Sunday, May 03, 2015

A Lesson from Pope John Paul II: Culture Drives History

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 3, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 9: 26-31; 1 John 3: 18-24; John 15: 1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Easter 2015]

Today I want to share with you an idea of Pope John Paul II that I’ve never spoken about in a homily before (and that’s saying something because over the years I’ve spoken about our former Holy Father a lot!).

Culture drives history.

That’s the idea: Culture drives history.  In other words, if you want to understand a certain group of people and help them to have a better future, then first and foremost, you need to understand their culture—because it’s their culture that drives and shapes their history.

And what exactly is a “culture”?  Well, according to George Weigel (who wrote the definitive biography of John Paul II) a culture is “what men and women honour, cherish and worship; what societies deem to be true and good and noble; the expression they give to those convictions in language, literature and the arts; what individuals are willing to stake their lives on.”

Now if you’ve understood everything I just said you are probably thinking to yourself, “But Fr. Ray, that’s wrong!  That’s not what we’ve been taught.  We’ve been taught that politics and economics are much more important than literature and the arts and other such things.  We’ve been taught that politics and economics are what drive human history—that’s why we have so many television channels that focus almost exclusively on those two subjects 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year!”

Well, all I can say is that Pope John Paul II knew better.  And he demonstrated that in 1979, when he made his very first pastoral visit to his native country of Poland, which at the time was being ruled by atheistic Communists.  During those nine days most people expected the Holy Father to directly attack the Polish government for its evil, oppressive policies—but that’s not what he did!  In fact, he didn’t mention politics or economics once.  Not once! 

What he did was to talk to the Polish people about their glorious (and sometimes difficult) history, and their rich culture, and in the process he ignited a “revolution of conscience” that’s influenced Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe for the last 3 decades.

His message to his people was: “Remember who you are!  You’re not who they [the Communists] say you are!  Know your history—know your culture—know the importance of your religious faith within that culture—and you’ll stay strong in the midst of your present situation.”

And they did stay strong.  In fact, they grew even stronger as they came to understand how important it was for them to work to preserve and defend their culture.

Culture drives history.

If you still doubt that this is true, my brothers and sisters, then I ask you to do one thing: think of all that happened during this past week in Baltimore, Maryland.  Think of the “history” of that city during the last 7 to 10 days—with the violence and the lawlessness and the looting; all of which took place—ostensibly—in response to the death of Freddie Gray—although I’d be willing to bet that some of the young people who took part in those horrible acts couldn’t tell you who Freddie Gray was!  They just did what the rest of the mob was doing.

What drove that history?  What drove the very recent history of the city of Baltimore?

A sick culture, that’s what!  A very sick culture, sad to say.  A culture where some young people have no parental supervision—and, in some cases, no parents around at all!  A culture where many people don’t even know what a family is!  A culture in which the Ten Commandments don’t matter!  A culture in which basic morality can’t be taught in the public schools that most of the perpetrators of this violence are forced to attend!  A culture which—ever since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973—has conveyed to young people the idea that if they have a problem with somebody else it’s okay to use violence to correct the problem!

You see, culture can drive history in one of two directions.  Poland’s culture in 1979 drove that nation in a positive direction; our culture right now is driving us, for the most part, in the opposite direction.

Although there are always signs of hope!—like that African-American mother who was caught on film grabbing hold of her son and literally dragging him away from one of the riots.  Did you see that on TV or the internet?  The video went viral!

That mom searched out her son and asserted her authority as a parent!  Now you can debate the appropriateness of some of the language she used and some of the other particulars of what she did—but that 16 year-old-boy definitely knows that he has a mother who cares about him; and through this event he learned a very important lesson about right and wrong.

Too bad more Baltimore parents weren’t equally proactive.  The history of that city in the last week would have been a lot different.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, thank you, Fr. Ray, this is all very nice—but what does this have to do with today’s Scripture readings?”

The answer is: Quite a bit.

In the gospel Jesus says to us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.  Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither.”

Those words apply to individuals, first and foremost.  But they also apply, in a certain way, to cultures.  There was a time, for example, when there was at least some connection between the culture of this nation and “the vine”—at least in the sense that most of our laws were rooted in the Ten Commandments.

But that connection is being severed more and more each day, and the consequences are all around us—not just in Baltimore.

And when you try to remind people of our country’s Judeo-Christian cultural roots and why we need to get back to those roots, a lot of those people—a growing number of them, in fact—are responding to us in a negative way, like the Hellenists responded to Saul in today’s first reading—although not to the extent of trying to kill us.

At least not yet.

Which is why today’s second reading is also important for us to hear this morning.  There St. John actually tells us how to renew our culture and to change it for the better.  He says there that we need to do three things: “Believe … love … and keep the commandments.”

Believe in Jesus Christ (and stay grounded in that faith, like John Paul II did); love others—even your enemies—in deed and in truth (like John Paul II loved others—including the Communists who were ruling Poland so oppressively in 1979); and keep the commandments in your own life (like John Paul II did in his.  And we know for a fact that he kept the commandments in his own life because he’s now known to the world as Saint John Paul II!).

Believe; love; keep the commandments.

Let me close now with some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is that none of us can change our entire culture for the better on our own.

We don’t have that power.

But we do have the power to change ourselves and to have a positive influence on the “sub-culture” to which we belong.

Our sub-culture includes, first and foremost, our family—but it also includes our friends, and coworkers and all those with whom we associate in our daily lives.

The good news is that if enough people in the United States of America in 2015 begin to believe and love and keep the commandments in their own sub-cultures then the entire culture will change for the better.

And that will drive the history of our nation in the right direction again—because culture always drives history.