25 Sep 2011
“‘Which of the two [sons] did his father’s will?’” (Matt. 21:31) In the name …
This past week Sharon and I drove out to Williamstown and to The Clark Art Museum. We went because a special exhibit is now only one week from closing, and we wanted to see it before it was too late. It’s called Pissarro’s People. Pissarro stood out as an artist because of the way he focused on the common people of his day and age. He didn’t want to paint portraits of the rich and famous where everything was posed and proper. Instead, he would go out to the markets and the farms, and paint the people he saw there candidly. He tried to show the dignity of their labours and of their lives. And this was a reflection of his politics. He was fed-up with the abuses of money and power, and he was actually hoping for revolution. This is now kind of ironic because only the very rich and powerful can even hope of owning one of his paintings of common folk. And it was during these very same years that Francis Hodur’s theology was taking shape on the other edge of Western Europe. He saw in Christianity a respect for all people and a concern for the powerless. He was repulsed by the idea that people could be taken for granted and used by others, and even by the church. And he, like Pissarro, was also hoping for revolution.
Both of these men were idealists, and both had to fight for their dreams in the face of a harsh world. Pissarro moved from the Caribbean to France as a young man and married a French Catholic woman who was a servant in his mother’s house, but he was Jewish. France in the late 19th century was not a very good place in which to be Jewish. There was an awful lot of prejudice and violence against the Jewish people at that time and in that country. One of the last paintings that you see in the exhibit is a self-portrait of the artist as an older man and painted in his apartment. Pissarro had no one or nothing else to paint because he would be taking his life in his hands if he walked out among the crowds that he so loved. Here was a man who saw what was good and noble in all people, who relished the crowds at bazaars and markets, who brought them to life in his paintings, but many of these very same people of the crowd despised him because of his faith.
Pissarro quietly painted his self-portrait in 1898. That was about the same time Hodur organized our church and just 10 years before he helped to organize the fraternal organization of our church, the fraternal we are asked to remember today. Hodur, like Pissarro, was an idealist who had to face the less than idealistic world around him. Hodur, like Pissarro, was despised because of his faith, and so were the people of his church. Our first parishioners were finding it hard to survive economically. They were being thrown out of other fraternals so that they couldn’t get mortgages and loans. Shop-keepers wouldn’t do business with them. Shirley’s grandparents opened a little grocery store in South Scranton so that National Catholics would have a place to shop in their neighbourhood. Amid all of this, the church opened our fraternal in 1908. We came together to help each other when no one else would. Just like Jesus’ miracle of the loaves: Everyone added what little they could so that everyone could have something.
Our fraternal started offering small loans to members so that they could maybe build a house or start a small business, and they offered life insurance policies so that if the husband died, as too frequently happened in the mines of Northeast Pennsylvania, then the families would have something to rely upon. We saw this aid as an extension of church. And just as importantly, our fraternal wanted to make a social difference too. Each member was assessed a small amount to help pay for educational activities like church and branch libraries. Lectures were held to further educate its members. Women were encouraged to open their own branches so that they could have “the same rights, privileges and claims” as did men, so that they could have a greater degree of financial independence, so that they wouldn’t be taken advantage of because they were beholden to abusive husbands … and this was in the early 1900’s! Our church’s fraternal was born out of the animosity of others toward our members, but right in its Constitution these words were added: “Religious, political and social convictions may not hinder the admission of candidates …” We weren’t going to do to others what others had done to us.
Now think back to this morning’s parable. Jesus makes absolutely clear that it is what we do, not only what we say we are going to do, that makes all the difference. If we take the example of Bp. Hodur, he was an idealist. But the reality was that Hodur’s efforts led to an awful lot of opposition and prejudice. He could have said all of these wonderful things about God and church, and then just walked away when things got rough, but that would have been the example of the second son from today’s parable, the one who is recognized as the fraud in Jesus’ story. His words were not matched by his work, and that is what made his words meaningless. The institutions of our church and our fraternal are the work that prove the truthfulness of our words.
This lesson is still ours today, as is our founding idealism, or it should be. How great it would be if we started a parish library. We could start by buying all the publications about our church. We could include the various books we’ve used for Bible study. A couple of locked bookcases and we could be on our way. [Book club] We once had a Smith College biology professor come here and talk about evolution because if we’re going to talk about creation then we have to know what others know. That’s the kind of stuff that should be done all the time in the kind of church we’re supposed to be, and all it takes is a phone call and our interest. Hodur was holding science discussions in his church hall, and science is even more important now for religion. It’s what we do, says today’s parable, not only the proud words of what we once said that matters. Let us pray to match the idealism, religious and social, of our church’s words with what we do as church, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo