A few weeks ago, on what was one of the first cold days of the Fall, I was out for my Friday morning sick calls to the parish’s shut-ins, and because of the cold, I was wearing a scarf. I am assuming that because I was wearing a scarf, the couple who approached me were not aware of who I was. I was at first, also not aware of who they were. As it turned out, this couple was a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses Missionaries and as they stopped me to talk, they offered me a copy of their beautiful magazine. Once they had showed me their magazine and introduced themselves, I decided that I would be a little mischievous with them. After they showed me their beautiful magazine that offered to explain the Bible to me, I told them how happy I was to meet them because I was from the local Catholic parish and sometimes we needed assistance serving the poor. I told them that with some of the other Christian denominations and synagogues in the neighbourhood our parish offered a meal to the poor once a week and I would love to be able to add their community to our local list. They told me that they did not do that kind of thing. That is alright I said, because I also said that with the Salvation Army and some of the other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church operates places like Covenant House and the Good Shephard Mission and that maybe they could give me some of the addresses for their shelters, just in case ours ever got filled up. I was told that they do not do that kind of thing. Just as one final attempt, I said that our St. Vincent de Paul Society will often do home visits to those in need in our community and sometimes I direct people to the Salvation Army Store. If I needed to get help for someone in their neighbourhood, I asked where could I send them? I was told that this was the government’s job and that they did not do that kind of thing. With that, I gave them back their beautiful booklet and told them that I think they had explained to me how their bible works.
The Judeo- Christian scriptures make it very clear that care for the poor is a fundamental part of God’s message to His people. In fact, I have always held as a completely unproven political theory that one of the things that has distinguished Canada from our neighbours in the South has been the prominent place that the Catholic Church played in the development of French-Canada. I believe a part of our Social network developed from the fact that the Church provided education and health care for those in need in Quebec and as a result of this Canadian society, combined with the influence of other denominations in other parts of Canada, developed a social conscience that held these social values as necessary and just.
In our own Catholic Tradition, the social teaching of the Church has a very rich history. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see how the deacons were first called to help serve the poor, and quite radically how in some communities all things were shared in common. St. Paul in his letters speaks of the collection which was to be taken up and sent to care for the poor. Some of our ancient liturgical texts give witness to a collection which was taken and distributed among those in need within the community. Often the monasteries in each community would provide food for those in need in the local community. The Church’s efforts to teach systematically on social issues became more organized at the beginning of the 1900’s when Pope Leo XIII promulgated his encyclical Rerum novarum, which means “new things.” It is often because there are new things, which did not exist at the time the Bible was written, that the Church does issue new social teachings. For millennium, most people lived in an agricultural society. With the Industrial Revolution, the Church attempts to apply the principals revealed in the Bible to new situations and circumstances. The same can be said of almost all new situations and circumstances of our times. Christ, and those who reveal God’s plan of salvation in the Bible, did not speak of nuclear weapons, all of the challenges introduced by technology or the issues of world population and scarcity of resources. They did however, reveal the reality of who we are as God’s people and give us the moral truths from which we might develop just and ethical responses to these situations and challenges. From these same principles will be found the answers for problems that future generations will also have to deal with as new and different challenges arise for them. For the problems of today, most of what the Church has to teach about the way we respond to the many different social and political questions of today can be found in a book that Saint Pope John Paul II asked to be published called: The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church begins by stating the reasons and the principals that determine how Christians are to act in society and amongst one another. The guiding principal is that which we heard proclaimed in last week’s Sunday Gospel: You must love the Lord your God above all things and your neighbour as yourself. The reasons why we are to do so are also given in these principals. Perhaps the most important reason for Christians acting justly and in charity is that which we hear proclaimed in our second reading today from the Letter to the Hebrews. As Christians, we are called to act charitably, first and foremost because of what Christ has done for us. As we hear proclaimed, Christ gave himself up as that sacrifice that would save us and free us from our sins. He did this once and for all so that we might all be free. It is in gratitude for this that we are called like the widow in today’s Gospel to give generously as Christ did. As Christ gave His all for our salvation, we are not invited to simply make token efforts of gratitude, but to offer all we can in thanksgiving for His salvation. In fact, each time we come to the Eucharist, Christ gives His entire self to us again and asks that as He dwells within us we might be sent out to continue to allow Him to be made present in the world today. The principals on which the Church’s social teaching are founded are derived from the belief that: God is the creator of the entire world; that everything that we have and are is from Him; that we are all brothers and sisters created in His likeness; and that all that we have has simply been entrusted to us to support us during this lifetime and is to be passed on to future generations. The radical impact that this kind of teaching might have, if taken seriously, could be to challenge those of us who live in Western society and throw out billions of tons a year in food to think that the solution to world poverty might be in better systems of distribution and less in telling people in other countries not to have children or to abort their unborn babies. That is just one example. The Church’s social teaching calls all of us, ultimately, like the widow of Zaraephath, to see in our brother or sister in need a messenger from God and to trust enough in God’s providence to dare to share with those in need.
In his pastoral plan for the Archdiocese of Toronto, Cardinal Collins has asked every parish in the Archdiocese to consider starting a Social Justice Committee. This is not an easy thing to do, because it is so hard to figure out what social justice means and what issues are going to be dealt with by the committee. In the efforts to start a committee in our parish, there has been a concern not to discourage those who are already working in so many of the excellent social outreach projects that our parish is already involved in within our community. The purpose of this committee is not to be in charge of these things. The mandate that the committee has taken on has been rather that of discernment and formation to determine where our community might be called to reach out in different ways and to develop different opportunities in our present reality. For this reason, we are simply inviting those who are presently involved in our parish’s outreach efforts to join us at our next meeting on Wednesday, November 14th at 7:00 pm to be a part of the conversation and help us to continue to develop a plan and strategy. In the New Year, the committee is hoping to arrange to bring in some speakers to help all of us to better form our consciences in regard to the Social Doctrine of the Church. I would invite anyone who would be interested in being a part of this committee to consider coming to the meeting on November 14th at 7:00 pm in the St. Paul’s Room in the Centre.
It is important to be very clear that when we speak of the Church’s Social Doctrine, we are not speaking about the Church telling us how to vote or to whom we must give our money and political allegiances. The purpose of the Church’s Social Doctrine is to remind us who we are as sons and daughters of God who were all of us made in His image and likeness and because of this are all brothers and sisters. The Church’s Social Doctrine is intended to remind us that as Christians we believe that not only did God make us all, but he also sent His only Son into the world to redeem us and share with us the gift of eternal life. This Social Doctrine calls us to respond to the gift of life in a spirit of gratitude, much like that which we are invited to each time we come to the Eucharist; which also means “thanksgiving.” The Eucharist reminds us that Christ has died that we might live and therefore we ought to give generously from what we have been given by Him and our Heavenly Father who created us. Ultimately, if we were truly to let the Church’s Social Doctrine take root deeply in our hearts, it would call us to give as the poor widow in today’s Gospel does, because it would lead us to understand that Christ has given everything for us. One of the reasons that I will be a part of the parish’s Social Justice Committee is because I know I am a far way off from living my life that way and I hope it will help me to get closer to that point. I also hope it will help to move our own parish community in that direction. May we all continue to grow in that direction and appreciation for all that God has done for us.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto.