Not for Extra Credit
By Fr. Robert Lampert, Ph.D.
The behaviors required of us in today's Gospel proclamation are not for 'extra credit.' The Gospel reading makes it abundantly clear that reaching out to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and those in prison is the fundamental criterion for entrance into the fullness of the Kingdom. The requirement to care for the least of our brothers and sisters is not something 'added on' to earn a higher position in the Kingdom, but the essential norm for determining if Christ, the Good Shepherd, will admit us.
This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year — the Solemnity of Christ, the King. Throughout this year, we have been reflecting on the preaching of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Matthew. In February, we began to hear the 'way' Jesus was laying out for us — the path upon which we are to journey through life. He saw the large crowd and went up the mountain in order to teach them. They were hungry and thirsty for meaning in life. It was unmistakable from the beginning of the preaching of Jesus that obeying the Ten Commandments was not sufficient. His preaching began: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the peacemakers." No longer is it enough to avoid killing or stealing — "You shall not kill; you shall not steal." Jesus challenges us go beyond these negative commands and to do something positive — to work for peace and to be people who heal relationships and work for reconciliation. In today's reading, we are called to share with those who are in need, especially the least among us. Following these directives does not earn us 'extra credit' but are essential for being a faithful disciple of Jesus. This is evident from this last sermon of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel — before Jesus preaches by the example of his self-sacrifice — His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Being a disciple of Christ demands that we recognize the inherent dignity of each and every human person just as Jesus did in his ministry — breaking through social, cultural, and economic barriers. Human dignity is not conferred by the Constitution or by lawmakers. Human dignity emerges because we are created in the image and likeness of God. Look around at the persons worshipping with you here in this Church today. And as you are returning to your homes, look around at the people you see on the streets. Yes, each one is created in God's image and likeness and is therefore deeply loved by God — the community of love we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Being a disciple of Christ requires that we also love each person.
Every person has a unique blend of talents and gifts which are meant to enrich, not only that person, but also enrich the life of the community. If, as a society, we deny quality education to a child or group of children, who suffers? That child or group of children suffers because they will not have the opportunity to develop their talents and gifts. We must also become convinced that we all suffer as a community, because the community will not be enriched by the unique gifts and talents that person could have brought to the community. As a result, the community may not benefit from the next Monet or Einstein or Streisand. The same is true for health care. Because of human dignity, each person is entitled to quality health care. Again, if persons are denied basic health care, the whole community will suffer. Over the past months, we all heard many plans put forward to provide basic health care to all persons. Now that the elections are over, we must work together to implement the promises and plans that have been promised. The Catholic Church has always had an emphasis on the Common Good since God has created us to thrive in community.
Being a faithful disciple of Christ, requires each of us to nurture an ever-growing moral sensibility. The Church recognizes that the moral lives of individuals are important — but not sufficient. In order to be a witness in society and be effective in caring for those in material and spiritual need, the Church has organized different ministries such as schools, hospitals, social service agencies, and parishes. As Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical "God is Love:"
Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized it is to be an ordered service to the community. (#20)
In the United States, Catholic health care has been an important service of love to the whole community. Before the emergence of modern health care, religious orders of women and men cared for the sick and dying in many European countries. The predecessors of the modern hospital were hospices that were established to care for the ill. Many of the religious orders which established Catholic hospitals in the United States — e.g. the Sisters of Mercy, the Daughters of Charity, the Alexian Brothers — had already done so in Europe for a couple of centuries before coming to our country.
In the 1800s, brave young women and men answered the call to come to the United States and establish hospitals and orphanages to care not only for Catholic immigrants but for all people in need. During the Civil War, these Sisters and Brothers served on the battlefields to care for the wounded and then went to the expanding frontiers of the country to establish hospitals where there was no organized health care. Epidemics such as yellow fever were rampant. The Sisters of Mercy came to the booming mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado where there were 73 saloons but no hospital.
The religious men and women who answered the call to establish Catholic health care in our country were not doing this for 'extra credit.' They came because they recognized that reaching out to the least of their sisters and brothers was an essential part of their journey of following Christ.
Today, Catholic health care is still an intricate and necessary element in providing health care in the United States. Catholic hospitals account for almost 20% of the hospital beds in the country and continue to witness to the healing ministry of Jesus — a ministry to each person and the whole person — body, mind, and spirit in community. Many communities from Maine to Florida to Montana and to Alaska rely on Catholic health care to serve the 'least' of their brothers and sisters.
The Catholic Health Association of the United States recognizes that there must be a fundamental restructuring of health care in this country if the dignity of each person and the needs of society are to be met. This is the reason that the Catholic Health Association maintains an effective Advocacy office in Washington, DC. This office is continually laboring for the reform of health care delivery.
We are acutely aware that the numbers of women and men who have been entering religious orders in the United States has sharply declined. For a couple of centuries, many of these religious orders have sponsored and staffed Catholic hospitals and other health care institutions. Today, Catholic health care is needed more than ever. In order to continue, this essential ministry must rely on lay men and women who take today's readings seriously and understand careers in Catholic health care as administrators, physicians, nurses, and other health care roles as a vocation — a way of living out their call to discipleship and ensuring that the Church will have these organized communities of love well into this new millennium. The Church and our society still need this ministry — witnessing to the dignity of each and every person.
The Solemnity of Christ the King, which we celebrate today, was established in the last century at a critical time in history. The year was 1925. Pope Pius XI was witnessing the rise of Communism under Lenin in Eastern Europe and the emergence of National Socialism in Spain under Franco, in Italy under Mussolini, and in Germany and Austria under Hitler. This feast was established to emphatically remind Catholics that their ultimate allegiance is to Christ and the Gospel and not to the empty promises and false hopes that other leaders and movements were dangling in front of their people.
We live in a different age with different temptations to distract us. The empty promises and false hope of wealth, material possessions, and technology are dangled in front of us. The Solemnity of Christ the King is needed to remind us of the bottom-line requirement for entrance into the Kingdom of God — "whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me." And doing this is not for 'extra credit!'