I have just returned from baking pies with the students at Blessed Sacrament School here in Syracuse. [See page 7 of this issue for more on this annual service event.] I was so impressed by the diligence and care with which the students not only made pies, but also the placemats to decorate the Thanksgiving tables at the Rescue Mission. The students had even taken the time to make me a special apron complete with their fingerprints in the shape of a cross.
As if they hadn’t cared enough, the students joined also in launching an initiative across all our Catholic schools to support Sock Out Cancer. [See page 8 of this issue for more.] This non-profit’s mission is “to assist financially distressed cancer patients and their families pay for non-medical necessities such as food, transportation and housing so patients can focus their energy on fighting cancer.” The Sock Out Cancer logo is a pair of multi-colored socks which symbolize the fight against cancer in all its forms. I am grateful to Mr. Bruce Boyea and his family who are the originators of this project.
Both events usher us into the Season of Advent, which this year the Diocese of Syracuse desires to make a “Season of Accompaniment.” In the recent meetings of the New York State bishops with Pope Francis, our forum with the Holy Father was an open one. I had planned to sit quietly and allow my brother bishops to handle the questions, but the next thing I knew, after two questions I was called upon as the “new” bishop in the room to address Pope Francis. I talked to the Holy Father about my three-month experience of being a diocesan bishop and trying to figure things out. I told him one guiding light for my new ministry was his emphasis on “accompaniment.”
His Holiness then picked up on the theme by emphasizing again to the bishops gathered the importance of journeying with the People of God and that it involved three positions: front, back, and middle. The front position was of course the bishop as “leader.” As the prophet Isaiah invites us in our first reading for the First Sunday of Advent, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5b). You may recall at my Ordination and Installation Cardinal Dolan spoke of my mission as Bishop of Syracuse as one of carrying a lighted lantern so that together “we might walk in [the Lord’s] paths” (Is 2:3b). The back position is one of “encouragement.” Prodding the flock along, especially when the climb gets tough. The middle position (which immediately took me back to sitting at my Ordination Mass among you) is that of “accompaniment.” It is meeting people where they are at (experiencing “the smell of the sheep”) and inviting them, as St. Paul says in our second reading, “to throw off the works of darkness” by our own wearing of “the armor of light” (Rom 13:12).
The Holy Father’s reflection was both affirming and challenging because it reminded this bishop of the Gospel of Matthew from the First Sunday of Advent, which instructs, “So, too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect the Son of Man will come” (Mt 24:44). In the true spirit of Advent, I see this coming not only in the past and in the future, but also in the present moment. St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of this visible “third” coming “in the vital, living action of Christ today in the community of the Church and in the lives of Christian believers.” It directs us to the Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching:
• Life and Dignity of the Human Person. All people are sacred, made in the image and likeness of God. People do not lose dignity because of disability, poverty, age, lack of success, or race. This emphasizes people over things, being over having.
• Call to Family, Community, and Participation. The human person is both sacred and social. We realize our dignity and rights in relationship with others, in community. “We are one body; when one suffers, we all suffer.” We are called to respect all of God’s gifts of creation, to be good stewards of the earth and each other.
• Rights and Responsibilities. People have a fundamental right to life, food, shelter, health care, education and employment. All people have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities to respect the rights of others in the wider society and to work for the common good.
• Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. The moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.
• The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers. People have a right to decent and productive work, fair wages, private property, and economic initiative. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.
• Solidarity. We are one human family. Our responsibilities to each other cross national, racial, economic, and ideological differences. We are called to work globally for justice.
• Care for God’s Creation. The goods of the earth are gifts from God. We have a responsibility to care for these goods as stewards and trustees, not as mere consumers and users.
The Season of Advent we have entered continues the challenge to embrace the Kingship of Jesus in our lives today, along with His viewpoint of the kingdom. But how do you and I do this? In what way are the present moment and the approaching holiday celebrations different for those who follow the King of the Universe? As I shared with the parishioners of St. Rose of Lima in North Syracuse in my homily on Christ the King Sunday:
In the next few weeks, you and I are going to be celebrating a number of special meals at which we may be asked to sit at table for upwards of an hour. Some of us will have to travel to reach those meals. Many of us will share those meals with people we do not see that often or perhaps do not want to see that often. Some of these people we might consider a little strange since we can’t choose our relations. Some of them might be loud and assertive, others quiet and difficult to talk to. Some of them might repeat the same old stories over and over again. Perhaps others there will pretend that they know so much although they really do not know much at all.
Brothers and sisters, here is where being a follower of Christ the King is important, because we believe that all the people in our lives are a part of God’s plan and this makes a difference. From this perspective, we are called to approach the people we will meet with respect and a desire to understand them. We believe that all the people in our life, all the people who gather around our Thanksgiving and our Christmas table, have been put into our lives by Christ the King. Therefore, whoever those people are, they are to be treated royally.
So when grandma puts brussels sprouts on your plate which you hate, instead of making a face or insulting her, you might want to respect the work that she has done and find a pleasant way of saying that you appreciate her, even if you don’t eat the vegetables. When Uncle Larry starts telling the story about his baseball adventures as a youth, which you have heard hundreds of times before, instead of embarrassing him, perhaps you could show him the respect to listen and maybe look for an opportunity to change the subject to a story you haven’t heard as yet. Even more, it might be a good thing to turn off our cell phones, because taking calls, even from friends, during the meal does not respect the people at the table. And if something embarrassing were to happen, instead of looking the other way or making fun, you and I might be the first to ask, “How can I help?”
Sisters and brothers, rather than seeing the upcoming holidays as something just to get through, the Word of God and today’s feast invites us to see them as opportunities to understand who the people are in our lives and whose we really are!
The holiday season is upon us, and shortly we will be traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house or Aunt Sally’s house. I encourage all of us to go to these places as followers of Christ the King, to see that the people we meet there are treated as God’s anointed ones. May we come to embrace the kingship of Jesus, a kingship completely poured out for others, transforming death into life, and violence into love.
I believe these words apply just as much in this first week of Advent as they did during the last week of the Church’s liturgical year (aka, the 34th Week in Ordinary Time). May the days ahead be ones of “accompaniment” for us where we come not just to see Jesus Christ in history or look for him in the distance, but even more importantly acknowledge his Real Presence among us, where He has chosen to dwell with the smelly sheep! A blessed Advent journey to all!