May 15, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Go into the whole world, even the periphery

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Have you heard about Pope Francis and the periphery? Since before he was elected pope a little more than two years ago, the Holy Father has been urging the Church, which is all of us, to “get out of ourselves and go toward the periphery.”

This insight of Pope Francis is central to our celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. The day the risen Lord returned to the Father is also the day that he commanded his disciples to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).

Sometimes called the Great Commission because Jesus is entrusting his disciples with his own authority to teach and to baptize, these last words of Jesus to his disciples urge them (and us) to “get out of themselves (ourselves) and go to the periphery.”

Where do we find the periphery? The dictionary definition of periphery is “the outside edge of an area or the area that surrounds a place or thing.”

Pope Francis is referring to those areas that contain people who are social outcasts, on the “margins” of social acceptability, as being “the periphery.” He admonishes us to step outside of our comfort zones (another of Pope Francis’s frequent expressions) and to open our hearts to others, especially those who have been rejected by society.

In the Gospels, Samaritans are clearly “on the periphery” of Jewish society. So are lepers and those caught in sins such as adultery.

As we read in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “While he was at table in his [Levi’s/Matthew’s] house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ He heard this and said, ‘Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” ’ ” (Mt 9: 10–13).

In other words, the periphery is not confined to geography or social, economic or legal status or to our religious or political points of view. Anyone who is different from us stands outside our comfort zone.

Getting outside ourselves and going to the periphery can mean any effort to reach out to others with compassion and understanding. It does not mean that we abandon our beliefs, principles or way of life. But it does mean that we open ourselves to those who are different from us and, in so doing, share with them the good news that all are loved by God and redeemed in Christ.

Two months ago, the Catholic bishops of Indiana published a pastoral letter entitled, “Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana.”

Our message to the Catholic people of Indiana—beginning with ourselves—is that we have an obligation to go to the margins of society (where our sisters and brothers who are poor can be found) and share the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. In this letter, we say, “All disciples of Jesus Christ are called to love the poor as he did. As people of faith, we are invited to see the poor, to allow the word of God to illuminate the reality of poverty, and to respond with transformed hearts.”

See. Judge. Act. This is the simple formula my brother bishops and I recommend to help us get out of our comfort zones. We must see (and not minimize or deny) the reality of poverty in our midst. We must make judgments (and not allow others to make decisions for us) about systems and policies that keep the poor “in their place.” And we must act (not pass the buck) through our prayer, our advocacy and our generosity. This is what “going to the periphery” means—here in Indiana and “into the whole world.”

In his homily at Lampedusa, a large island near Sicily that has witnessed the tragic drowning of hundreds of African refugees attempting to find asylum in Italy, Pope Francis lamented what he called the anesthesia of the heart. “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion for [suffering with] others; the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

“Anesthesia of the heart” is not a Christian virtue. As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, let’s recommit ourselves to obeying Jesus’ command. Let’s go out of our comfort zones into the whole world, including the periphery, to proclaim his Good News! †

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