Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Our preferential love for God's poor must never be a mere afterthought (Reflections on the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, Mt. 18:12-14)

The story of the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one that has been lost, is surely one of the simplest of all the parables of Jesus. The man whose feast we celebrate today was also a shepherd, a great leader of the ancient church. He was one of the staunchest defenders of orthodox Christianity against the Arianism that plagued the church of his time. Ambrose’s teaching also converted one of the greatest theologians of the ancient world, a young reprobate by the name of Augustine. Ambrose was an eloquent preacher, a great thinker, a man of literature, and a song-writer.

But what made Ambrose truly great was not simply any of these deeds, instead it was that just like the shepherd in today’s gospel, he truly cared for that single lost sheep. Ambrose was a deeply caring and compassionate man who had a great love for the poor and those in need.

When once, barbarians took many Christian prisoners to be sold into slavery, Ambrose wanted to save them, but had no money. He rushed into his cathedral and to the shock of his own priests, had all the golden chalices, and vessels melted and turned into coins to pay for their ransom. When confronted for his act, he simply said:

“Would not Christ himself say, why did you allow so many needy to die of hunger? Don’t you have gold in your church? You should have given them food. Why are so many captives brought to the slave market when you have all the gold you need to ransom them? It is better to preserve living vessels than gold ones”.

Saint Ambrose was a true shepherd and a true Christian. Like the good shepherd in today’s gospel, he had a great concern for all, but especially for those who are most in need.

In speaking about the requirements of pastoral formation, the bishops in the Program for Priestly Formation tell us: “If seminarians are to be formed after the model of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who came to ‘bring glad tidings to the poor’, then they must have sustained contact with those who are privileged in God’s eyes—the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the suffering. In the course of these encounters, they must learn to cultivate a preferential option for the poor”.

For a Christian, but especially for a seminarian and a priest, a preferential love for God’s poor must never be a mere afterthought--an 'additional extra' engaged in when 'everything else' is done. It is rather, an essential part of our response to the invitation of Christ to follow him. As the late Pope John Paul II kept reminding us, the work of justice is an integral part of the preaching of the Gospel.

“The hungry mouths of the poor”, Saint Ambrose tells us, are the great barn houses of heaven. If you want to get to heaven, fill these barns while you’re still on earth”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)