Monday, February 24, 2014

Francis and the Good Samaritan

Today is the day – February 24, 1947 - that Opus Dei was granted pontifical approval de iure as a Secular Institute. In fact, the figure of the Secular Institute (of which Opus Dei was the first and only one at that moment) was the juridical conceit that uncomfortably gave Opus Dei a legal place to stand in the Church where canonical religious orders of consecrated life prior to that time constituted ways of sanctification. Such a state of affairs was not acceptable to the charism received by St. Josemaria since he was given to understand by the Lord that there was a unity of vocation for laity and ministerial priests characterized by secularity whereby ordinary work was the occasion and means of identification with Jesus Christ.  Opus Dei was in fact a way of sanctity, a fullness of vocation, but in the exercise of work as ministerial priest or laymen. The vocation was one (the same for all) because it was directed to the “I” of the person involving the whole self as gift. Everyone has an “I,” and that is what has to be given. Therefore, it did not matter whether it is male, female, layman, priest, doing this or that objectively as work. The subject – person - is the receiver and protagonist of the vocation.  

And so, there were two dimensions that had to be accounted for: 1) the oneness of vocation, and 2) the secularity insofar as work had to be the means that the “I,” or self, exercised its Christic dimension by going out of self. [This fits with Pope Francis’ insistence on overcoming every taint of “self-referentiality”].

Mind of Pope Francis as Exemplified in the Parable of the Good Samaritan:

In the overall presentation of the pope’s mind, it seems that the parable of the Good Samaritan has pre-eminence and pride of place in presenting his thought. In his own words Francis said:

       “(T)here is a half-dead man lying in the road. A priest walks by – a zealous priest wearing a cassock and on his way to say Mass. The priest looks at the man and says to himself “I will be late for Mass” and goes on his way. “He didn’t hear the voice of God.” Then a Levite passes by and perhaps he thinks “If I get involved and the man dies, then tomorrow I will have to go before the judge and give testimony… so, he too goes on his way. He too “turns away from the voice of God”…

Only the Samaritan, a sinner, someone who habitually turns away from God had the capacity “to hear God and to understand his request. Someone who wasn’t used to participating in religious rites, who didn’t lead a “moral” life, who was theologically “wrong”, because Samaritans believed that God should be adored elsewhere, not where the Lord had said. But the Samaritan understood that God was calling him and he did not turn away. He went to the man, bound up his wounds, poured on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him. He gave up his whole evening for him.”

The pope concluded his point by pointing out that the categories and structures won out over the dignity of the wounded person: “the priest was on time for Mass and the faithful were happy; the Levite’s schedule was not upset….”  And he asked: “why did Jonah run away from God when the Lord asked him to go to Nineveh and he boarded a ship to Spain? Why did the priest turn away from God? Why did the Levite turn away from God? Because their hearts were closed, and when your heart is closed you cannot hear the voice of God. Instead the Samaritan - he said - “saw and was moved with compassion”: his heart was open, he was human, and humanity brought him close to God.”

Now, the pope is not saying that people should leave their secular work to come to the aid of the poor. He is, rather, talking about a change of attitude in those engaged in their secular work, and he has been immense in insisting on the normality of the sacrament of Baptism as the key to sanctity of life. Baptism is the sacrament that has the Christification of the laity as its normal denouement. If lived out to the full, Baptism is the sacrament of faith that leads the person to the Cross of Christ precisely in the exercise of ordinary work.  But with the predominance of the religious vocation, extraordinary as it is, as the ordinary venue to serve the poor a la Mother Teresa, the presumption of the interpretation of the story of the Good Samaritan will be for religious life. The interpretation of the parable has not been nuanced for 2,000 years on my understanding of it.

