As the story is told, the young Jorge Borgoglio was a real hard-ass: doctrinaire, demanding, and unforgiving. In fact, his fellow Jesuits got so tired of his heavy-handedness that from 1990 to 1992 they sent him off in virtual exile to the Argentinian city of Cordoba, where he lived an almost hermetic solitude.
But through those many months of private prayer and reflection, something apparently happened to the future pope: he emerged from the experience speaking more of mercy than of judgment, more of compassion than of dogmatic correctness. He emerged, in other words, as the man we have seen this week: a champion for the poor, a prophet for the earth, a defender of immigrants, holding out hope to everyone, even those condemned to die. You might say that during his exile Padre Borgoglio discovered the meaning of what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly—not fearfully and defensively, but abundantly, joyfully, and passionately.
Back in New Haven, Connecticut, where I most recently served as a priest before coming to Albuquerque, I made a habit of walking from time to time around the corner from my parish office to the Yale Catholic Student Center to pay my colleagues there a visit. The facility is stunning: spacious, recently constructed, and designed to be a welcoming oasis for the whole university community. Particularly noticeable is that just after entering the main door, a visitor sees Jesus’s words inscribed in large letters across the entry hall: “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10.”
If the visitor pays a bit more careful attention, he or she will perhaps also notice that underneath that inscription is an oil painting of the donor who made the center possible, a fellow named Thomas Golden. In the portrait, Golden is seated in front of a fireplace, and on the mantle of that fireplace, just over Golden’s left shoulder, is a clock with its hands set to—you guessed it, 10:10—a subtle resonance with the inscription of the biblical verse John 10:10 just above.
Now, you probably know that this verse has sometimes been used to justify a crude sort of prosperity gospel—that is, the notion that following Jesus somehow leads inevitably to material wealth. But that is not the sort of abundance Jesus means. In fact, some translations render the verse, “I came that you might have life, and have it in all its fullness,” which begins to get at quite a different meaning. And as we have seen that meaning enacted for us this past week by the Pope, it clearly has to do with something more than prosperity: it has instead to do with what the Pope—and I dare say we here at St. Michael’s—are committed to building as the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that I want to describe here this morning in three words: caritas, covenant, and community.
The first of those three words, caritas, is one of the New Testament words for love, as in that famous passage from I Corinthians 13: “three things endure, faith, hope and love (caritas), but the greatest of these is love.” This love is not of a romantic sort, nor is it of the familial kind (despite the fact that I Corinthians passage gets read at almost every wedding). Rather, caritas is the spirit of fraternal empathy that causes us to reach out in loving concern to each and every person, whoever and whatever they are. Caritas involves extending God’s unconditional love, acceptance and mercy uniformly, in a genuine embodiment of the “all are welcome” about which we sang in our opening hymn.
Covenant, then (the second of the three descriptors of God’s kingdom), is derived from the understanding that to support the love with which we wish to engage the world, we must first be bound together by certain common commitments that ground our identity in Christ. In short, covenant implies that we are committed to do, what Jesus asked us to do: to break bread together, to remain faithful in prayer and the reading of scripture, to be generous in the sharing of ourselves and our resources, and to live out the Golden Rule by treating others as we would have them to treat us (a principle about which Pope Francis not-so-subtly reminded the members of Congress this past week). These commitments bind us together in a pattern of relationship—the baptismal covenant—and they are what make the caritas (the loving concern) of God’s kingdom real and tangible.
Then the third of the descriptors of the kingdom—community—reminds us that we discover these other two dimensions (caritas and covenant), only when we recognize that we are all part of striving toward what Pope Francis repeatedly named this week as the common good. The Christian view of life is unequivocally convinced that life’s meaning ultimately comes from being committed to something larger than one’s self. This after all is the core of Jesus’ teaching, as he tells us over and over that only in losing our life do we gain it, only in giving up the priority of the self to make room for the Other (whether it is the stranger, the foreigner, or the person in need) do we find a true sense of purpose and joy.
I am relatively new here at St. Michael’s—obviously. But from the day that I first arrived, I couldn’t help noticing that there seems to be a phrase almost hanging in the air around here, which is “open hands, open hearts, open minds.” (There is, for example, a sculpture in the front office called “open mind,” as if to remind us of this theme each time we come and go.) I heard vestry members use the phrase; I saw the open hands and hearts of volunteers in the food pantry, St. Martin’s shelter, and community connections; I heard staff members use the phrase; I came across it in parish publications. So it seemed natural that in setting up today’s celebration, we should claimed the obvious by adopting “open hands, open hearts, open minds” as a unifying theme for going forward together as we make this common act of renewal of ministry in this place.
Because the abundant life—the fullness of life—to which Jesus calls us is just that: a life lived in openness, openness both to the blessings that God so freely gives us, but also to the commitments to which God calls us. The abundant life is one that has such a strength of character, a generosity of spirit, and a curiosity of mind that it opens us to engage the world as it is (neither minimizing its sorrows and pains, nor overlooking its beauty); the abundant life opens us to a sense of the generosity of God’s grace and mercy (neither turning a blind eye to injustice, nor failing to do good for those who are in need); the abundant life results in an awareness of the rich complexity of life that opens us to new insight and understanding (neither forgetting the wisdom of our forbears, nor resisting the changing perspectives which experience urges upon us).
Open hands, open hearts, open minds. These are the markers of the true abundance, the true fullness, to which Jesus calls us, and which Jesus offers us. This is the life that once desolate Padre Borgoglio discovered in his dark night of the soul, and he has never been the same. And the same Spirit that worked such a miracle in him, is working it in us as well. Just look around you: the signs are there, in the open hands, hearts and minds that are the true heart and soul of St. Michael’s parish. Thanks be to God!
(And by the way, as you leave church today … check what time it is on the new clock in the entry hall. I’ll give you one guess.)