“I, Paul, an old man, and now a prisoner for Christ Jesus, urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment; I am sending him… Welcome him as you would me.” Letter to Philemon, 9-10, 12-17.
This morning Pope Francis is very much on my mind. The Holy Father is in sub-Saharan Africa on his 31st pastoral journey as our pope. Over the weekend, he is visiting Madagascar and Mauritius. So these communities of Christians in this part of the world are much in our prayers today.
By coincidence, Monday is the feast of Saint Peter Claver, the Jesuit priest who in the 17th century ministered to countless African slaves taken as a workforce to Columbia, South America. Peter Claver was called the “slave of slaves.” Our prayer intentions today are for peace and reconciliation that span centuries of abuse caused by the inhumane conditions of slavery.
Sunday after Sunday, at Mass we listen to three scriptural readings. One is from the Old Testament, in this case, the Book of Wisdom.
Today’s gospel reading is from Saint Luke, it’s about how each of us carries a burden, and how this may provide an enduring lifelong lesson.
Maybe you have witnessed this? Over many years I have witnessed friends of mine with a life-long illness. Some have managed their crosses with great patience and resolve. Others have a bad hair day, and their whole world turns upside down. Do you know what I mean?
Scripture presents us with perceptive clues about how Jesus touched and healed people, and then how each person lived a different way of life. These experiences of ours are what I call life lessons.
Jesus calls each person to a profound change of heart. As we heard last week, to come to the banquet of life, and this welcoming table, we must invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind.
In the case of Saint Paul, in the second reading, he has his special plea, to consider the case of a slave. While in prison, Paul makes a request to Philemon that the run-away slave Onesimus might be received by him without punishment and even accepted as a brother in faith.
Onesimus whose life experience we can only guess at, but his condition of slavery did not make him take to violence or revenge. Instead, he was a partner with Saint Paul. How might this man’s life provide a lesson for us today?
This past month, August of 2019, marked the arrival of the White Lion, a 160-ton English ship that landed on Point Comfort, Virginia, four hundred years ago. The ship brought a cargo of 20 or more of the first documented enslaved Africans taken from present-day Angola to North America.
The place of slavery in our country both in the South and North would remain the central theme in the American experience. This peculiar institution is the foundation for racism, war, violence, and discrimination.
Most of all there remains the deepest personal hurts that wound every soul and breaks all too many hearts.
If you wonder whether slavery has been on the mind of Americans, from its inception, read our literature or watch our films.
Consider the early silent film Birth of a Nation that glorified the old south, or how the 1939 film Gone with the Wind turns African Americans into props for this Civil War saga. Of course, there was a sea change with the drama found in Alex Haley’s book and 1970’s television drama Roots, and more recent films like Glory, Django Unchained, and 12 Years a Slave.
This film is about Solomon Northup, the free African-American, and New Yorker who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. shortly before the Civil War and then enslaved. The movie is 134 minutes of terror.
If for no other reason, Jesus in his gospel does not speak of an easy way to carry the cross. He asks the crowd to renounce possessions and to take a break with their past and even family members. And with the most confronting statement of all, says: “Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
So as followers of Christ, the weight of this cross is on our shoulders, clearly not in equal measure. However, we are called to help carry the burdens of others. As Saint Paul says, welcome them as you welcome me!
Let me bring my homily to an end and draw on the words of one of America’s most honored writers.
Toni Morrison, the recently deceased Nobel Prize winner, has encouraged me and countless others of her readers. Here are two brief selections from her collection of writings.
Following the national elections in 2004, Toni Morrison wrote:
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succomb to its maleviolence. Like failure, chaos, contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.
This is precisely the time when artist go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. This is how civilizations heal.
“The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970, was Toni Morrison’s first novel. It’s the story of Pecola Breedwell, an eleven-year old Black girl who prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be beautiful, and that people will look at her, and somehow her difficult world of Lorain, Ohio may become a welcoming place.
Letting herself breathe easy now, Pecola covered her head with the quilt. The sick feeling, which she had tried to prevent by holding her stomach, came quickly in spite of her precaution. There surged in her the desire to heave, but as always, she knew she would not.
“Please, God,” she whispered into the palm of her hand. “Please make me disappear.”
Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.
Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.