Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sheep Without a Shepherd

[This is the text of the homily I preached last weekend on the 22nd of July at the Cathedral in Juneau.]

When Jesus came ashore, he saw the large mass of people and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he began to teach them many things.

As the Church across the country comes together this Sunday to meet the Lord in his Word and in his Body and Blood, we do so in the aftermath of the terrible events in Aurora, Colorado.  We gather to pray here for the victims -- those who were killed and those who were wounded; for their families and friends; for the police and emergency responders, for the doctors and nurses; for the family of the perpetrator and for the disturbed young man who committed these evil and senseless acts.

We struggle to comprehend how such evil is possible and how to make sense of the chaos, disorder and bewilderment that affects all of us.  Meditating on all that happened, I keep finding myself returning to the name of that stricken communityin Colorado: Aurora.  Aurora is the Latin word for the dawn (from the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn.)  For us as Christians, as believers, "aurora", the dawn, is central to our story, in the story of the resurrection.  In the first centuries of the Church's history, believers would gather Saturday in vigil to pray through the night until dawn.  As the sun was rising in the east, they would celebrate the Sunday eucharist, both in expectation of the coming of Christ at the end of time when all would be all in him, but also to celebrate his enduring presence in the midst of his pilgrim people.

It so happens that this year, July 22nd is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  Because it is Sunday, we do not celebrate her feast today, but I propose that her witness might be a guide for us today as we seek to respond to this tragedy in the light of faith.

We should remember first of all that in the darkness of the early hours of Easter Sunday, the disciples of Jesus (including Mary Magdalene and the other women who had faithfully stood vigil at the cross) were grief stricken and confused.  Jesus, in whome they had placed their faith and hope, their beloved teacher, friend and companion, was lying lifeless in the tomb near the place of his crucifixion.  All their hopes, all their dreams, the faith itself, had died with Jesus.

They were sheep without a shepherd.

Somehow, Mary Magdalene overcame her hopelessness and grief and went to where he lay one more time with the intention of lovingly anointing his body with aromatic spices. It was there that she discovered the empty tomb.  There she encountered the risen Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who looked upon her (and all sheep without a shepherd) with compassion and love.  There, at the empty tomb, he spoke her name, "Mary" and she recognized him.  Calling her by name, she sent him to the disciples as the first witness to his resurrection.

She became the herald of the saving message that is the essence of the Good News: that Christ is risen and has triumphed one and for all over the powers of sin and darkness, over the powers of evil and death.  The Eastern Church gives her the title of "Apostle to the Apostles" in recognition that she was sent by Christ to announce the risen Lord to the Twelve who would carry that message to the ends of the earth, and eventually, through time to each one of us.

As members of the Body of Christ, as his disciples and witnesses to the saving power of God in Jesus, we are not sheep without a shepherd.  The Good Shepherd is as present to us this day as he was to Mary Magdalen on the dawn of the first day of the week.  Jesus has called each of us by name to be his disciples and the heralds of the Good News.  We are not without a shepherd, but today's gospel and the events in Aurora invite us to be attentive to so many who truly are sheep without a shepherd, those who are confused and bewildered and those whose faith has been shaken.  We must be attentive as well to all those who have lost hope altogether.  

As a society, as a culture, we are sheep without a shepherd.  There are many ways that that we could examine how as a culture we have gone astray, but I think that events like those in Aurora, are symptoms of a turning away from faith and hope in a loving God who knows us and cares about us. Living without God, without ultimate meaning and purpose, leads to a profound and suffocating nihilism, a despairing conviction that in the end, nothing truly matters and that there is no future worth contemplating, either in this world or in the next.

We are called by our baptism, called by name, to resist the despair, hopelessness and nihilism that has tragically blighted so much of our culture and society.  We must work for a society and culture that values human dignity and promotes the common good, that does not rely on violence or glorify it, that is not enslaved to the selfish gratifications of greed, lust and the domination of others.

Where to begin?  With ourselves, I think.  We must ask Christ to root out the darkness of despair and hopelessness from our own hearts, which are the root causes of so much hatred, anger and violence in our world.  We must pray for the grace to embody the beatitudes each day, so that mercy, purity of heart, an abiding desire to please God and above all, peacemaking, might lie at the heart of our imitation of Jesus.

We must never forget that Jesus calls on us to imitate him in his non-violence and his compassion and self-sacrificing love for others.  It was Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who suffered and died forgiving his persecutors.

Like our sister in faith, Mary Magdalene, it is our vocation, our privilege, our joy to announce the Good News to those who are lost and in despair, to those who have lost hope, to those who are sheep without a shepherd.  Like Mary Magdalene, we must never give up -  remember, the apostles and disciples did not initially believe the incredible news Mary and the other women proclaimed to them.  Thank God for their perseverance!

