On the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration I cantored for the vigil Mass at my parish, where I was struck by the second reading (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17). In it we learn that St. Paul is scandalized by rumors of rivalries that have sprung up in the early Christian community. He hears that people are saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Outraged, he asks, Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
We shake our heads. Silly Corinthians. Yet the urge to separate and define ourselves by allegiances is persistent and–especially in today’s political climate–downright poisonous.
Remember when Catholics identified most with a particular religious congregation? As children we were taught by Mercies or Macs or Joes, and if we went on to college we were formed by Jesuits or Augustinians or Christian Brothers (or Mercies or Macs or Joes). Those charisms do run deep, but they don’t have the sharp edge of rivalry that Paul alludes to (at least not off the basketball court). Instead it’s more like the beginning of a good-natured insider joke. A Franciscan, a Benedictine and a Jesuit are talking about what they do with the Sunday collection . . .
But oy, this election season.
I feel blessed to be a member of St. Vincent DePaul parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, a church proud to be known as “the social justice parish.” We are a diverse and vibrant community. At Sunday Mass our General Intercessions (written by a small cadre of parishioners) regularly feature prayers for immigrants, prisoners, and LGBT families. We have a variety of social outreach ministries. We are about to bless and display a Black Lives Matter banner in front of the church. It feels as though we have been of one mind this season, and of one heart, and that heart may be broken, but at least we are together.
Some friends in other churches are not so lucky. One walked out of her parish in late October, perhaps for good, when the pastor told congregants they would be putting their immortal souls in jeopardy if they voted a certain way in the presidential election. Some walked out with her. Yet others gave that same pastor a round of applause at the end of his homily. Fast forward a few months to January 20; some parishioners probably cried when Obama’s helicopter took off, while others cheered. They are a divided congregation filled with divided families in a divided nation. And they are the norm these days.
Two days after the Inauguration I attended a Quaker meeting, where everyone who spoke had participated in one of the women’s marches on Saturday. One man’s words drove home what had been nagging at me since the Corinthians reading. He said, “In the course of my life I have seen so much suffering and cruelty inflicted on people and nations because of beliefs.”
We don’t belong to people these days (Paul, Apollos, Cephas or even Bernie, Hillary, or Donald), as much as to convictions and worldviews. So if we are to learn a lesson from that reading from Corinthians, I think we have to ask ourselves what allegiances St. Paul would be shaking his fist at us for, given the chance. How might he rewrite that bit of the Epistle now? As tempting as it is to point the finger at those on the other side of the ecclesial aisle, today let me consider the plank in my own eye. When I say, “I belong to the social justice parish” or “I belong to a welcoming and inclusive community” or “I belong to a parish where people are passionate about the liturgy” or “I belong to a church with a Black Lives Matter banner out front,” what am I really saying? Is my attachment to those ways of being Catholic more important to me than the faith itself?
Is Christ divided?
It’s a mess.
I am nowhere near over being baffled by and harboring unkind thoughts toward people who believe differently than I do about our new president. But I want to hold onto this: we are each tending the light that we believe has been entrusted to us. We each bring our raw, wounded, caring, imperfect selves up the aisle each week. And I can only take responsibility for what I bring to the table. So, in this moment of national turmoil, I want to try to bring equal measures of humility and charity. When I get all self-righteous about my brand of Catholicism and all judgy about someone else’s, I’m bringing neither.
“On those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” Isaiah proclaimed in this weekend’s first reading (9:1b). High time, I say. Enough with this gloom!
But until that great day comes, maybe it’s enough that we try not to add to the darkness.