Holy See Mission Seminar Day 1- the Moral Element

12 Jun

While I was filling out the application to attend the seminar on Catholic Social Teaching in New York, I realized how little I knew about the United Nations or about the Church’s influence within such a large worldwide organization. Even so, it was a great privilege to have attended this symposium from May 20 to 25, which was officially entitled “Catholic College Students and the Common Good; Building a Better World”. This gathering of over 50 students was organized by the Path to Peace Foundation of the Holy See Permanent Observer Mission to the UN. Therefore, the prayer at the end of my last article, which was intended both as a reflection on the controversy narratives in the Gospel of Luke and as an introduction to my account of the seminar, concluded with the passage from the Canticle of Zechariah that asks God “to guide our feet in the path of peace”. (Luke 1:79)

Many of my thoughts also centered on the lives of the Saints, particularly young figures who lived Christ’s mission. I began with a discussion on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the “Man of the Beatitudes”. His biography, written by his sister Luciana, is organized into chapters that show how Pier Giorgio exemplified each of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for in the same way they prosecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-11)

The Beatitudes are clearly exhortations toward action, yet many people find them difficult to understand, let alone to live out. For example, what does it mean for a person of even average means in a developed nation to be poor in spirit or meek? Surely we aren’t meant to mourn constantly. Hunger and thirst for righteousness and purity of heart seem to be abstract terms. Mercy is a hard concept, especially when we legitimately feel wronged. One would prefer not to be persecuted for one’s beliefs (as such, countries have enacted provisions for tolerance of a wide range of convictions). How is one to be a peacemaker, especially when one’s nation is at war or is under armed attack?

I have heard more than one priest refer to the “Be-attitudes”- attitudes that are essential for being a Christian. In a pluralistic environment such as the UN, living a Catholic Christian life often appears difficult. One cannot explicitly mention God, Jesus, or the Bible, or defer to the Pope’s authority at every turn and in every document issued. If Catholics were to do so, people of other faiths or of no professed religion likely wouldn’t be inclined to listen. Yet the Church must appeal to a universal law- a common good.

This doesn’t mean that Catholics need to abandon or to dilute their faith in the international community. Instead, the Church must demonstrate that the common good is at the very root of her teachings and especially of those of her founder, Our Lord Jesus Christ. This common good is based on love that has sustained the Church since the beginning. We must love not only other Catholics according to Jesus’ commandment (cf. Mark 12:29-31), but our love must seek the good of all people, our neighbours throughout the world.

Another ambiguous term has been added here without an adequate definition- the “common good”. Without knowing fully what it is, members of the Church still strive to work for this ideal in a setting like the UN. The social teaching of the Catholic Church has developed over the Church’s history. It was maintained during a period of frequent persecutions of early Christians who had no political clout. The Council of Nicaea in 325 then established the Holy See as a diplomatic unit that today has ties to 171 countries. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum, which clarified Catholic social teaching in the face of the opposing evils of Marxism and of uncontrolled capitalism at the expense of the right to the basic necessities of life. This groundbreaking Encyclical letter has been referred to in many of the Church’s social documents since then, namely Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years- 1931), Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth- 1963), Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae (Joy and Hope and On Human Dignity- both in 1965), Centissimus Annus (One Hundredth Year since Rerum Novarum- 1991), and Deus Caritas Est (God is Love- 2005), to name a few…Furthermore, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was published in 2004.

(Sunday, May 20, 2007)…The seminar in New York began with lunch at the Holy See Mission, where we were welcomed by the Papal Nuncio to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore. His Grace is originally from Cuneo, Italy. His given name, as he said in his welcome, means “from heaven”, while his surname means “the best”. After lunch, we were treated to a bus tour of New York before we arrived at the Passionist Retreat Centre on the east bank of the Hudson River. The peaceful retreat house was a welcome temporary departure from the bustle of New York City, which truly never sleeps.

Mass, the ideal start to the seminar, followed shortly thereafter at the retreat centre, with Archbishop Migliore presiding. I was chosen to read the second reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, from the Book of Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20). I felt greatly honoured, especially since I enjoy reading at Mass and because this time I was to read before a Papal Nuncio, one who is indeed a gift to the world, one of the best from Heaven. The reading, one of my favourite passages but one that I find difficult to capture its full significance, begins with the verse:

“Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.” (Revelation 22:12)

These words convey a necessary urgency to our deeds. Jesus will return soon to judge the living and the dead. Our good works are essential and are expected of us. Therefore no one ought to boast about their own righteousness. (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:29) Rather, we must humbly endeavour to do more good than what we have already accomplished. All our goodness comes from God, “the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13), who expects us to use His gifts selflessly.

