Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ex 22:20-26; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40

Way back in 1968 when I was doing my graduate studies in Rome at Sant Anselmo, it was an exclusively scholastic and intellectual atmosphere. I was deeply seeking to get involved in something pastoral. That’s not easy to find in a foreign country. Well, by a long and complicated series of events, I found myself as the assistant scoutmaster of the American Girl Scout troop in Rome. The girls were all children of military personnel, diplomats or international business managers. My task was to prepare the Girl Scouts to present a play at the end of the year for their parents on the site of Cicero’s villa in the Alban Hills. To do this I had to travel to the far north side of Rome to the American school one afternoon a week after their school let out and work with them for an hour. And so I found myself with twelve fifth to eighth grade girls trying to prepare a play. To get a play for them I adapted and wrote a version of the book of Ruth.(Still have it.) But getting the girls to practice the play was something else. I would take a couple of them, practice their parts, but when I wanted to take the next group....they were all gone. They were all outside playing, laughing and running in the schoolyard. I would go out and round up the next group. By the time I had got them back to the classroom, the first group had disappeared. And so it went, for weeks and months. Finally, I just gave up at one session and sat in a chair and hung my head down. After a while someone touched me. I looked up and there they all were, standing in a semi-circle around me. One of them said, "Is something wrong?" I answered, "Look! I’m supposed to prepare you for this play. But you won’t practice. You are always running outside, laughing, playing and yelling around. This play is going to be a disaster and I’ll be blamed for it." There was a pause and one of them said, "But when we are with you is the only time we ever get to have any fun during the week." I thought about it and said, "You know what: go play, have fun and I’ll take the blame for it."

Over the course of that year I got to know a number of those girls pretty well. Their world was so very different from the world I grew up in. Their family would move somewhere different in the world every two or three years. I asked one of them, "How do you make friends?" She responded, "We don’t even try anymore. It’s too hard to make a friend and then move in a year and never see them again." I thought to myself, "What a different world they live in." I struggled to understand it.

It’s not easy to understand the mindset of someone who sees the world so differently from you. And yet that’s what the book of Exodus in the first reading asks the Israelites to do. "You shall not molest an alien for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt." We should remember that the Israelites for whom this was written had no living memory of being slaves themselves. They were powerful individuals in their own land. Now they were told to see the world as a stranger does.

The same thing is true of all pastoral ministry. If you are going to serve someone well, you have to make a real effort to see the world as they do. And that’s not easy. It’s not just the angle of perspective you try to see, it’s also all the emotions that flow from it, the personal relationships that result, and the hopes and goals in life the person has. That’s at the heart of good pastoral ministry.

By the way, at our last scheduled practice all the girls on their own showed up in the classroom. I walked them through all the parts of the play. Four days later they absolutely aced the performance at Cicero’s villa. They aced the performance with one practice. Unbelievable!

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