And so in the light of today’s anniversary of the “Decretum Laudis” of Opus Dei, I offer the words and  thought of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo and St . Josemaria Escriva that’s gives a full exegesis of the parable and removes the ambiguity by placing the service to the poor in the very execution of one’s secular professional work. So much so is this the case with the pope, that he writes, “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self.  I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by his mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing. All around us we begin to see nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others. But once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs. We stop being a people.”[1]

Blessed Alvaro del Portillo: Letter, January 9, 1993: [Reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan]

            “The desire to attend to, and where possible to remedy, the material needs of one’s neighbor, without neglecting one’s other obligations, like the Good Samaritan, is a distinguishing feature of the fusion of priestly soul and lay mentality. What God asks of us is, in the first place, to sanctify our daily work and the duties of our state. As you attend to those duties, God allows you to encounter the needs and sorrows of others. When that happens, a clear sign that you are carrying out your tasks with a priestly soul is that you do not pass by uncaringly; and it is no less clear a sign if you do so without abandoning the other duties you must sanctify. At this time it would not be good for you to copy what I did for many years with the first people of the Work: visiting hospitals and looking after sick people, cleaning them and bathing them. I had to give it up because it was not compatible with this other work, the task Our Lord asks of me now. And the same happens to you: when you choose to sanctify yourselves in the place where Our Lord has put you, you have to abstain from other good things which are not part of your way (Reference to a get-together with St. Josemaria on June 21, 1972).

            God wants you to remain where you are. From that place you can carry out – you are carrying out – an immense service to the poor and needy, to all those who suffer ignorance, loneliness and sorrow (often as a result of injustice). When you seek holiness with all your strength, trying to sanctify your daily work and your family and social relations, you contribute to imbuing human society with a Christian spirit. I am not referring now only to those of you who occupy leading positions in financial, political or social circles. I am thinking of all the daughters and all the sons of our Father, who, while turning into prayer their work, their entire day – in occupations that perhaps are not very spectacular, like the work and the life of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph – are placing Our Lord at the summit of all human activities. And then you can be sure that he will draw all things to himself and fully satisfy your hunger and thirst for righteousness.

The Innkeeper – the key to understanding the parable in the light of the spirit of Opus Dei.

            “Let us mediate also on how the parable ends. To look after the wounded man the Samaritan enlisted the help of the innkeeper. How could he have managed without him? Our Father admired this man, the owner of the inn: he passed unnoticed, yet he did most of the work, acting in his professional capacity. Looking at what he did you will understand firstly, that by carrying out your work you can all do as well as he did, because every occupation offers many opportunities to help the needy, either directly or indirectly. This is certainly true of the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or a business man who does not close his eyes to people’s material needs. Even though the law may not oblige him, he knows he is under an obligation in justice and charity. But office workers, tradesmen or farmers also have many opportunities to serve others – at times, perhaps, in spite of great personal hardship. Don’t forget, as I have said before, that to carry out ordinary work faithfully, is hardship. Don’t forget, as I have said before, that to carry iout our ordinary work faithfully, is itself to practice the virtue or charity towards individuals and towards society at large.

            “Secondly, concern for the poor and the sick should lead you, inspired by the priestly soul and lay mentality which characterize our spirit, to cooperate in or initiate social programs which aim to remedy, in a truly professional manner, these needs of mankind and many others. As a consequence of your apostolic zeal, a great variety of undertakings of this kind have already been started all over the world. The have sprung up widely different situations and environments in response to the problems of a society which needs to be made more human, more Christian! Training schools for people of limited resources, centers of formation for workers on the land, activities for the advancement of women in rural areas, dispensaries, schools in poorer districts of large cities…” it is a sea without shores, like all our apostolic work, which in all its multiplicity constitutes a great service to society. There are indeed many such initiatives, and I pray to God that they may continue to grow in number and that he bless your enterprise and your effort.

            “My daughters and sons, I have reminded you that the sanctification of our work, with the variety of aspects shown by the Good Samaritan and the innkeeper, is the great means available to us to extend  the kingdom of Christ and to fulfill this demand of his kingly mission  - attending to persons in need – which the Holy Father [John Paul  II] refers to so often, in an attempt to awaken the sleepy consciences of many Christians. In this task the Holy Father is relying on us, who have to be salt and light, as he said to us on the day of our Father’s Beatification, when he encouraged us to be filled with ‘an enthusiastic apostolic dynamism, paying particular attention to the poor and  those in need, because he is familiar with many of the activities of that kind which the faithful of the Prelature carry out all over the world.”

Bottom Line: The traditional take on  the Good Samaritan is that he (the Good Samaritan) transcends all the categories and  goes to the  peripheries. But, we are called to find Christ in the categories by transcending ourselves.

[1] Pope Francis, “Joy of the Gospel” #273.

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