Whether we like it or not, human traditions will form wherever human beings are found. It’s absolutely unavoidable. It’s very much like politics. Politics can only exist where there are people. It’s just part of who we are and how we do things. Traditions are just the ways of doing things that over time we develop to ease our living and our living with others. We can create these traditions deliberately, which means we can also just as deliberately remove and replace them, or they can form spontaneously without our purposeful or otherwise direct intervention. These include the titles of address we use to refer to ourselves and to others, the conventions of deference, who makes the first move, yielding right of way, respecting personal space, what may or may not be spoken out loud but instead kept to ourselves, how we reciprocate courtesy, how we stick it to the man, our overt expressions of approval and disapproval, what is criminal activity and how it is punished, our money and how we conduct the fair exchange of goods, our music and poetry, our superstitions, our patterns of food preparation and consumption. And these traditions will form among all groups of people—families, communities, classrooms and entire academic institutions, exclusive clubs, voluntary organizations, churches, businesses, schoolyards and prison yards, sports teams, cul-de-sacs, and even accidental and random groupings like people who fly the same plane together, or travel the same road, or eat at the same restaurant, or work out at the same gym. They will even form between any two individuals who interact with each other on a regular basis. We don’t often think about it, but most everything we do habitually and without much thinking or significant variation can be considered in the broadest sense a “tradition.”
Now various groups of people will consider some of their traditions and ways of doing things to be more important than others and enshrine them in more sacred and unchallengeable structures. We in America have the US Constitution, that we will hear everyone invoke to signal that something is not to be questioned or challenged ever, from what constitutes free speech, to what constitutes treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors. And we also have scholars and lawyers who will spend time and energy figuring out the fine print so we can go on living our lives in peace and quiet.
Israel had the Law of Moses, which they sincerely believed to come from God himself. We read in Exodus, as well as in Deuteronomy, that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and gave him 10 commandments engraved by his own hand on two stone tablets. Not long after, a much larger body of laws, rules, regulations, and traditions, in varying levels of importance and consequence, eventually formed as Israel through the succeeding generations embarked on the great adventure of defining their own cultural identity and building their nation.
Then one day, an uneducated itinerant preacher from Nazareth showed up. He probably was not the first, but Jesus identified a few things in his own people’s mindset and way of life to be quite inconsistent with God’s Word and God’s holy ways. Many of those in authority disagreed with him. But challenging human traditions, even those we consider most sacred and inviolate, cannot be an end in itself. We know Jesus truly desired that Israel might become an even more holy and more worthy people of God. And he challenged his listeners to begin reforming their collective mindset and way of life by looking deep into their own hearts first, uprooting all that was inconsistent with God’s Word and God’s holy ways, and walking the road to repentance, reconciliation, and perfection. Some Pharisees pointed out that among his disciples there were some who did not meticulously observe the traditions of ritual purification, clearly not as essential as other elements of the Law. Jesus wasn’t saying they were wrong, just that they were ignoring matters of much greater importance. They took issue with the purification of vessels and foods that a person consumes. Instead, he tells them, “The things that come out from within are what defile … evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
Once again recently, certain elements of our collective Catholic mindset and way of life have come under intense and scathing scrutiny. We sincerely believe that as the Church founded by Jesus Christ, we are not merely a human institution, that God is at work in us and among us, that we are all called to holiness and perfection—lay people and clergy alike, and that taking up our cross each day and following in Jesus’ footsteps is essential to our discipleship. But we also know that we need to constantly examine our mindset and way of life, to always purify and transform ourselves in faithfulness to the Gospel, and the teachings and example of Jesus himself.
Discovering that some of our priests and bishops have acted out of selfishness and negligence is painful beyond measure. Some among us, many who were children and extremely vulnerable, were harmed personally by these abusive actions or criminal complicity. The rest of us are just disheartened and outraged that we did not suspect that a most treacherous evil would be lurking where we were led to believe God alone was to be found. Yes, we need to push this evil into the light. Yes, we need to reach out to those who are suffering and help them to heal. We need to listen to their stories. We need to acknowledge their hurts. We need to shed tears with them. We might have to punch a few walls, and scream ourselves hoarse. But we will need to repair and rebuild our house. Burning it down and abandoning it is not the answer. God’s invitation to holiness and perfection remains unchanged. And God’s work in us and among us is a long way from complete.
St. James writes, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only … Religion that is pure and undefiled … is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” It is much easier to demand accountability and transparency from our leaders than to be ourselves accountable and transparent as well. If we want a better world, we will need to work hard to bring it about, not just because we want it for ourselves, but because we want it for our children. The rampant mistrust and divisiveness in our current political discourse is happening because some people prefer to sow chaos and set things on fire. If we truly love this country, we would stop tearing it apart. It’s not perfect, but we can make it even better. We love our church and our faith, imperfect and flawed as it is. But it is ours, and we will not abandon it. We will repair and rebuild it, not just for ourselves, but for our children. We need to believe that there is a better life beyond our outrage. Defend the vulnerable. Lift up the disheartened. Challenge the arrogant. Rebuild the broken. Hear God’s Word and do it. Be reconciled. Be perfect. And don’t give up.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Mark 7: 20—23
James 1: 22, 27