Someone recently shared with me an incredible story from a homily given by Fr. Mike Schmitz. He told a story about a Chinese Catholic who along with his parish community had to worship in secret – they were part of the “underground” Catholic Church in China. People would gather at the man’s house and a priest would come and celebrate Mass there in secret. Eventually somebody turned the man in; he was arrested, jailed, and then tortured. For 4 weeks, they kept torturing him and asking him where the priest was. In spite of the torture, the man never said. He never revealed where the priest was because he knew that if the priest were caught, the whole community would lose the Mass.
Eventually the man was either released from jail or escaped, I don’t know which, and then he found a way to get out of China. He ended up coming to the US, where he started to work and put his old life in China behind him. When he first came to the US, he went to Mass every day and was so happy that he could so without the threat of jail or torture. But over time, he decided that we would work more – that way, he reasoned, he would make more money that he could send to his family. Because he was working more, he stopped going to daily Mass. And he began to get caught up in the prosperity that he could enjoy here in the US, and eventually stopped going to Mass every Sunday. Soon he was just going for the big holidays – Christmas and Easter – but eventually that stopped as well.
What the threat of death and torture could not do to his faith in China happened to him here in the US, and without any pressure. And it happened very gradually, and at least at first he seemed to have good intentions – if I work more, I can send more money to my family who are in need. But eventually he just stopped caring about his faith.
Unfortunately, I don’t know the rest of the story – did the man eventually return to the Catholic faith? Did he start practicing his faith again? I do not know, but I hope so. But this story, albeit quite depressing, can teach us a lot. One thing it teaches us is that, when our faith is tested, as it was for that man when he lived in China, it can grow and become even stronger and greater. But when things are easy, our faith can start to wither. It’s usually not a sudden, dramatic change, but a slow, gradual process. Another thing that this story can teach us is that our country, as wonderful as it is with all its freedoms and its comforts, can also be very toxic to sustaining one’s faith or handing on one’s faith to one’s children. And even more than just the challenges it subtly poses to living one’s faith, it can also be toxic simply to one’s own emotional and mental peace.
Mother Teresa said that she found the greatest poverty not in the poorest countries of the world but in the US. She was of course referring to spiritual poverty. And she said this decades ago. I think the spiritual poverty in our country is even greater and deeper now.
Yes, there is material poverty in our country. There are many people who struggle to make ends meet, who have astronomical medical bills with no way of paying them off; there are people who are trapped in violent, dangerous neighborhoods because they can’t afford to move anywhere else, and so on. But compared to many other countries in this world, and especially compared to basically every generation that came before us, in material terms we are a very wealthy nation. The greatest poverty in our nation now is spiritual.
In our second reading today, James talks about not making distinctions based on wealth in the church. Christians ought not to make judgments of others based on material wealth. There’s always that temptation, of course, in the Church and outside of it – that those who are wealthy should get special treatment and deference and so on. But, as James says to us in his very practical, straightforward epistle, “Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?” And we know also from elsewhere in the Gospels that Jesus is found in a hidden, mysterious way in those who are poor.
There is nothing wrong with material wealth per se. It can be used for great good. Some of Jesus’ followers were rich people. But I think deep down we all know, at least intellectually, that money does not equal happiness. That having more things does not lead to more peace or satisfaction. And I think that the deep unhappiness and lack of peace found in so many people in our country only demonstrates the point that material wealth does not automatically lead to happiness.
What we need – and indeed, what the whole world needs, although perhaps for different reasons and at different degrees – is a new creation. Try as we might, we human beings cannot save the world. Yes, we can improve things here and there and for a time, but then today’s solutions which we have come up with become tomorrow’s problems. And we can and certainly do mess things up too, to put it mildly.
Jesus Christ is the one – the only one – who can bring about this new creation. That is why God the Father sent him. In today’s Gospel reading, Mark relates the story of one of the many healings that Jesus performed, this one for a man who was both deaf and mute. He could neither hear nor speak, and so was cut off very profoundly from others, unable to communicate with them. The language that Mark uses to describe the healing recalls the Jewish conception of creation: Jesus touched the man, putting his finger into the man’s ears; Jesus spat and touched the man’s tongue, recalling how God made man out of clay – water mixed with earth. Jesus opened this man’s ears so that he could hear and removed his speech impediment so that he could speak.
We too need to have our ears opened to hear the voice of God – like that man who came to the US from China and subsequently stopped practicing his faith, the noise and the chaos and the pressures of our society can deafen us to God’s word. We need to have our mouths opened so that we are able to proclaim the good news of salvation to others, especially those who most need to hear it. Jesus alone can do this – let us ask him to break through the noise and open our ears so that we can hear his voice, and open our mouths so that we might praise Him for His glory.