Today in the United States we bring the quadrennial process of electing citizens to lead our government for two, four, or six years of service. This particular campaign process has been remarkably long, contentious and expensive, leaving many of us citizens weary of all that pertains to the work of selecting our leaders. In a happy coincidence of dates and days this year, the Catholic liturgy of this Tuesday in the 31st week of ordinary time and the Memorial of St. Charles Borromeo, offers us a remarkably rich banquet of word and image to deepen our prayerful contemplation of God’s plan of salvation in order to sharpen our practical election discernment.
Borromeo was born into the union of two of Europe’s most economically and politically powerful families of the 16th Century. Connected by birth to the Papacy and half a dozen thrones, Charles was appointed a Cardinal Prince in his late teens, well before he made up his mind to enter the priesthood. While completing his studies he ruled the Papal states, had jurisdiction over the massive Episcopal See of Milan – which covered half of Italy and half of Switzerland – and was a principal advisor to kings, princes, the emperor and the pope in all matters civil and ecclesial. In the midst of such extraordinary power, Charles made the decision to seek ordination to the priesthood, and determined to live a personal life of austerity and intense prayer. He was attracted to religious vows but under the advice of seasoned spiritual directors heeded the call to continue in the role of Archbishop and use all his gifts, prestigious power and advantages to advance the real reform of the Church and to serve the poorest and most marginalized of the population in the face of political and social circumstances no less dire or turbulent than those facing the next leaders of today’s governments.
The ancient Christian hymn text that Paul quotes in the letter to the Philippians proclaimed as the first reading today captures not only the truth of Christ’s choice to embrace the limits of human nature, but the challenge and the cost of participating with Christ in his mission. The Greek word translated “grasped” in the New American translation should be understood in the sense of “stolen” or “snatched.” So the text tells us that even though he was born in the form (meaning nature) of Divine existence, Jesus chose to be truly human and not “steal” divine power during his human life. In effect, Paul is telling us that the Second Person of God chose to set aside or empty himself of all capacity of Divine nature in order to be authentically human and to share the limits of the human condition with us. He didn’t even attempt the ordinary efforts at escaping human limitations that some do by exercising wealth or power in the quasi-divine manner of those who rule over others. Rather he took the form of one who serves – one who is under others in order to bring them to their full dignity. This, then, is the perfect model of religious and civil authority – a human who knows his/her limitedness, and spends his or her human life in service of the authentic well-being of others: one who does not exercise power because s/he CAN but because authentic exercise of power brings human dignity to the least, and serves the common good.
If Borromeo’s witness and the Philippian hymn are not enough to meditate upon as we head to the polls, Jesus reminds the guests of “the leading Pharisee” (the educated elite) that those who are invited into his company but fail to embrace the value system of the Kingdom will be replaced at the Lord’s table by those who are humanly treated as worthless. There is a threat to any who consider themselves Christian in today’s Gospel that we must not miss if we want to be serious stewards of God’s Reign while remaining citizens of this world.
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