32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Vigilance and Attentiveness

The Gospel story of the ten virgins is not about wedding customs or about charity or even about staying awake at night. Rather it is about being ready, being vigilant, paying attention – so that we never miss an opportunity to experience to the fullest every moment of our lives. It is a parable of urgency, a parable which urges us not to waste the opportunities that are offered us. The crucial difference between the wise and foolish has to do not with staying awake, but with having sufficient oil. Foreseeing that the bridegroom might delay, the wise bridesmaids brought flasks of oil, while the foolish neglected the task. And even though they all fell asleep waiting, only the wise had made the proper preparations, while the foolish found themselves locked out of the feast.

thetenvirgins3Discipleship involves more than simply being part of the wedding party.

What does all of this mean for us? There is no one perfect style, no one method or mood that is appropriate to being a Christian. But there is, indeed, one absolutely essential element that all true Christians must share in common: keeping vigil with joyful hope. And so, our response must be that of watchfulness, not in the sense of neglecting the duties to which our Christian life calls us, but to the extent that each day must be one of attentiveness, expectation, and hope.

This message is especially important to American Catholics as we try to work through the results of our national elections.

Catholics in America are faced with some very difficult decisions. This is a time for people of faith to stand up and press for accountability. Both of the major parties, Republican and Democrat, claim to be close to the Catholic Church's teaching on a number of issues - and in certain instances they are. But neither party totally reflects the consistent ethic that Catholic Social Teaching has upheld and continues to call for.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, in ways we could never think possible. The number of daily deaths due to the virus is climbing.  Close to eight million persons in this country are unemployed - many face eviction from their homes due to loss of jobs; forty-five million Americans lack health insurance and one in six live below the poverty level. Americans have also come face to face with the most difficult challenges - systemic and unabashed racism, continuing discrimination and disregard of the truth, and violent demonstrations in our streets to express opposing idealogies.

Given all of this, how well we respond depends on how well we have tended to our "oil supply." 

American Catholics must weigh carefully how participation in the public policy debate - and our vote - can contribute to greater respect for human life and dignity, religious tolerance and democracy, economic justice, and care for God's creation. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky recently expressed a very important point:  "after the election, rather than in the midst of it, is the time to be forming consciences for faithful citizenship."

If there is such a thing as a "Catholic Platform" it has been eloquently stated in the American Bishops Statement, Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium. In this document, the bishops outline several areas that are at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching:

  • The Life and Dignity of the Human Person
  • Promoting Peace
  • The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
  • Health Care
  • Religious Freedom
  • Options for the Poor and Vulnerable
  • Migration
  • The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  • Combating Unjust Discrimination
  • Solidarity: a commitment to the common good everywhere
  • Care for God's Creation: stewardship of the earth

These are not the concerns of Catholics alone; they suggest specific priorities that must be addressed: the protection of human life, the promotion of family life and values, the quest for social justice and the pursuit of global solidarity.

And while not promoting specific solutions, they ask some very pointed questions, among them:

  • How will we protect the weakest in our midst-innocent, unborn children?
  • How will we address the consequences of hunger, debt, and lack of development around the world?
  • How can we raise our children with respect for life, sound moral values, a sense of hope, and an ethic of stewardship and responsibility?
  • How will we address the growing number of families and individuals without affordable and accessible health care? How can health care protect and enhance human life and dignity?
  • How do we combat continuing prejudice, bias, and discrimination and heal the wounds of racism, religious bigotry, and other forms of discrimination?
  • Why does it seem that our nation is turning to violence to solve some of its most difficult problems?

We are pilgrims in a changing world and not always perfect, and there is, indeed, one absolutely essential element that all of us must share in common:  keeping vigil and paying attention to this world and to others around us.  This election year presents a great opportunity for Catholics to hold our political leaders accountable to address the important moral issues that face all Americans today.

Being a disciple implies that one has to make hard choices: we will not always get what we want; we may find ourselves at odds with others who do not share our values. It's not easy. It's not easy to do what needs to be done, to say what needs to be said, to work things out when it bothers us to compromise. And then, too, it's not easy to wait. It's not easy to be out of control, without power. It's not easy to allow another, even God, to have the final word.

Jesus tells us: "Be prepared, stay awake." Pay Attention.

There can be no excuses if we don't. And if we have not prepared well, we may find ourselves standing in front of a locked door - and then it will be too late.

Image: The Ten Virgins - Eugène Burnand