In this days, let our faithful, hopefilled, peaceful lives, in witness to our Good Shepherd, be the bright dawn of hope for all those who seek him.



At long last erect we've erected our little shrine to the Mother of God in the uphill corner of our Mary Garden here in Douglas. In mid-July the garden is looking a little bedraggled - the daffodils and tulips are long-gone -- but the forget-me-nots are in flower and the irises and lilies are coming up and beginning to blossom. I've still got to securely tie the post and the shrine into the fence, so it doesn't become airborne when the (inevitable) winds come howling through our little corner of Douglas Island.

My wife Paula and I with the newly installed shrine. (Photo thanks to our son Miguel).

The Tragedy of Mexico's Cristiada

Cristero Soldiers in the 1920's
The feature film "For Greater Glory" is showing in Juneau till the end of the week. (Thanks to a Cathedral parishioner who worked to bring this movie to Juneau).

 I went to a screening last evening to discover to my surprise that the best part of this deeply disappointing movie was to be found at the end, in the credits.  The filmmakers matched photos of the various actors with the real-life men and women (many of whom were martyred by the Mexican authorities in the 1920's ) that they portrayed in the movie.  It was quite moving to look at them and to reflect on the costly, and for some, ultimate sacrifices they made for their faith.  This was underscored by a brief snippet of (presumably)archival footage of the execution of the martyr Fr. Miguel Pro SJ, who, while not a Cristero, was arrested and put to death for his underground ministry as a priest.

Unfortunately, the film was an overall narrative and aesthetic failure.  The filmmakers, with the best of intentions, tried to create a sweeping epic (think "Lawrence of Arabia") but only succeeded in stitching together stereotypical scene after stereotypical scene (taken from a century of Westerns and war movies), through which a parade of two-dimensional heroes and bad guys (wearing the requistite white or black sombreros or the equivilent) entered and exited, guns blazing and banners flying. 

The film failed for a number of reasons.  To begin with it is pretty much impossible for us as modern people, after the horrific carnage of the First and Second World Wars, to regard war, (even a war like the Cristero Rebellion that was a desperate act of self-defense), as anything other than a tragedy.  Despite the occasional nod to how war brings out the worst in those who participate in it, the protagonists were depicted as epic, if doomed heros.   Then there was the failure of the filmmakers (or writers) to understand or explicate the perspectives of those who supported the government  and why they fervently believed that the modernization of Mexico required the repression of the Catholic Church. 

You would never know from the film that the conflict was not so much over closing churches and expelling foreign priests (although this certainly happened and was the immediate casus belli) but was a struggle over the central role of Catholicism in Mexican society and control of who would educate Mexico's youth.  Calles and his supporters sought to marginalize Catholicism because they believed the Church was the most formidable opponent they faced in their project of modernizing Mexican society. They viewed the Church in much the same way that contemporary modernizers view conservative Islamists who resist attempts to bring the benefits of education, literacy and greater social freedom to excluded groups (such as women and girls).  In rural Mexico conservative clerics and their supporters strongly (and in some places during the Cristero rebellion, violently) resisted compulsory primary education which promoted national, secular values and forcibly displaced the existing religious educational system, which was limited in scope and centered on rural parishes. 

In addition to the cultural conflict, the Church resisted the uncompensated confiscation of church estates and monastic lands by 19th century liberal governments and after the 1910 revolution. Church leadership in many parts of rural Mexico sided with other large landowners to oppose the government's redistribution of Church property to landless peasant farmers.     

I note this background not to overlook or justify in any way the persecution of the Church by the anti-clerical national government of Plutarcio Calles and various state governments (some of which were even more violent and destructive than the federales)  but to draw attention to the way in which the filmmakers flattened out the complexity and contradictions of the actual historical conflict.  You would never know from the film that Mexico was a fiercely nationalistic, but deeply divided society that had just come through a decade of revolutionary violence, had a strong and militant trade union movement and was attempting to industrialize and modernize while delivering on promises of land reform made to the campesino majority living in the countryside.  Or that the interests and goals of the Vatican, the bishops, parish priests and the urban and rural faithful were often in sharp conflict.  Or that just about everyone involved on both sides of the conflict, were at least nominally Catholics.   

All of which simply underscores the most serious problem with the film, it's not genuinely interested in Mexico and its history.  It's an American(as in Norte Americano) film that uses a Mexican setting and charactors to hold up for our admiration (rightly) the heroic witness of the martyrs and highlight conservative American beliefs about religious liberty.  Which is too bad, because the largely-forgotten tragedy of the Cristeros needs to be told in all of its complexity, moral ambiguity, and heroism.

Sadly, "For Greater Glory" fails to do that.