I was different from many of my law school classmates in the early 1980s. I had no desire to become rich, nor was I interested in the power and prestige that accompanies a successful law practice. Rather, in my own naïve way, I wanted to help people. Issues such as poverty, injustice, racism, and nuclear arms were what motivated me. I even volunteered one summer with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office.
In retrospect, I truly believe that the Lord blessed my sincere desire to defend the “underdog” and used this as the means to draw me back to Himself and His Church.
After graduating from law school, I was still searching for a way to channel my desire to help other people. I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with secular approaches to societal ills, but I was still ambivalent, at best, about the Church.
Then one Sunday I went to Mass and heard a sermon on the Church’s social teaching [more]by a deacon who also happened to be a lawyer. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Church had something to say about these issues. Even more, I then realized that the Church not only took my questions seriously, but also offered satisfying answers–answers rooted in the Truth.
For myself and many others who were raised after Vatican II, the burning issue was not liturgical abuse or some intramural Church dispute. My questions were much more basic: Where is God in my life? What does He have to say, if anything, to the contemporary world? When I was engaged on that level by the deacon, I profoundly realized that I was yearning for the Peace of Jerusalem, not the peace of this world, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform every aspect of our world. Although my understanding has deepened over the years, the fundamental lessons I learned then have remained with me.
I learned was that I was approaching issues from the wrong direction. I tended to think abstractly (e.g., poverty or criminal justice) or collectively (e.g., poor people or criminal defendants). I needed to learn that just as Christ dealt with me as an irreplaceable person, I needed to approach social issues with the mindset that each member of the human family is an irreplaceable person with God-given dignity. There’s something to be said for the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”–if it’s understood in the sense that authentic human development must be interpersonal. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was one of the greatest social reformers of our time, but her brand of reform was accomplished one person, one precious soul, at a time.
Yet, I discovered I had to back the bus up even further. I cannot provide enduring assistance to others if I’m not continually being renewed in Christ myself (cf. Rom. 12:2). Life in Christ changes everything. I realized that I needed–with God’s grace–to eradicate sin from my life and strive, however imperfectly, for holiness. To love another person with Christ-like love, I had to become more like Christ.
That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of the saints.
Over the text couple days I will continue these reflections on the social teachings of the Church.