Years ago, one of my college friends—who remains among the best judges of character I know—gave me as a gift a book by Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners. I said, “Miss Manners, huh? Is this a hint?” And she said, “Yes.”
My friend has assured me that my social skills have improved over the past 20 years, but, more than that, the value of the book is that Judith Martin—who is an elegant, witty writer—explains the reason why we should care about manners. We might think that manners are about things like what to do with all the extra forks at a fancy restaurant, but Miss Manners reminds her readers that the fundamental purpose behind all manners is to facilitate harmonious relationships with other people. It doesn’t matter how fancy you are; if you make your guests or your hosts or your friends or your acquaintances feel uncomfortable, then you’re being rude.
The best definition of justice is “right relationship.” Manners are not the only thing that goes into right relationships, but they are one way of making interpersonal justice a little smoother. Fundamentally, having good manners means being considerate of other people.
Not long ago, at dinner in my community in Rome, which houses Jesuits from maybe 30 different countries, one of my brothers from Columbia was talking with one of my brothers from Poland about the different things people eat around the world, and he mentioned hearing that in parts of Asia people eat dog meat. And another of my brothers from the Philippines, who is normally very quiet, looked up from his plate and said, “Oh, yes, very good,” and then he went on with his meal.
There is no more diverse an organization in the world than the Catholic Church. Not only do Catholics come from different countries and races and language groups, but the Church includes saints of different historical periods, the great cloud of witnesses mentioned by the letter to the Hebrews last week. The martyrs of first century Rome, of seventeenth century Japan, of 20th century Spain and Mexico, and, in our still-young century, of Turkey, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, France and elsewhere could not have been more different culturally or socially, yet they all shared a belief in Catholicism so strong they were willing to die for it. People have indeed come, as the Lord says, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south to the table in the kingdom of God, around which we gather this morning.
Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
If you are looking for an appropriate way to observe today’s Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may I suggest weight-lifting.
Today’s feast is a celebration of strength. The strength we celebrate today is more than that shown by Olympic weightlifters—though it includes a little of that—more than the moral strength of a figure like Rosa Parks—though it includes that too—more than the geo-political strength projected by a squadron of B-21 bombers—though that’s not absent either. Add to all of these the strength of a cosmic force—like the gravity of the sun or the moon tugging at the tides—and you get an idea of the strength we’re dealing with.
Politicians frequently claim to be uniters, not dividers. If you wanted proof, therefore, that Jesus was not a politician, look no further than today’s Gospel: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Political promises of unity, of course, come cheaply; sometimes they simply mean, “If you disagree with me, I’ll accuse you of being a divider.” In today’s Gospel reading, however, Jesus makes a move never recommended by any political consultant: he preemptively accuses himself of bringing division. Other than the desire to put centuries of future homilists in a very awkward position, why would Jesus do this?
My friend and Jesuit classmate Fr. Michael Rossmann has just published a book, which upon its release held the status of Amazon’s #1 book in “self-help for Catholics”. Actually, I didn’t know there was such a category (and neither did Fr. Rossmann).
Inside the snappy cover, Fr. Rossmann makes a point I think is very important today — really saying yes to something or someone means saying no to other things. Never committing in order to keep one’s options open means refusing to choose the things that matter most.
The book is called The Freedom of Missing Out and continues the long Jesuit tradition of practical help for good decision-making that goes back to St. Ignatius’s rules for discernment. In fact, the influence of Ignatius is not far below the surface, though the book is illustrated with examples from all walks of life and lots of contemporary research. While Rossmann draws on the best of the Catholic tradition, his words about commitment and freedom will ring true to people of any religion.