30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - “For you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt”
During my third year in the seminary, for my Thursday apostolate - the day in the week dedicated to pastoral work - I went to Our Lady of Victory parish in West Philadelphia. I and a fellow seminarian would give catechism lessons in the parish school and visit the sick and the homebound. Located at 54th and Vine streets, the parish was founded in 1899 and closed in 2005. When I was assigned there, my grandmother told me that Our Lady of Victory was my grandfather’s parish when he was a boy. It was the parish that his parents went to after immigrating to Philadelphia from Italy. I thought it would be neat to look up my grandfather's baptismal record. I was surprised to find out that he and several of his siblings - my great-aunts and great-uncles were all baptized on the same date when they ranged in age from 1 to 5 years old. I thought, “that’s odd. Why would my great-grandparents wait so long to baptize their children?” My grandfather was deceased at the time, and my grandmother didn’t know the answer.
I remember hearing a story about my father’s grandmother - she was also an immigrant from Italy. She and my great-grandfather Forlano were parishioners at St. Donato parish in West Philadelphia. St. Donato, at 65th and Callowhill, was founded in 1910 and closed in 2013. It was served by Italian missionary priests and the religious sisters of the order founded by Mother Cabrini. The story goes that my great-grandmother was attending a parish mission, and it wasn’t until she heard the priest preaching about the sacrament of Holy Matrimony that she realized that she needed to get married “in the church.” She was just married civilly at the time. She soon got her marriage blessed in the Church to receive the sacrament. “How could she not know she wasn’t in a valid marriage?”, I wondered at the time.
It was only when I was ordained a priest and began working with the immigrant community that I bean to understand the situation of my great-grandparents and the challenges they faced as immigrants. It is not uncommon that today I celebrate the baptism of 2 or 3 siblings together when they are between the ages of 2 and 6 years old. Most of the marriages I witness among immigrant couples are convalidations - having their marriage “blessed” in the church - after they have been married civilly or have lived together outside the sacrament of marriage for many years. If we don’t know our own history, it is easy to judge and to be critical and to look down upon those who are out of sync with the “proper” way of doing things according to the law of the Church, but my family three generations ago was just like the families I serve today. My great-grandparents came to the U.S with very little education, were poor, and had little catechesis in the remote regions of Italy from where they came. But the priests and religious sisters who served the Italian immigrant community in the first decades of the 1900s embraced them, helped them, worked with them, and accompanied them to the practice of the faith. If it wasn’t for those priests and religious sisters, I wouldn’t have received the faith that I have today. Without knowing our own history, we can take for granted the gifts we have or think that we somehow earned them or deserve them or what we have is the way it always has been. But where we are at today - the gifts we have today - are the fruit of someone’s love of God and love of neighbor.
Jesus teaches in his response to the question put to him by the scholar of the law that love is the root of the moral life. All of the commandments and living the commandments - are rooted in love - a love that is given - a love that precedes us - a love that was not earned or deserved. Our moral actions flow from the awareness of the mercy we’ve received. “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” God is reminding the Israelites that if it wasn’t for God’s intervention - God’s initiative - and God’s merciful love, they would still be slaves. We are to be compassionate because God has been compassionate toward us. If we don’t recognize the mercy that we’ve received and let that experience shape the way we treat others, our measure will be measured out to us. God’s wrath will flare up when God hears the cry of the poor and the vulnerable. We have a responsibility toward the poor and the vulnerable because when we were poor and vulnerable, God rescued us. We are no different than the poor and vulnerable today because their situation is our history.
Our love of God is expressed in concrete ways in love of neighbor. We are to love our neighbor as ourself because our neighbor is like ourself but perhaps has not yet received God’s mercy. We care for the widow, the orphan, the homeless person, the single mother and the unborn child because that was us at some point or could have been us if it was not for the grace of God or the charity of another. The same thing applies to the moral life. The only difference between me and a bad sinner is that I have responded to God’s grace and mercy. The great sinner is just one “yes” - one moment away from God’s glory. It could be our mercy and charity freely offered that reveals Christ’s merciful face and moves them to turn to God. The faith, St. Paul tells us, is communicated by being imitators of the Lord after having received the word in great affliction with joy from the Holy Spirit, you become a model for others.
Before we judge our neighbor, let us learn our own history and discover how much we have been loved - how we have been blessed by God’s mercy. Then we can love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind and our neighbor as ourself.