[Homily: Opening Liturgy of the ASEACCU Convention on Catholic Higher Education and Social Justice, Feast of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist, Ateneo de Davao, Philippines, 29 August, 2014]
We come together this morning in celebration of our shared vocation as Catholic higher education educators throughout southeast and east Asia.
In this context we also celebrate, appropriately, the martyrdom of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was martyred in his loyalty to the truth, no matter the danger, no matter the cost. In truth, he spoke out against the illegal marriage of Herod. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” he said. He touched the conscience of Herod. But he incurred the hatred of Herodias. When her daughter, Salome, had danced mesmerizingly before Herod, he promised her anything. Herodias saw this as the opportunity to be rid of the man who told the truth. She prompted her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The request was granted. John the Baptist was martyred. His head was brought to Salome on a platter.
John the Baptist’s loyalty to truth was only in character. He had been missioned to prepare the way of the Lord. For this, he called out in truth, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:1). His was the voice from the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” He spoke to the conscience of those whose lives had strayed from the light of the Decalogue: they no longer recognized the truth of the one, almighty and holy God. They learned to manipulate God for their godless purposes, taking his name in vain. They had no awe for God’s holiness, had no time to pray, no time to keep holy his Sabbath. They were so filled with themselves they ignored or abandoned their parents. Their lives were filled with violence and murder. Their related to others with mere carnal energy and lust. Their words were lies, fabrications and half-truths. They were covetous of their neighbors’ goods and their neighbors’ wives. John’s counsel was conversion: that they turn away from their sin, from their sadness and grief, their lies and self deception, and return to the truth of an ordered life under one God. It addressed simple people, workers and merchants, people hungry for truth, justice and social fairness. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” To tax collectors, he said, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” To soldiers he said, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, be satisfied with your wages,” (Luke 3:10-14). But it also included the learned and sophisticated, the self satisfied and the cynical, the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You offspring of vipers!” he shouted out, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Do not presume to say we have Abraham as our Father.” This is not a matter of lineage, of privileged birth, or of tradition. It is a matter of personal choice, personal morality. “Produce fruits that prove your repentance” (Mt. 3: 7-8).
John the Baptist prepared for the coming of Jesus, whose sandals he declared himself unworthy to loosen. For his fidelity to truth, and his martyrdom, Jesus declared. “I tell you the truth: among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus’ Gospel, however, was not merely about conversion. It was about the Kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God’s love, expressed fully in his Son, redeeming us, and drawing us already on this earth to the fullness of His Kingdom. “I have come to bring life, and life to the full” (John 10:10), he declared. It is a heavenly fullness that begins already on this earth in the way we treat, regard and love one another. “The one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven, is greater than [John the Baptist]” (Mt. 11:11).
In this context, perhaps we have substantial material for reflection as we begin our conference on Catholic Higher Education and Social Justice. We dare to recall with John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae that it is our privilege, on the one hand, to know Jesus, who proclaims the Kingdom of God, and himself as the way, the life and the truth, and yet, on the other hand, to know ourselves as Christians called to higher education, tasked to search for truth of what God, nature, and human reality are for us today. Our particular task in this ASEACCU convention may have to be to consider what Catholic education has to say about the truth of the Kingdom of God as it calls forth in grace, mandates, and implements, no matter how imperfectly, social justice today. This may demand from us, in the contexts of our universities and colleges, four inescapable positions:
First, the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of God. There is a God. Despite all that is being said about a better world without religion, or about a world where religion is relegated to a purely private sphere, or about a busy world where the demands of religion are roundly ignored, Catholic Higher Education proclaims the Kingdom OF GOD. His is a real relentless and inescapable presence, irreducible to psychological or anthropological constructs, that impinges on our human reality in a manner that accepts us fully but also transforms us totally.
Second, the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of heaven. It’s fullness is not achieved on this earth but wrought in its fullness in an afterlife. The perspective therefore that Catholic Higher Education maintains is therefore not life unto death, despite life’s struggle, but life struggling unto the fullness of life, despite death. It is because of the eschatological fullness of life that the incarnational struggle in this world is justified and lightened.
Third, the Kingdom of God is not just the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the Kingdom of God that is manifested already in Jesus’ saving action in this world, preaching the Good News to the poor, healing the sick, raising the dead, and calling his followers to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the homeless. Catholic Higher Education contributes to the actual realization of God’s Kingdom on earth, to the extent that it is historically possible, by trying to explicitate the conditions under which the fullness of the life Jesus came to bring us – or the fullness of human flourishing – might be actually achieved in a particular historical setting, no matter how imperfectly. These are the challenging and complicated demands of social justice and the common good, which Catholic higher education is called to articulate and embrace.
Finally, understanding the demands of the Kingdom of God in social justice, Catholic Higher Education must act to transform individual human lives and human social structures according to the imperatives of social justice. The truth it pursues is not merely theoretical but practical, that is, the morally imperative. It is prophetic, stating the truth – ultimately in the name of God – pertinent to injustice, war, violation of human rights, poverty alleviation, and the devastation of the environment, in season and out of season, unto the transformation of the world as Jesus’ fullness of life demands.
Of course, such a prophetic understanding of the university and social justice has costs. For telling the truth, they put John the Baptist to death. We must ask ourselves whether we are willing to pay the price. “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees,” John the Baptist warned. “Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3: 9). Perhaps through this convention, we might find the courage as Catholic universities to stand at the service of Christ who said, “I have come to bring life, and to bring it to the full” (John 10:10).