Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Wall and What Divides Us

This Rome Reports video is an exceptional gift in troubled times, at least it was for me. It speaks about the past, yes, but offers some handles for dealing with our future. While speaking about what divided Germany and Europe, Pope Benedict offers me light on how to face today's divisions and choices. Walls crumble because God and man created in His own image and likeness are greater than anybody's dissonant variations on any theme unworthy of the fullness of life and truth as it comes to us from Him through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

At the very latest since the Malaysian Airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine, I find myself again and again confronted with other people's difficulty in choosing: between the Putin regime and the West, between the European extreme right and liberal European posturing, between the Realpolitik of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic and other religious communities it undermines and endangers... You might say I hang out with too intense of a crowd, that folks should leave such choices to the movers and shakers and just go with the flow. I don't know if that is a fair assessment of what worries and why folks are in anguish. It would seem that whether my ballot really counts or not, I do owe the world and myself before God a right choice, a fundamental choice in favor of the reign of Christ the King, even when that means rejecting the oligarchic system which pays my meal ticket while depriving me of my dignity and keeping me far from the love of God.

I just happened to read a chapter from the Imitation of Christ this morning which firmly warns against picking favorite saints or presuming to fuddle around with things too sublime. The counsel as always was to seek above all humble subjection to the Divine Will. The overall divide does not seem to be between perdition and salvation, however, but rather of the how and wherefore for moving ahead. For instance, I get the impression that the powers that be in Hungary might be "picking their favorite saints", touting certain values while serving themselves, and thus leaving themselves open to criticism; their choice of Christian values and culture does not seem to be altogether unconditional.

The same is true in Ukraine, where in the past the looting and plundering of the nation has been more blatant than in Hungary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most of the unloved oligarchs have impressive collections of saints in their homes and in many cases even private shrines for those they have appropriated as heavenly intercessors. The ultimate red flag here, for instance, seems to come from video footage of any one of our "prepotents" crossing himself or lighting a candle. Thomas a Kempis might have been making a more subtle point but the glaring abuse calls each of us to an examination of conscience. Where does "choosing saints" end and voodoo begin?

Today here in Kyiv we are praying for orphans in a very special way. Lord knows, thanks to the injustice of the past and the present aggression against Ukraine, they are legion. In violation of my own principle, I wish to recommend them to God through the intercession of their Catholic patron saint, St. Jerome Emiliani. His little online "vita" is telling for what I am thinking about in terms of choices as well:

Jerome Emiliani lay chained in the dark dirty dungeon. Only a short time before he had been a military commander for Venice in charge of a fortress. He didn't care much about God because he didn't need him -- he had his own strength and the strength of his soldiers and weapons. When Venice's enemies, the League of Cambrai, captured the fortress, he was dragged off and imprisoned. There in the dungeon, Jerome decided to get rid of the chains that bound him. He let go of his worldly attachments and embraced God.

When he finally was able to escape, he hung his metal chains in the nearby church of Treviso -- in gratitude not only for being freed from physical prison but from his spiritual dungeon as well.

After a short time as mayor of Treviso he returned his home in Venice where he studied for the priesthood. The war may have been over but it was followed by the famine and plague war's devastation often brought. Thousands suffered in his beloved city. Jerome devoted himself to service again -- this time, not to the military but the poor and suffering around him. He felt a special call to help the orphans who had no one to care for them. All the loved ones who would have protected them and comforted them had been taken by sickness or starvation. He would become their parent, their family.

Using his own money, he rented a house for the orphans, fed them, clothed them, and educated them. Part of his education was to give them the first known catechetical teaching by question and answer. But his constant devotion to the suffering put him in danger too and he fell ill from the plague himself. When he recovered, he had the ideal excuse to back away, but instead his illness seemed to take the last links of the chain from his soul. Once again he interpreted his suffering to be a sign of how little the ambitions of the world mattered.

He committed his whole life and all he owned to helping others. He founded orphanages in other cities, a hospital, and a shelter for prostitutes. This grew into a congregation of priests and brothers that was named after the place where they had a house: the Clerks Regular of Somascha. Although they spent time educating other young people, their primary work was always Jerome's first love -- helping orphans.

His final chains fell away when he again fell ill while taking care of the sick. He died in 1537 at the age of 56.

He is the patron saint of abandoned children and orphans.

Saint Jerome Emiliani, watch over all children who are abandoned or unloved. Give us the courage to show them God's love through our care. Help us to lose the chains that keep us from living the life God intended for us. Amen.

Walls that divide or chains that bind, real or figurative, we cannot seem to get beyond them within our own realm of choice. I don't wish Europe war and dungeon, but light and hope in Christ. Come home to God's love!


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