by our government, as is true in other highly developed countries. It is a direct result of societal attitudes towards ageing and the Western compulsion to contain the burden of age in institutions.

Another author from the Washington Post wrote:

When the novel coronavirus first emerged, the U.S. response was slowed by the common impression that covid-19 mainly killed older people. Those who wanted to persuade politicians and the public to take the virus seriously needed to emphasize that "It isn't only the elderly who are at risk from the coronavirus," ... The clear implication was that if an illness "merely" decimated older people, we might be able to live with it.

Last week's second reading says it all: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

We have a wonderfully rich intellectual heritage in the Church, but we can't forget that it is all at the service of love. All knowledge and education ought to be at the service of love, and if it fails to carve a path to the service and care of others, it is all vanity and ultimately worthless, as St. Paul insists. And that's how we will be judged at the close of our lives, not on whether we held to the right formulas, believed the right propositions; rather, we are judged on how we have loved the least of our brethren, as Christ makes very clear in the parable of the Last Judgment.

Of course, this does not mean that the sacraments or sound teaching or liturgy are of no importance. Rather, these all serve love. And those of you who are daily communicants, for example, know from within that without the Sacrifice of the Mass, without a devout prayer life, our love grows cold; something is just not right in our lives. Conversion is something we have to work to maintain, otherwise we backslide. But the more deeply we pray, the more deeply we enter into the heart of God, and it is in the heart of God alone that we discover our neighbor, and that discovery moves us to return to the world in order to find and love that neighbor. That's why all the great saints had a tremendous love and devotion to the poor and the destitute, like Mother Theresa, or John Bosco, or St. Vincent de Paul, and Dorothy Day, Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Katherine Drexel, St. Rose of Lima, and so many more.

Although this pandemic has caused a great deal of harm, it seems to have done some good as well. It has allowed many of us to simplify our lives and has made some of us more genuinely religious, in the sense that it has made us more aware of the truly vulnerable among us and our deficient attitude towards them, and more aware of what is truly important in this life, and more grateful for what we might otherwise have taken for granted.