Saturday, April 28, 2012

Out of the darkness, a great light

In his Easter Sunday homily this year, Francis Cardinal George said this:

If the earth is our mother, then the grave is our home and the world is a closed system turned in on itself. If Christ is risen from the grave and the church is our mother, then our destiny reaches between space and time, beyond what can be measured and controlled. And therein lies our hope.

There's a lot packed into those three sentences. The Cardinal's words could be dissected and debated endlessly by the secular and the faithful alike, with no two people coming to the same conclusion. To  some, those words may indicate that there is in the Christian mind, little concern for our planet. There are indeed many Christians who feel that the environmental movement has purely secular roots and should at the very least, be held at a distance. I know devout Christians who openly brag about not recycling, or on Earth Day (which happens to the day I write these words), needlessly drive or turn on lights and other electrical devices, just out of spite.

Such foolishness.

This blatant contempt for the environment comes in part from the story of the Creation, and the following words found in Genesis 1:28. Here's the King James version:

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Some people, including a former Republican candidate for president, see this as meaning that the earth and all it's bounty belong to man to do with as he sees fit.

I don't refute that passage from the bible. But scripture is a funny thing, folks can interpret it to whatever suits their purpose. My reading of Genesis 1:28 is diametrically opposed of the one stated above. Having dominion over something is a responsibility. In this case it is a God given responsibility, not a right. A king has dominion over a kingdom. We recognize a good king as one who takes the responsibility seriously and makes decisions based upon the good of his kingdom and its people. A bad king sees it as his innate right to make decisions based upon selfish desire.

In other words, God has given us the earth to be our home. He charged us with being stewards of the planet, and entrusted us with its protection and well being. We benefit from its bounty with the caveat that we take only what we need, and put back into it whatever we can. I admit this opinion is tempered from a 21st Century perspective. In our day we know that the earth's bounty, abundant as it may be, is not infinite.

To carry the argument a little further, in the Gospels, Jesus says this:

 ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and the imprisoned, tending to the needs of the disenfranchised, are all virtues enumerated in this passage. Those of us with any conscience at all, recognize the plight of the less fortunate in society, and do our part to help them. But a group that is seldom recognized as one we need to look after are those yet to be born, our children's children, grandchildren and beyond. Either because we can't see them or we figure that science and technology will sort it all out in the future, many of us don't see a connection between our failure to be good stewards of Planet Earth, and how our actions, or inaction will adversely affect people in the future.

Taking care of our planet is not only good, common sense, but I believe it is a moral imperative.

Which brings me back to Cardinal George's words. I can't say what his feelings are about the environmental movement, but I believe his comments are not intended to provoke anti-earth sentiments in the least. He is imploring us, as Jesus did, to look outside the box, beyond that which is obvious, to look beyond those things we can merely "measure and control." Faith is about accepting the fact that there are things beyond our grasp and our control. And faith is the hope that out of our good actions, there will come a time when our world, either this one or the next, will be better than the one we have now. It will be a world where justice prevails over injustice, where peace prevails over war, where love prevails over hate.

Until that time comes, there are those who follow Christ's work on earth, (both believers and non-believers), who put their words into action.

Some of them came to my attention last week.

To any Chicagoan of a particular age, the name Our Lady of Angels evokes the most heartbreaking tragedy in this city that anyone who is still alive can remember. Around 2:00PM on Monday December 1, 1958, a fire broke out in the OLA parish school on the West Side. Before it was extinguished, the fire would claim the lives of 92 children and 3 nuns.

I have a very tenuous connection to the tragedy. I was born three days before the fire and some of the victims were brought to the hospital where my mother and I were staying, located about one mile from the school. Every year around my birthday, there are public remembrances of the fire and of those who were lost. I will always feel a connection to that terrible event.

Anyway, the school would be rebuilt and despite declining enrollment, continue to operate until 1999. Its neighborhood of West Humboldt Park would be swept up in the dramatic change that took place all over the West Side, much of it following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the riots that followed. The epicenter of those riots was just a few blocks south of Our Lady of Angels parish.
The ensuing years have not been kind to the community, it has been plagued by poverty, gang violence, and a loss of hope that continues to this day. In this week's Chicago Reader, this article describes the neighborhood as one of "America's biggest open-air drug markets."

Our Lady of Angels Church, built just before World War II, is not all that old by Chicago standards. Yet it fell into disrepair, closed, and briefly was taken over by a small Protestant congregation who leased it from the Archdiocese.

A few years ago, Cardinal George, seeing a great need in the community, and perhaps inspired by the memory of the lives that were lost in the fire, made the decision to re-claim the building, turn it into a mission church, (as opposed to a parish church with regularly scheduled masses), and restore it to its former glory.  He enlisted the help of a Franciscan priest from New York City, Father Bob Lombardo to oversee the conversion with virtually no money. Father Lombardo was able to carry out the work with great organizational aplomb, by finding contractors, suppliers and union workers who provided their services pro bono. Here is an excellent story from the Sun Times about Father Bob and his work.

The church re-opened two weeks ago on Saturday, April 14th. Here is the article from the Tribune on the event.

More important than the re-opened church building is the good work that Father Lombardo and his staff are doing to bring care and hope to the community. The old convent, rectory, and church hall have all been converted into spaces to assist the many needs of the community.

The web site of the Mission of Our Lady of Angels can be found here.

It is obviously an uphill battle to bring some semblance of hope and dignity into the lives of many of the people of West Humboldt Park. According to the Reader article sited above, Mayor Emanuel recently made a highly publicized visit to the neighborhood, telling the residents to take back the community by standing up to the drug dealers and gang bangers. His predecessors did much the same before him. Easy enough to say when the mayors can go back to their homes protected by Chicago Police Department bodyguards. The real work is done by getting one's hands dirty in the field, and sometimes risking one's life on the street, by people like Father Bob and his staff.  In doing the real work of the city, they're also doing the real work of the Church.

Unfortunately, Father Bob Lombardo is not the face of the Church that is known by the general public. You probably won't be seeing much of him on the 10 o'clock news or hear his voice on the endless stream of radio talk shows. He is simply too busy tending to the needs of the poor, as his faith and calling compel him to do.

The Sun Times article concludes by remembering the students and sisters who died over 53 years ago upon what is now hallowed ground on the West Side of Chicago. Speaking about Father Lomardo:

...he knows the “angels” who died on Dec. 1, 1958, will be pleased. He can still feel them.

“I do. You have the ongoing sense of the souls that tragically lost their lives here. We pray for them every single day.”

I know deep in my heart those angels are praying for him and their old neighborhood as well.

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