A People Without a Soul | 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2021

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church
26 September 2021


Last Thursday I got to do one of my favorite things in the whole world: I went downtown to hear the Chicago Symphony. I don’t have a lot of money, and I definitely don’t have a lot of free time, but being a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is something that is a priority for me. 

Thursday was the symphony’s first live concert back in Orchestra Hall under the direction of a real hero of mine, Riccardo Muti, who was back with the CSO for the first time since February 2020. The feeling was electric as the hall filled with people, and when Maestro Muti walked out on stage, the place just erupted in cheers and everyone was on their feet. The city and its orchestra were reunited at last. A tradition of the CSO is that at the beginning of a new season or at the end of a long break away, the conductor comes out and the musicians immediately play the Star Spangled Banner. The man in the row in front of me was in tears. 

After this, the normally jovial Riccardo Muti turned around and beckoned for the crowd to take their seats. He’s Italian, born and raised outside of Naples and has spent his adult life in Europe helping the continent that fostered it to fall back in love with its own classical culture. He’s an Italian Catholic of the best sort: a man who sees the spiritual power of music, art, and culture; he understands that without cultural expression, without color and dancing and song and gathering together, a people will be die from a kind of malnourishment. 

In his best broken English, he spoke off the cuff in a way I will not soon forget. Here’s what he said: 

“In the last 18 months, we have lost so much. The pandemic has brought down our economy, which affects the ways in which we live and the things we choose to do. 

The pandemic has also affected our culture, it has taken away our opportunities for culture. Without culture, a people has no soul, no life. We have forgotten how to live together because we have lost access to who we are.” 

Perhaps these words were more meaningful because of his mysterious European accent, but I think Riccardo Muti was dead right. 

We have forgotten how to live together because we have lost access to who we are. 

There is one people on the planet who should be able to remind the rest of us who we are; there is one people on the planet who, no matter the circumstances or details of daily life, never lose access to their identity: these people are the Christians, the body of Christ; it’s us! 

And yet in these last 18 months we have largely given ourselves over to the divisions and discouragement found in the world. This is not an us vs. them homily; it’s not a priests vs. laity or laity vs. the bishops homily; it’s not a liberal vs. conservative, English vs. Latin homily; it’s not pro-mask vs. anti-mask, pro-vax vs. Anti-vax homily. Every one of us, from Pope to bishop to pastor to parochial vicar to person in the pew…every one of us has given in to the spirit of these days. 

Call it whatever you want; give our problem whatever “-ism” you want: relativism, moralism, legalism, formalism. But for the most part, it has not been Christianity. 

If Jesus Christ, risen and living, is not present, then it is not Christianity. And when Jesus Christ, risen and living, really is present, things look different than they have looked, and people act differently than they have acted. 

We saw this week what happens when you try to be Catholic without the person Jesus Christ, risen and living. You get the values that Christ taught us: the virtues, loving our neighbors, being kind; but you don’t get what only the awareness of a personal presence can give to you: real change of life, real courage for what is right, real openness for people who are not on the same path as us, and a real loss of calm, reasoned, respectful dialogue that, when engaged in with sincerity by every side, can lead to real change. 

Instead we just get mad. We send emails to the pastor and principal, sometimes with the most extreme and graphic language about the masks, as if it’s up to them; we take our pens out and write what we think and draw bad pictures on the mask signs hanging up on the doors; we go to dinner parties and instead of letting people talk about what they’re learning in school or about their children who are following their passions and being brave out there; instead of sharing life together, we’re talking about mandates and bishops. 

Where is Christ? Where is the Gospel? 

Where is the witness to Jesus Christ, risen and living, that once converted the world? 

Where is the witness of people who are better, who are calmer, who are more alive, who are living life with gladness in their hearts, even during the pandemic? 

There was a period during the last year when I was so mad, so discouraged, so upset. People stopped wanting to have conversations with me because all I could talk about was how confused and mad I was at this Bishop or that politician or this diocesan official about this mandate and that terrible decision. 

One of my friends finally looked me in the eyes and said with great courage but also humility: “let’s say you got your way on everything. Let’s say your fighting and raging and social media-philosophizing earned you everything you want. What would you really gain?” 

“What do you mean?” I snapped back.

He said, “You’ve been so focused on things totally out of your control that you’re missing what’s been right in front of you the whole time. Okay, the COVID response might be different, but at this rate there won’t be anyone left who can tolerate you to share it with. You’ve been so focused on social media and concocting good arguments and getting mad at a person’s face on a screen (a person, by the way, who has no idea that you even exist) that you’ve missed the coming of Spring, the blooming of the flowers, the changing of the seasons, the new warmth in the air. You have no idea what anyone else is up to or interested in. You’ve all but abandoned the deep, contemplative, and transformative prayer that made you a Christian disciple and convinced you to become a priest. You’ve stepped away from everything that you love about being a Christian, being a friend, being a son, being a human person; if you got everything to go your way, it wouldn’t matter; because the things you think you’re fighting for have been yours the entire time.” 

Get yourself friends who smack you in the face.

We can hear my friend’s words in the second reading today: 

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.

Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,

your gold and silver have corroded,

and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;

it will devour your flesh like a fire.

You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;

you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

“Without culture, a people has no soul. We have forgotten how to live together because we have lost access to who we are.” 

So what do we do? 

Take your television to your driveway, and smash it with a hammer. 

Take your smartphone to your driveway, and smash it with a hammer. 

Maybe that’s too extreme for a starting point. 

Here’s what I did: 

  1. I deleted Instagram from my phone. I was tailoring every experience so that it would look good on my story, and I was getting mad as heck as I scrolled for hours day and night.
  2. I deleted Tik Tok. It should be called “Tik Toxic”. There’s good stuff sprinkled in there, but so much of it is unChristian, hypersexualized, nonsense. Get rid of it. 
  3. I’ve limited by Netflix binging. 
  4. I do not watch the news on any channel, I do not listen to talk radio ever for any reason, and I read the news once a day from the newspaper that is already being delivered to the rectory. 
  5. I go for a walk every night through the North Central campus. Hang out around there around 9pm and we can pray the rosary together. 
  6. I turn off screens at 8:30pm. I have Screen Time and Content restrictions on every device, so that email and other apps are not accessible to me after 10pm except with a password that only a priest friend knows. I am currently having a competition with myself to try to lower my screen time average week by week.
  7. I bought a real alarm clock and charge my phone away from my bed. I’ve made a rule that before I can check my phone I must do my morning prayers. 
  8. Before I unplug for the night, I send a message to a group chat of friends that shares with each other where we saw God working that day. 

We need to learn again how to live! There are things in our lives that cut us off from the abundant life that Jesus is offering. We know this. Too often, we limit ourselves to thinking it’s our major sins and weaknesses; this is true, but the devil is in the details…BUT so is the grace, so is the life! 

So whatever leads you away from life, cut it off, throw it away. 

“It is better for you to enter into life maimed than to go into Gehenna with two hands.” 

In a few minutes, we’ll receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, risen and living. May the reception of this Eucharist give you the courage to smash your TVs, to plug in your phones somewhere else, to take a break from social media, to turn off talk radio; 

May the presence of Jesus give you the courage to affirm your neighbors, to read a novel, to go for a walk, to call your mother, to keep a journal, to sit quietly on the porch and drink your coffee, to go to the symphony, to paint the deck…

…to cry for all that’s been lost, to mourn the ways we’ve gone astray, to laugh at the way it’s still somehow all coming together, and to smile because you know that Jesus has saved you, has freed you, has changed you, and has made you a witness to the truly beautiful life that still unfolds around you and within you, day after day. 

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