I wish to congratulate our parishioners who have been reading the Pope Francis’ latest encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”. It is a deep work and will be well worth reading several times. With something as profound as this I like to have a key, a phrase or an idea which will put the entire work into perspective. I had trouble finding one until I heard a comment by a Franciscan friar who summed it up with “it doesn’t have to be like this”. This not only helps to interpret Fratelli Tutti, but also today’s gospel reading and feast.
Beatitude is usually translated as “blessing”: something which puts us in a good situation.
We would consider a job which allows us to have health insurance a blessing. Having a skill set which allows us to have an esteemed place in our society, a blessing. Eating nutritious food since childhood, a blessing. We can appreciate all of these, and I hope that we all have them.
Yet, look at what Jesus calls a blessing:
To be poor in sprit means to be recognize that there is much that we cannot do ourselves but are dependent on God. Do you want this? Do you consider it a blessing? Or would you find the power and ability to be independent the real blessing?
To be pure in heart as we see in today’s psalm means making God the center of your universe and your defender and redeemer. This sounds excruciatingly pious but totally unreasonable. Wouldn’t you rather be defended by a first class litigator?
And how is it a blessing to be persecuted and reviled? Is not being recognized for our talents and abilities the true blessing? Should we not seek the reward of earthly success; would not the esteem of all put us in a good situation?
It is hard not to read these blessings without being conflicted and I think the usual approach, certainly mine for decades, was to write them off as noble ideas which we will find in heaven. But until then we will accept and use more worldly blessings.
Two things changed my mind and heart.
The first was to realize that the Greek word for blessing, “Makarios”, was closer to blissful than what we call blessed. Poverty of Sprit, meekness, mercy, even persecution – if done for Jesus – will bring us bliss, essentially joy. A good job and being held in high esteem are wonderful, but not blissful. It may bring satisfaction – indeed, deep satisfaction – but not joy. Indeed, a person who believes that these things bring bliss needs, at least, greater self-examination. .
The Beatitudes of Jesus bring us the kingdom of God, true support, mercy and the vision of God – all things the world cannot give. The first change for me – and I think many others as well – was realizing that Jesus really did bring a new life, with new expectations. No matter what else we experience in life, if we do not experience bliss and joy, we have not truly lived.
The second is that this cannot be done alone. It needs a community.
My previous assignment entailed merging two parishes into one. On paper, they looked similar, but needless to say they were not. The mechanics were fairly straightforward: one bank account, single staff, but allowing some societies to be duplicated and a simplified Mass schedule. The human aspects were more complicated. How to get people to work together, how to convince them to build a shared community? This was the dilemma which St Matthew also experienced. He was pastor of a divided community. In his case not from separate buildings, but rather from different world views.
His entire gospel is both a plea and a handbook on unity. His beatitudes are different from St Luke’s, because despite their seeming unworldliness, they are very practical.
Where there is discord there must be peacemakers. Like Matthew, I needed people who would ease hurt feelings and soothe bruised egos. These truly were in Matthew’s words, “Children of God”.
There were many talented individuals in the community, but some of them were very aware of their talents and abilities and wanted everyone else to be as well. They were not helpful. Their need for recognition negated their talents. Those who were “poor in Sprit” who realized that their talents were from God and gave them back were important. The kingdom of God could make its way in our parish because of them.
It is amazing how each of these beatitudes is important in community building and how truly blessed we are when we follow them. I was once asked to write a pamphlet on merging churches and I told the people who asked that it was already done. St Matthew’s gospel is the best guide, and the beatitudes form the key section. I did, however, offer an equation: “the more a parish lives the beatitudes, the more it will be the community that Jesus wants it to be”.
It is therefore very appropriate that the beatitudes are read for All Saints day. Saint means “holy one”, and originally referred to all baptized Christians. We were expected to be holy – not just good or successful in the usual sense of the word. The blessings of the world will make for a good neighbor and can run a good NGO, but not build a parish.
Let us look around us. We can say that the beatitudes of God are hard to accept and thus rare but how many people have the blessings of the world? Do all have good jobs, secure health care and housing and all the other items that make the good life? Could it be that because so few people have tried to be saints the world has had no real moral compass and lost its way? When blessings of this world go to fewer and fewer members of it, are any of us really in a good situation?
The longer we are in semi-lockdown, the longer it will take to revive and rebuild. So many of us have gotten out of the habit of Mass, but also our social and educational projects. And let us note that we at St. Charles are in an enviable situation compared to parishes which did not have technologically adapt parishioners. We also see a nation that is profoundly befuddled and has seemingly lost the habit of civility. What will be the blessings we will seek, what will bring us to a good place? Our eyes tell us that the blessings of this world are just not good enough but the scriptures tell us that there is an alternative. If we desire the blessings of the scriptures and work to attain them, it will not be this way: it will be God’s way.