I have been slow writing these columns lately because I have been in France for the past 6 days, visiting Aix-en-Provence and now Paris. I tend to travel a lot, but usually not to places so desirable (Northern Michigan and New Orleans are usually my favorite places to visit). Yet, this trip has been very special. I brought along family and have enjoyed sharing my love of French culture with them. Travel, even in humble road trip form, is always an important affront to ignorance and bigotry, yet at the same time it teaches us a lot about ourselves.
Tonight in Paris we attended mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. I’ve been a serious student, in school and in life, of the French language for the last 21 years and so this trip to Notre Dame for mass, unlike the last time when I was a sixteen year old high school French student, was a more detailed spiritual experience. In the homily, reflecting today’s focus on Christ, the Good Shepherd, we were made to be aware of how we are, essentially, a crowd in need of formation. We were “une foule”, a crowd, made up of many nations and pilgrims all gathered together in a massive, sacred space created with exactly this sort of formation in mind. There were not French Catholics and everybody else. There was only the group of the faithful, gathered to celebrate, to receive instruction, and to be unified in the body of Christ.
There is nothing sacred about national boundaries. God does not speak to us in one language. Christianity is, much more than the other Abrahamic religions, a religion of translation. A religion that transcends and confounds the whole idea of nation. There is the Kingdom of God and there is the visible Church on Earth. Everything else does not matter in the formation of a Christian. Wherever we travel, we find God. Wherever we go, with some rare exceptions, there is a mass, somewhere waiting for us in a form, even if not in a language, we can understand. The body of Christ can be consecrated in many different languages for the same soul.
I think of this often in considering our country’s turn to self-destructive nationalism. What is bizarre is this nationalism clutches on to the Cross as one of its justifying symbols. Our President, who has never shown a shred of competence about the tenets of Christianity nor does he attend church regularly, has evangelical leaders falling over themselves to try to justify his policies. They contort the Bible and Christ into knots to make our government’s cruelty and incompetence seem Christian. It is not just morally reprehensible it is humiliating and a testament to the degradation of some corners of American faith by hyper-partisan politics.As Catholics, we know our Church is universal across the globe. We know excessive nationalism is idolatry. We know our Church does not prioritize English. It does not hold America up on a pedestal. Rather, it reminds us, that when we come to the world’s great churches as tourists, pilgrims, and refugees, we come to a new place that is already home. We come to a church we already know. We access something greater than language or nation.
When we see Latin Americans psychologically tortured and separated from their loved ones at the border, Catholics need to see not just a political issue but an existential spiritual crisis inflicted by the United States on some of the most Catholic populations in the world. We need to care because we are them and they are us. They are our future and we are their future.
That mass in that Cathedral in Notre Dame was the most diverse space we occupied in our trip so far. Dozens of languages and countries of origin crossing borders to celebrate the Mass together. As Catholics, we are border-crossers by nature even when we stay at home. We must make our politics, our actions, and our deepest held beliefs live up to this calling.
The cantor sang out: “Le seigneur est mon berger: je ne manque de rien.” The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. Too often an exaggerated sense of our own lack shuts doors to others. We seek out strongmen when we need shepherds. We sell our souls off to wolves in anger and in spite. We wander away from the prairies of fresh grass and find ourselves alone, embittered, shut away from God.
The Cathedral reminds us: walls are only strong when accompanied by open doors.