Homilies,  Year C

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 25 September 2022

The famous anthropologist of the 20th century, Margaret Mead was once asked what sign we had about when civilization began.  The expectation was that her reply would concern the discovery of some ancient artefact such as a tool, or a weapon, or a segment of art.  Instead, she simply replied, “a healed femur.”

A healed femur bone is the sign we have of the beginnings of civilization.  Why did Mead claim this?  She claimed this because for the first time we had an indication that a community had cared for someone.  Previously, there would be no evidence of a healed femur, for the person who had experienced a broken femur would be left to die. There comes a point in human history, however, when someone with a broken femur is cared for. Since a broken femur takes many months to heal, the person whose healed bone was discovered would have been cared for consistently for a good length of time.  Their every need would have required attention. For Margaret Mead the indication of this attention was the sure sign of the beginning of human civilization.  Human civilization begins as the culture of care is evidenced, a culture in which human beings give themselves over to one another in care for each other. 

At some stage in human history such culture was initiated. The question is, are we committed to sustaining such a culture of care which makes us truly human? As Pope Francis laments,

“We are part of a fragmented culture, a throwaway culture. A culture tainted by the exclusion of everything that might threaten the interests of a few. A culture that is leaving by the roadside the faces of the elderly, children, ethnic minorities seen as a threat. A culture that little by little promotes the comfort of a few and increases the suffering of many others. A culture that is incapable of accompanying the young in their dreams but sedates them with promises of ethereal happiness and hides the living memory of their elders. A culture that has squandered the wisdom of the indigenous peoples and has shown itself incapable of caring for the richness of their lands. All of us are aware, all of us know that we live in a society that is hurting; no one doubts this. We live in a society that is bleeding, and the price of its wounds normally ends up being paid by the most vulnerable.” [1]

We are sent into our culture, as Pope Francis says, with one program alone: to treat one another with mercy.[2]   This, for Pope Francis, is the antithesis of indifference, which he laments has taken on global proportions.[3]  The antidote to indifference is involvement, a situation which he describes as the exercise of mercy. Mercy, as he defines it, is an involvement in the lives of others, that  “takes the person into one’s care, listens to them attentively, approaches the situation with respect and truth, and accompanies them on the journey of reconciliation.”[4]  

This makes the exercise of care always in the first instance personal. This is a point that Pope Francis is emphatic about. It is too easy for us to become concerned with issues. We become concerned about the issue of ageing, or the issue of migration, or the issue of homelessness.  Our debate about issues, however, can in fact become a subtle defense against our involvement in the lives of others.  As the pope once commented, “Sometimes we pass before dramatic situations of poverty and it seems that they do not touch us; everything continues as if there were nothing, in an indifference that in the end renders us hypocrites and, without realizing it, it results in a form of spiritual lethargy, which renders our mind insensitive and our life sterile.” [5]

Mercy for Pope Francis begins when we are prepared to look into the face of another, and to hear their story, as personal and unique as it is.  As he says, “It is concerned with the face of the person, with his or her life, history and daily existence.[6] Yes, as he observes, “The works of mercy are endless, but each bears the stamp of a particular face, a personal history.” As he goes onto say, “One cannot beat about the bush in face of a person who is hungry: he must be given to eat. Jesus says this to us! The works of mercy are not theoretical subjects, but concrete testimonies. They oblige one to rollup one’s sleeves to alleviate suffering.” Therefore, “Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, “suffers” in trying to help. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”[7]

This is the most curious part of the gospel that we have heard today.  The one who is needy is given a name. They are not simply a social category. They are an actual person.  It is not issues, then, that demand our attention as followers of Christ: no, it is people – actual persons who present to us through their actual face and their own personal story.  Let us never lose sight of persons.  This is something that our own parish volunteers know so well: whether they are members of our St. Vincent de Paul Conference, or our Eucharistic Ministers to the Sick, or our Catechists. They teach us this.  How wonderfully Pope Francis spoke to them several years ago when he declared

“Among the most precious realities of the Church is in fact you, who every day, often in silence and hiddenness, give form and visibility to mercy. You are artisans of mercy: with your hands, with your eyes, with your listening, with your closeness, with your caresses … artisans! You express one of the most beautiful desires in man’s heart, that of having a suffering person feel loved. In the different conditions of need and necessities of so many persons, your presence is Christ’s extended hand that reaches all. You are Christ’s extended hand: have you thought of this?  . . . In sum, wherever there is a request for help, your active and selfless witness reaches there. You render Christ’s law visible, that of bearing one another’s burdens (cf. Galatians 6:2; John 13-34).  Dear brothers and sisters, you touch Christ’s flesh with your hands: do not forget this. You touch Christ’s flesh with your hands.”[8]

In the midst of his plea to each of us not to be afraid to draw close to the suffering of others, Pope Francis, once declared, “Remember [this] well: he who does not live to serve, does not serve to live.” [9]

Happiness comes through one way alone – our living to serve. The parable of the Gospel today underscores for us that redemption does likewise.

[1] Pope Francis, Message for the occasion of the Jubilee Celebration for the Americas, 29 August 2016.

[2] Pope Francis, Message for the occasion of the Jubilee Celebration for the Americas, 29 August 2016.

[3] Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: A conversation with Andrea Tornielli, translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky, (Bluebird Books for Life, 2016), 92.

[4] Pope Francis, Address to the Parish Priests of the Diocese of Rome, 6 March 2014.

[5] Pope Francis, 30 June 2016.

[6] Pope Francis, Message for the occasion of the Jubilee Celebration for the Americas, 29 August 2016.

[7] Pope Francis, Homily at Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, 20 September 2015.

[8] Pope Francis, Homily to participants in the Jubilee of Volunteers and Agents of Mercy, held Sept. 2-4 in Rome.

[9] Pope Francis, 30 June 2016.

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