The Gardener’s Tale of Educating for Justice – excerpts from a speech on being a Christian today

The Lay Society’s theme re-echoed anew in another part of the world

Blase Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, spoke on January 25, 2020 at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, which brings together Catholic activists from all over.

  1. Reading the Signs of the Times

You asked me to briefly speak on the connection between the work of promoting human dignity and justice for all and our baptismal call to holiness.

Too often we begin such discussions about how we are to live our baptismal call by citing things that we are doing or should do, especially for the least in our midst. What I find unique in the teaching of Pope Francis is that he inverts the discussion. Instead of starting with what we are doing or should do, his attention is on what Christ is doing.

He understands that the pursuit of a holy life is about encountering this Christ who is already active and present, and joining in his saving work of building the Kingdom of God. Christ is the one who takes the initiative, not us.

And as the first pope to be a “son of the Second Vatican Council,” Francis is particularly attentive to its insights as he invites the Church to pay attention to Christ’s saving action in the world. This is what it means to read the signs of the times.

  • The Era of a New Humanism: a new way of being church

In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers prophetically declared that something new is happening in our era: we are witnessing the “birth of a new humanism, where people are defined first of all by their responsibility to their brothers and sisters and to history” (Gaudium et Spes 55).

This new appreciation of our relationships with one another as the place where God is at work opens up a new way of being Church and of understanding our baptismal call. It makes us more aware of the need for a consistent ethic as we promote human dignity and justice for all. It also helps us achieve a proper balance as the Church engages the world of politics and as we take up our ministry to the least in our midst.

  • Church not as individuals, without a bond or link between one another, but all together as one people

In this era of a new humanism, it is not surprising that the Council Fathers retrieved from our tradition the biblical vision of the Church as the People of God. In Lumen Gentium, they reminded us that God’s plan from the beginning was to make us holy and save us “not as individuals, without a bond or link between one another, but to bring them together as one people” (Lumen Gentium 9). This teaching stands in stark contrast to the not-so-subtle message of some that what matters most is the individual person, choice, personal freedom.

What the Council Fathers wanted to underscore was that it is in our relationship with one another as a human community that we are saved. This is where God works and manifests himself in bringing about the Kingdom of God. And in so doing we uphold even more strongly the dignity of person-in-society, personal freedom and choice.

  • The great plan of his fatherly love

Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium that since “being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love … (then) we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity … proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way” (Evangelii Gaudium 114).

The proper task of a Christian, then, as the Council tells us, is to work with everyone in building a more human world (cf., Gaudium et Spes 55). This is about taking a stand toward reality in which neither our spiritual lives nor religion can be understood without social commitment. Nor can salvation be understood without the need to transform history. They are linked together. 

  • Justice in the world

“We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness,” Francis observes, “that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty” (Gaudete et Exultate 101). 

We are all familiar with the criteria on which our discipleship will be judged as clearly stated in Matthew 25. Yet, that passage reminds us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and shelter the homeless, we discover Christ in our midst, as the one who is already present and active, saving the least in our midst by uniting them to the point that he is, in fact, one with them. And so, must we be. Indeed, Christ speaks of these good works as so important that they are significantly determinative of our salvation. Consider what Jesus is saying: If we do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, then “what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” If we do not help those in need, we have failed Christ, precisely because of the way persons are related — not only to one another, but also to God. If we do not understand this fundamental Gospel truth, then we do not understand the call to Christian holiness. FINIS