I am celebrating and preaching this morning at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. It is always an awesome privilege for me to be provided this opportunity as the Basilica will be filled to over-flowing and the music is provided by Notre Dame’s awesome Folk Choir under the direction of Steve Warner (we sing his beautiful “Our Father” in many Churches throughout the diocese). The Irish won yesterday but that really is not the reason I am present on campus as soon we will be announcing a new form of partnership in education between our Diocese and this very Catholic University.
In the first reading from 2 Kings today, Naaman finds healing in an alien land and the population allows an alien to come and benefit from a miracle, a grace. I feel that this Old Testament story has relevance to today’s debate in the nation about immigration reform so I wish to share the homily with you here and hope you will read it and reflect on it.
The Liturgy of the Word this morning places us right smack in the face of “outcasts.” Outcasts at the time of the writing and I would suggest outcasts even in our midst today. The Gospel is familiar enough and easy enough, especially for those who attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day when it is always heard. Ten Lepers were cured but only one came back to say “thanks.” It is, hoever, the first reading this morning which captures my attention: the curing of Naaman, his restoration to wholeness, to relationships and to religious faith.
Naaman was a senior officer, a general in the pagan Syrian army, which had both defeated and devastated the Jews. He suddenly comes down with something which woefully sets him apart – in Scripture it is called “leprosy” but it is somewhat unlikely that it truly was what today we call Hansen’s disease. For in Old Testament times as well as the time of Jesus, almost any disease causing blemish, acne, skin cancer, or any disfigurement, Down’s syndrome or any neuro-muscular disorder such as Parkinson’s disease was thought to be leprosy. Who of us personally has not personally seen a person so poor that their emaciated and weakened presence, their deep-set, recessed eyes and hunger induced bone structure made us look away in horror even at the sight?
So, Naaman, conquering military hero, comes down with something inexplicable and equally inexplicably his friends say to him: you defeated these Jews but they have some kind of cure for what you have, go see their priests. Naaman was not a man with any faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. However, his lot in life has turned for the worst and he is just desperate enough to try anything. He goes to Israel where the prophet Elisha tells him to wash in the River Jordan seven times [think baptism] and he will be cleansed. Naaman thinks the notion stupid but he is desperate. Naaman thinks the River Jordan is a filthy place to take a swim and he would rather take his plunge in a cleaner, safer Syrian River, but he is desperate. Seven times he does what the prophet commands and he is cured. Astounded he pronounces his new faith in the God of Israel and embraces Him. The Jews are in wonderment; this dreadful, despicable and despised man who leveled our homes, our fields, our husbands and sons, unwanted in our land now embraces our God. What gives? And why does God heal this outcast of our society when there are so many of our own in need of His help? In the end they embrace this stranger, set aside their fears, because he has become one with them in faith.
That’s the Old Testament story, worthy on its face of a few moments of quiet reflection, but there is more to God’s word this morning. Who are the Naaman’s in our midst today – scorned, scoffed and often sacrificed on an altar of political expediency? What are the forms of “leprosy” today, which our moment in history has created to be set apart, feared, and kept always at arm’s length? Make no mistake about it, every generation has its own modern forms of “leprosy”.
Perhaps, immigrants? No sector of American society has handled immigration better than the Catholic Church. This very basilica stands on ground purchased by an immigrant priest who understood a century and a half ago that from the many would come the one, the unity – e pluribus unum. Until 1924 the Catholic Church in the United States was the immigrant Church, all were welcome no matter their language, their country or origin, the color of their skin. In certain segments of society, we Irish, Italian, German, Polish Catholics were not welcomed; rather we were often feared – in eternal life I intend to ask my Boston Irish great-grandparents about their life in the land of the Cabots and Lodges. We were feared, seen as a threat, religious rabbits who given enough time would out-populate everyone else. But our forebearers were told, just like Naaman was told to visit the land of Israel, go to America, a land of opportunity, religious freedom, hope. We Catholics tend to forget our own roots, so fully have we become assimilated into the American culture.
If Naaman the Syrian could be an example of the diversity of God’s people in Old Testament Israel, what then is the reason for the fear and loathing today accorded our mostly Catholic brothers and sisters seeking the same opportunity for freedom and cleansing from economic and sometimes political oppression? Who among us today would encourage an undocumented to go and show themselves to the priests, to the Church, perhaps only there to find sanctuary, hope and help.
Ah, but they are illegal some would say – they are criminals. They are guilty in the law of the same level of misdemeanor as I was yesterday jaywalking across Notre Dame Avenue on my way to the stadium. Crossing a border and entering the United States is, not yet at least, a felony. Perhaps these undocumented are the Naaman’s of our generation, different from him only in that they started their journey, most of them, as our sisters and brothers in faith.
If Israel needed a Naaman to remind it of God’s mercy and generosity, how much more do we need the diversity of the stranger and newcomer? In the diocese in which I am privileged to serve, one third of those who offer the Eucharist this Sunday, priests who preach and preside at Mass, are newcomers, not always sure whether they can remain or not. The central moment of our Catholic faith, the Eucharist, depends more and more in this country on “outsiders”. The football team on the field yesterday in the stadium was a mosaic of diversity – xenophobia today would field few winners in Division I football. This great university has a commitment to diversity and opportunity which makes me proud. The Diocese of St. Petersburg in the winter months likely has more undocumented Catholics than registered Catholics. We depend on them for our food, our creature comforts. Yet we often treat the visitor, the undocumented with fear and loathing and as such the stranger too often today wears the face of political and/or social leprosy. Our country indeed has both a right and responsibility to secure our nation’s borders but our faith must open our hearts to those who today yearn to breathe free and are already in our midst.
In our Church we proudly carry the banner of respect for human life, from conception to natural death. This respect for life is at the heart of who we are and denominates us as Catholic Christians – “catholic” itself means open to all, universal. May we take today as our prayer from this Eucharistic liturgy words something like this:
Allow me, O Lord, to serve as the receiving prophet who welcome the Naaman’s of this time, too often today reviled and scorned as was Your Son. And at the end of the day, may humanity and history say of us as Naaman said, “there is no God greater than the God of Israel.”