Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
(Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80)
Earlier this month, the bishops of the United States met for their annual June assembly in Atlanta. One of the topics they spent a lot of time discussing was religious liberty and the many ways that Catholics and other people of faith are being challenged these days on any number of fronts. John Gavin, the president of my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, was one of the featured speakers. In addressing the bishops on the topic of religious liberty, Gavin called to mind St. Thomas More, whose memorial we celebrated on Friday. More, as you may remember, was a friend and confidante of Henry VIII and a high ranking official in his court. When Henry, in a desperate attempt to have his first marriage annulled, mandated that all loyal subjects had to sign an oath of loyalty and adopt a new faith, Thomas More could not reconcile his conscience with the demand of the king and found himself on the chopping block. As he said before he was beheaded, “I die as the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Gavin used the example to remind the bishops in a vivid way that that the question of religious liberty is not a dead one—a remnant of a past age—but something that people of faith continue to struggle with today. He observed that our society won’t care about religious freedom if it does not care about God, and suggested that it where reform is needed first. “The best way to protect religious freedom,” he advised, “might be to remind people that they should love God.” In some ways it is an indictment of us and our society—that the struggle for religious freedom is really a symptom of a deeper and more pervasive problem—a lack of love for God and what we say we believe. This is the very thing that John the Baptist confronted when he emerged from the desert to prepare the way of the Lord.
When John appeared preaching and baptizing at the Jordan, he finds a people who, on the one hand, are yearning to be redeemed but, on the other hand, are content with their lives and do not want to change. They say they want a better future—to know in their lives and in their hearts the Reign of God—but they are unwilling to do what is necessary to bring about that reign in their lives or in the life of the world. John knows he has an enormous task before him in terms of motivating these people and helping them dig themselves out of the rut they are in.
John goes about his task by placing himself in their shoes. By his example, as much as by his preaching, he calls them to repent—to believe—to reform their lives. He tells them there is indeed a better future for them and that God wants them to bring about the conditions that will help create that future. There is no time or room for complacency or indifference; they must reprioritize their lives and be about the works of mercy and justice and peace. It was to call people to this that John was born and the hand of the Lord was, indeed, upon him.
The greatest enemy to Christian faith and that values we hold is not doubt, or even persecution. The greatest enemy to faith is a loss of commitment; to be lukewarm about our faith and give it mere lip service. And, if we’re honest, we—individually and as a community—have to admit our guilt. Do we really act on what we say we believe...does our faith in Jesus Christ and his gospel make a difference in how we spend our lives...our money...our resources? For every one of us who is here this afternoon/morning, how many others should be here, but are not? For every one who takes the risk of speaking out on behalf of the poor, the unborn, and all those groups who are marginalized, there are many more of us who are content to continue to live in an isolated world, shielded from the unpleasantness that is reality for so many. Yet, in spite of all our indifference and hesitance, God continues to call us. More than ever, we need the spirit of people like John the Baptist and Thomas More...we need to accept the message of change and repentance...we need to be committed to the works of justice and charity...to see ourselves not as Republicans or Democrats or conservatives or liberals, but as citizens of heaven and children of God...God’s servants first. And once we experience that kind of renewal in our own lives...our own hearts...our own communities then...maybe...we will see it in our nation. And surely, the hand of God will have been with us.
– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.