"Take nothing for the journey."

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday’s Gospel reading really struck me, and the homily I heard on the text confirmed my impression. The text begins with the Master giving very precise instructions to his apostles:

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two
and gave them authority over unclean spirits. 
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey
but a walking stick—
no food, no sack, no money in their belts. 
They were, however, to wear sandals
but not a second tunic. 

I confess, I like to eat. A lot. And the prospect of being sent on a journey without food, and with no money to procure food, would not be a prospect to warm my heart.

In our day and in our culture, the lists of our needs have expanded far beyond food. We need this new gadget and that new app. We need to have one of those thumb things – I resist! We have to have good credit and we have to have a car. And we have to have a nice home, suitable for entertaining, and nice clothes. This is all expected. You can’t show up to work looking like a bum. And, very few American cities, as opposed to European ones, are so configured as to permit one to live without a car.

Last Friday, I wrote about the Holy Father’s remarkable speech in Bolivia to the World Meeting of Social Movements. There, and last month in his encyclical Laudato Si’ the pope called us to a conversion of our lifestyles, to recognize that acquiring, purchasing stuff is a moral, not merely a financial, transaction. Pope Benedict XVI also called for a conversion of lifestyle in Caritas in Veritate and Pope John Paul II did the same in Centesimus Annus and Pope Paul VI did in Populorum Progressio. In his writings and in his sermons, Francis is more blunt than his predecessors, e.g. “This economy kills.” Are we Catholics in the United States to finally take the call to conversion issued by four popes in a row to heart? Are we to hear what the Master said in yesterday’s Gospel?

I believe with all my heart that late-stage consumer capitalism is coming to the end of its life. I know with certainty that greater minds than mine will have to devise new economic models to replace it. But, what can we do now, we disciples of Jesus and members of the Church? We can reconfigure our lives for greater simplicity.

In the Gospel above, Jesus was speaking to his apostles. We know that the Vatican sent every cardinal a first class round-trip ticket to fly to Rome for the conclave in 2013, and that Cardinal Bergoglio turned in his for a coach class ticket. I would not have begrudged a 77 year old man, on a long flight, the extra leg room. Nor do I begrudge those cardinals who have to fly to Rome every month for meetings, and who have to hit the ground running upon arrival a more spacious seat on the plane. But, we should think about such things.

In 2003, when he was named the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley sold the palatial residence of his predecessors. He had to: The archdiocese needed the money to settle sex abuse claims. But, I think he probably would have ended up in the modest rooms in the cathedral rectory in any event. Coadjutor Archbishop Bernie Hebda of Newark chose to live in a dorm at Seton Hall. Archbishop Cupich chose not to live in the grand – and somewhat grim – residence his predecessors had called home, also choosing a room at the cathedral rectory. I read this morning that the new Bishop of Greensburg has announced he also will live in a rectory and not in the bishop’s mansion. I think this should become a model for all bishops. Do not live in grand surroundings. Do not drive fancy cars. Lead your flock by example, and simplicity of lifestyle is something we all need to see modeled for us because it is so rare, so compelling, so consistent with the Gospel reading we heard yesterday.

This should not only apply to successors of the apostles. The other day I read that the head of a prominent Catholic fraternal organization earns more than $2 million per year. I am told that this man has grown the organization, increased its revenues, and the group undertakes many important works for the Church. I am certain that anyone with such a skill set and resume could make far more than $2 million in the private sector. I know that Catholic universities, if they want to attract the best talent as university administrators or athletic coaches must pay salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, of course, many corporations have CEOs who are Catholics who make millions of dollars per year. Why not renounce such exorbitant sums of money? I am serious.

Renunciation is different from collecting the money and giving to charity. Giving to charity is a good thing to do but it is usually a private thing and certainly a personal thing.  Renunciation of a large part of one’s salary in the first place could bear the mark of witness. Certainly, the organization for which one works would know right off the bat! Renunciation could help turn the tide that currently has CEOs earning more and more, while everyone else’s wages stay stagnant. It could stigmatize the Donald Chumps of the world, people who think being flashy with their millions is somehow anything but vulgar. 

Where is the truth of yesterday’s Gospel in the lives of Catholics in the U.S. today? Where is the truth that the Lord wants us to rely on Him, and only Him (and the sandals) as we walk through life, not on riches, not on plans, not on force of personality or grit, but on grace, pure grace, the grace of His accompaniment? If you look around American culture and think the greatest threat to the Gospel today is that a small percentage of gay folk want to get married, you are not paying attention. We Americans are raised on myths about self-reliance, taught to consume products that promise increasing levels of autonomy, and acclimated to a culture that is drowning in consumerism. John Steinbeck knew this already in 1959 when he wrote to Adlai Stevenson, “if I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable greedy, and sick.”   

In his talk with youth in Paraguay yesterday, which was an amazing event to watch, the Holy Father recalled St. Ignatius inviting those making a retreat to decide whether they would be playing on Jesus’ team of the Devil’s team. The Holy Father said:

In the Bible, the devil is called the father of lies.  What he promises, or better, what he makes you think, is that, if you do certain things, you will be happy.  And later, when you think about it, you realize that you weren’t happy at all.  That you were up against something which, far from giving you happiness, made you feel more empty, even sad.  Friends: the devil is a con artist.  He makes promises after promise, but he never delivers.  He’ll never really do anything he says.  He doesn’t make good on his promises.  He makes you want things which he can’t give, whether you get them or not.  He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy.  That’s his game, his strategy.  He talks a lot, he offers a lot, but he doesn’t deliver.  He is a con artist because everything he promises us is divisive, it is about comparing ourselve to others, about stepping over them in order to get what we want.  He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone.  Everything is based on appearances.  He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess.

 Then we have Jesus, who asks us to play on his team.  He doesn’t con us, nor does he promise us the world.  He doesn’t tell us that we will find happiness in wealth, power and pride.  Just the opposite.  He shows us a different way.  This coach tells his players: “Blessed, happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”.  And he ends up by telling them: “Rejoice on account of all this!”.

There is no lie more current in America today than the lie that the super rich are entitled to their exorbitant salaries. There is a related lie, that the elderly and the poor and the infirm are not entitled to the necessities of life. Fostering a culture celebrates the renunciation of great wealth, of excessive wealth, would expose these lies and their origins in the work of the Father of Lies.   


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