Thursday, 10 April 2014

I’m with O’Malley: the Mexican border mass

Omalley 1

When an idea or an event that pushes the envelope (in the parlance of our times) arises, the most immediate reaction from some people is to oppose it instinctively, on the grounds of it just not making sense or being the done thing. This is pretty much ubiquitous in science, where new theories initially tend to be ridiculed or at least approached with skepticism, and no less at home in the Church, where new expressions of imitating Jesus often fall on deaf ears or are met with some form of the “crimes against tradition” objection.

Last week saw an event exactly like that - a mass celebrated at the Mexican-US border, where the concelebrands, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, and a dozen other bishops, were on the US side of the 20-foot-tall, metal-fenced border, while the congregation around them, numbering in excess of 500, was partly on US and partly on Mexican soil. The occasion was a two-day visit of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Committee to the border, to experience first hand the conditions under which immigrants risk their lives on their way to the US and to mourn the loss of the many who die in the process. It was also an expression of the many divisions that emigration and deportations bring to families and a clear move to be with those at the peripheries, in imitation also of Pope Francis’ mass at Lampedusa.

During his homily, Cardinal O’Malley, puts the objectives of the event very clearly:
“We come to the desert today because it is the road to Jericho; it is traveled by many trying to reach the metropolis of Jerusalem. We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert. [...] We are here to discover our own identity as God’s children so that we can discover who our neighbor is, who is our brother and sister.”
Omalley 2

And he then proceeds to illustrate the scale of the tragedy:
“Last year about 25,000 children, mostly from Central America arrived in the US, unaccompanied by an adult. Tens of thousands of families are separated in the midst of migration patterns. More than 10 million undocumented immigrants are exposed to exploitation and lack access to basic human services, and are living in constant fear. They contribute to our economy by their hard work, often by contributing billions of dollars each year to the social security fund and to Medicare programs that will never benefit them. [...] We have presently over 30,000 detainees, most of whom have no criminal connections. The cost of these detentions is about $2 billion a year.”
When I first heard about the event, I was very impressed by it, as an expression of solidarity and closeness to those who suffer and are excluded from society, as Pope Francis put it so clearly in Evangelii Gaudium:
“We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (§53)
Imagine then my disappointment and disbelief, when I came across a condemnation of the border mass by George Weigel (introduced there as “papal biographer”), whose reaction was:
“It’s not clear to me how holding Mass in these circumstances can be anything other than politicized. [...] To turn the Mass into an act of essentially political theater is something I thought we had gotten over in the Church, no matter how noble the cause might be.”
And by the canon lawyer Ed Peters, who made the following assessment of the event:
“Canon 932 § 1 [...] states that “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise; in such a case the celebration must be done in a decent place”. Obviously, no one suggests that the border is a “sacred place” in the canonical meaning of that term, so the question becomes whether necessity required holy Mass to be celebrated at the border. I think not. The intentions for which this Mass was offered (immigration reform and in memory of those who died crossing the border, both legitimate intentions of course) could have been amply asserted at a Mass celebrated in a sacred place as envisioned by c. 932 [...] Thus, the kinds of factors commonly invoked to justify Mass outside of a sacred space do not support this Mass at the border.”
It’s hard to know where to start in the face of such rule-based, status quo thinking - not for want of counterarguments, but for their excess. From among several alternatives, I could go down the Scriptural route, pointing to the instances of Jesus’ own “political theater” (did anyone say Caesar? (cf. Mark 12:17)) or to his take on “necessity” (did you say “withered hand” (cf. Mark 3:4)), but I wont :). Instead I’d like to re-tell a story about one of the Desert Fathers that I came across a while ago, but whose source eludes me now.1
“A poor couple came to Abba Irenaeus to cancel their wedding, since they were unable to find a venue for the reception that they could afford. Upon seeing their sadness, Abba Irenaeus felt moved by compassion and said to them: “Why don’t you hold your wedding celebration in our church?” The couple were overjoyed and accepted the offer. On their wedding day, well into the party, the local bishop happened to walk past, and when he heard music and cheers coming from the church, he stopped and proceeded to investigate. Upon entering the church he saw dancing and food being served to a merry crowd. Filled with indignation he sought out Abba Irenaeus and proceeded to scold him: “How can you desecrate this church by allowing such profanity? And in the presence of the Eucharist!” To which Abba Irenaeus calmly replied: “Wasn’t Jesus himself a wedding guest at Cana? Wouldn’t he have celebrated the wedding of this couple just as much if he were here today in person?””
[UPDATE (11/04/14): Within a couple of hours of publishing this post, my überbestie ML sent me another version of the above wedding story - thank you! This one is told by Anthony de Mello (re-telling Cardinal Martini’s story), is set in Italy, and the two takes on the Eucharist are embodied by the parish priest and his assistant pastor. The whole article that contains it is very much worth reading!]

1 If you do know where the story is from (and its above version is very much just from my imperfect memory), I’d be very grateful if you’d let me know so I could credit it’s source - and you :).