As the reading continues, Jesus is referred to by the messianic titles “root and offspring of David” and “bright morning star”. (Revelation 22:16) I am reminded here of St. Matthew’s Nativity account, where the magi are guided by a star to the stable where the Child Jesus lay. The star in the Gospel can be taken to mean a literal star, it could be a symbol of Jesus Himself, or the star could be a reference to us, who are asked to be Christ’s “light of the world”. (Matthew 5:14)

Both God and the Church- the Spirit and the Bride- unite in beckoning the one who thirsts to come forward. (cf. Revelation 22:17) All people thirst for love and justice, as did Jesus when he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. (cf. John 4:1-42) The Lord says, “Come”, and the hearer responds, “Come”. (Revelation 22:17) The hearer approaches the source, until the Spirit and the Bride become one as God intended… “Amen! Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

The first reading from Sunday, May 20 was perhaps an even more fitting introduction to our visit to the Holy See Mission. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of St. Stephen, who is traditionally regarded as the first martyr. St. Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55) professes his faith in Jesus Christ before the religious authorities, who condemn him to death by stoning for what is perceived as blasphemy. As Stephen is dying, his words closely resemble those of Our Saviour on the Cross: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”…“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60, cf. Luke 23:46, 23:34)

The story of St. Stephen was the focus of much of Archbishop Migliore’s Homily afterward. There will be people who, upon hearing the Gospel message, will become enraged and will look to persecute those who live and preach the truth. Others will stand by silently holding the coats of those who directly perpetrate evil, (cf. Acts 7:58 ) yet some among us will have the strength of St. Stephen, whose silence in death spoke as loudly in favour of goodness and love as did the words of wisdom spoken through him by the Spirit while he was living. (cf. Acts 6:10)

Tertullian (c. 155-230) wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Not long after the stoning of St. Stephen, the Book of Acts tells of the conversion of Saul (cf. Acts 9:1-19), who would also go on to give his life for Christ who gave His life for us. Indeed, the willingness of the early martyrs to love so deeply as to die for their faith amazed even their persecutors. These followers of Christ unto Calvary were ideal witnesses to God’s love, so that many more came to believe in the One sent by the Father (cf. John 17:21). Such devotion is still strong today. In fact, the twentieth century is sometimes referred to as the “century of martyrs” (cf. H.W. Crocker, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000-Year History) because more Christians were killed for their faith than in any previous century, owing in part to the rise of fascist and communist regimes where failure to worship the state meant endangering one’s own life.

While martyrdom is not the call of many Christians, some are still called to be taken where we do not wish to go. (cf. John 21:18 ) All of us, though, are called to serve others in smaller ways in order to make Christ known to all by sharing His love (cf. John 17:26). Usually, one does not need to be literally martyred, but as St. Francis of Assisi said, we must “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” This is best achieved through daily acts of kindness that are carried out joyfully.

Seeing Christ in our brothers and sisters, especially those most in need, we become more aware of opportunities for justice. Decisions ought to be based firstly on what is best for our neighbour. The common good and love of God and of neighbour are the basis of Catholic social teaching. The observance of the Church’s social teaching requires a change in our mindset and decision-making process. According to the introductory presentation by Luke Swanepoel of the Holy See Mission, we are often limited by our decision-making “tool box”: we decide based on gut reactions that involve self-interest and little reason, or on empirical data derived from observations designed to test a hypothesis. Our decisions can also be founded upon past events, or upon national or familial interests. However, this tool box lacks a moral element that is fundamental to Christian living.

Catholic social teaching, which is summarized in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, provides this moral element of decision-making. Firstly, one must respect the rights to life and to dignity of the whole human person, who is by nature both “sacred and social” in Swanepoel’s words, from conception to natural death. Therefore, the Holy See supports initiatives to protect the unborn and to promote peace. Its Permanent Observer Mission to the UN provides an ideal forum for the maintenance of widespread diplomatic relations with other countries.

The defense of human rights also entails many responsibilities. The basic moral test is how we protect the world’s most vulnerable persons. These especially include the elderly and disabled, children, refugees, and women. The Holy See Mission also strives to be a voice for workers, in the tradition of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers. I found one quotation used by Luke Swanepoel to be most pertinent to the topic of workers’ dignity: “The economy (must serve) people, not people the economy”. Solidarity is at the root of human rights protection.

A unified human family can transcend ethnic boundaries, and even the most oppressive ideologies. This was shown most effectively by Pope John Paul’s stance toward the communist regime in his native Poland. The late Pontiff was thus quoted by Swanepoel: “If you want peace, work for justice”. In Poland and elsewhere, humans have overcome great obstacles to fundamental dignity by working together.

The Church also focuses on care for all of God’s creation. Humankind has been given the gift of “dominion…over every living thing that moves upon the earth”. (Genesis 1:28 ). Environmental stewardship is thus another facet of moral Christian living.

Lord, may we live the Beatitudes, always working toward the common good. We pray for the strength to uphold the rights and dignity of every person. May you also guide us toward the most responsible use of resources that you created for us in your infinite goodness. Amen.



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