Have you ever wondered why the church in the United States, its myriad challenges notwithstanding, remains far more alive, vibrant, and well, than the church in Europe? Many reasons, both historical and cultural have of course been put forward, and we really don't have a lot of time to talk about them in detail, but let me this morning, just point you to two very significant ones.
The church in Europe lost the working classes; not here. In the 1800’s, in the wake of the many injustices and the great suffering experienced by countless men and women after the Industrial Revolution, communism and socialism began attracting many of those belonging to the working classes to labor unions. In Europe most bishops regarded these organizations with suspicion and disdain and condemned those who joined. In the United States and Canada, a group known as the Knights of Labor was founded, headed by an Irish immigrant by the name of Terrence Powderly. It was the first major labor union of true consequence in the country. At its height, it had 800,000 members, a majority of which were poor Catholic immigrants; the other members were communists, socialists, Jews, Protestants, and freemasons.
The bishops of Quebec, worried that Catholics would be in danger of being ‘contaminated’ by those who weren’t of the fold, immediately condemned the group and forbade Catholics to join. When the news got to Rome, Pope Leo XIII asked the bishops in the Northeastern United States what their opinion was. Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, and Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul Minnesota, worried that if they followed the lead of their counterparts in Europe, they would endanger not only the faith but the very well-being of Catholics in the United States, decided instead to throw their support behind the Knights of Labor and presented their ideas to the pope.
In 1888 Pope Leo XIII not only recognized the Knights of Labor but encouraged Catholics to join the first major labor union in the United States, and the ideas expressed by Gibbons and Ireland became part of what was eventually a ground-breaking encyclical that ushered a new era of Church engagement and involvement with the secular world, Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, published in 1891. While the church in Europe continued to lose the working classes, the Catholic faith of the working classes in the United States was secured, and the foundation for an even strong and more vibrant Catholicism was safeguarded. Monuments like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, built by the small contributions of ordinary working-class Catholics in New York, bear witness to the triumph of the American bishops’ pastoral solicitude towards the poor immigrant classes.
In 1944, an American priest by the name of John Courtney Murray ran into trouble with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office in Rome for his ideas concerning Catholic engagement in social and political life, especially those that involved non-Catholics. John Courtney Murray was silenced by the Holy Office. He obeyed, though he continued his ground-breaking research. During the second session of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Spellman of New York appointed Courtney Murray his peritus (his theological expert) brought him to Rome and made him work on what was to become one of the greatest contributions of the American Church to Vatican II, to Catholicism, and the world at large, Dignitatis Humanae, the document on religious freedom and personal dignity that has opened the floodgates to greater and more meaningful Catholic engagement and involvement in the contemporary world.
Why do I bring up these two historical accounts? Because most of the time, when we talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan and we focus attention on the Priest and Levite, we tend to see only their seeming callousness and lack of compassion for the man beset by robbers.
If we look at their situation more closely though, we begin to see that theirs wasn’t so much a lack of compassion and care for the poor man (Priests and Levites were generally good men themselves), but a lack of creativity in showing that concern. It was a lack born out of fear.
Both the Priest and Levite were temple dignitaries who simply couldn’t get out of the straightjacket in which their piety and devotion had imprisoned them. Both were on their way to perform their ritual duties in the Temple, which they would not have been able to do had they touched someone or something unclean—like blood, or God-forbid, a corpse.
Contrast their attitude to the Samaritan who not only helped, but went out of his way to secure the wounded man’s continued well-being. Or contrast their attitude to that of Jesus who healed on the Sabbath, who let his disciples pick grains when they were hungry, and who proclaimed that religious ritual was made for man, and not the other way around.
Love can only be truly creative, we can only be truly creative, we can only be truly useful to the church and be of genuine assistance to those we shall be ministering to, if we learn to overcome our fear. Not later on as priests, but now, as students discerning and preparing for the priesthood!
Cardinal Avery Dulles was one of my professors in Louvain in 1992 when he was a guest lecturer at the university. He was still Father Dulles back then, and we got to call him simply “Avery” as he lived with us in the seminary and insisted we call him by his first name. One morning at breakfast, the conversation turned to pastoral formation, and the pastoral director, put the question to everyone at table, “How do we form truly pastoral priests?” I will never forget Fr. Dulles’ words – because I wrote them in my journal: “Teach your seminarians to be brave. True shepherds are fearless in protecting their flock. Teach your students to be brave”.
The Church doesn’t need shrinking violets, scared priests who can’t think or do things on their own, who stifle their common sense, good judgment, creativity, and initiative because of fear that they might be considered disobedient or might commit a mistake and be reprimanded. An obedience that stifles the creative impulse of love is no obedience at all.
Remember the seminary is precisely the place to make those honest and sincere mistakes that will teach and form us to become true shepherds, caring pastors, loving and protective fathers of God’s flock. Do not be afraid to make mistakes.
The last thing the Church needs, especially in these most challenging and trying of times, are priests whose brains are in straitjackets, whose hearts are in chains, and who kill the creative fire that is God’s gift, forever fearful of making mistakes and always wondering, “What will my superiors think of me?”
What the Church needs are giants, men like James Gibbons, John Ireland, John Courtney Murray, and many others like them, who are creative and brave, and who are willing to put themselves (and their lives) on the line in the pursuit of the creativity of love. The church needs fearless shepherds who can think out of the box, as Jesus did, time and time again.
Are we up to that challenge?