success stories

Posted May 13, 2004

Babel in Our Front Yard

By Father Raymond B. Kemp

It is a familiar scene after Sunday Mass. Parishioners, shaking the priest's hand, offer obligatory words of praise: "Way to go, Father. Nice homily, great service, fine Mass."

Especially in an election year, the reception can easily change when Father tries to bring justice -- and politics --- into the pulpit. Instead of high fives, the celebrant can get blank stares and blunt reviews from the flock.

Pastors in Los Angeles learned this some years ago when -- as instructed by the Archdiocese -- they preached against Proposition 187 in California. That voter initiative aimed to deny essential public services, including education and medical care, to undocumented immigrants (and, in effect, to their children). State courts have struck down most parts of the 1994 referendum.

These priests were used to getting their hugs after Mass. But after the anti-187 sermons, they heard comments like: "Where are you coming from? Why politics in the pulpit? We don't want to hear this. I didn't come here to be preached at." A few churchgoers yelled at the preachers and stormed out of church.

Some priests ran back to the rectories, resolving that for now on, they wouldn't touch that issue with a ten-foot pole. But many also wondered: "Why are they so angry? It seems so simple. A five-year-old Guatemalan boy shouldn't be denied basic medical care, just because his parents came here illegally."

Trouble is, it wasn't so simple.

Justice isn't just about the politics of the moment. It's about fidelity to our relationships with God and each other. It's at the core of biblical faith and spirituality. And there is rarely an easy leap from these scriptural foundations to a yes-or-no stand on any given political proposal.

As a priest who helps other priests preach about biblical justice, I had a chance to meet many of the Los Angeles pastors after the Proposition 187 affair. Some of them, upon reflection, felt they had forgotten what they were preaching for in the first place: a vision of creation in Genesis where one God has created one world and we are all sisters and brothers.

By the time the 187 controversy erupted, it was too late to lay that foundation for welcoming these strangers and respecting their rights and dignity as members of God's family.

Many priests and preachers realize we have missed the bigger picture of faith, justice, and community. We have spent the past generation trying to form large parishes into communities over coffee and donuts. But we have not looked over our shoulders to see who is arriving in wave after wave in all directions.

In the midst of our building programs and "creating community," the simple fact of God's creative intention to create a world community has not been well preached. We still can learn much from the Holy Father, who has made the "unity of God's family" a relentless theme in his preaching about our challenges in the third millennium.

A key theological phrase here is "biblical justice." This is different from the ethical sense of justice: giving what is owed to each person. As explained by Jesuit theologian John Donahue, biblical justice is fidelity to the demands of relationships that stem from God's covenant with us. It is about right relationships with God and neighbor.

We need to recover the biblical roots of our faith. We need to return to classic themes: creation and community, sin and the sundering of relationships, and the re-creation of a new community that is committed to the Cross and sent into the world. We must invite congregations to ponder and weigh what this faith might bring to our politics and behavior.

A keener sense of biblical justice won't automatically settle the arguments over divisive issues like immigration. But any genuine Catholic position must start from that perspective.

As a diverse people of covenant, Catholics are well positioned not only to preach this biblical vision but also actualize it in their families, workplaces, communities, parishes and legislatures.

Look at the polyglot of languages, customs, and cultures that is almost any archdiocese in this country. We Catholics belong to one of a very few institutions that can gather differing races, ethnic groups, and economic classes.

Babel is in our front yard, and we have a terrific opportunity to make credible the truth of the unity of God's family.

Father Raymond B. Kemp is a senior fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He coordinates the centerís project, Preaching the Just Word, which has held workshops for over 4100 priests, religious, and deacons in archdioceses including Los Angeles.