the contemplative gaze, our common home

(for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and the World Day of Peace)

We in the Catholic Church actually celebrate two different things on New Year’s Day, besides the secular holiday. One of them is liturgical––the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God; and the other one is not necessarily liturgical––the World Day of Peace. Since one of the most common titles we give to Mary is the Queen of Peace, I don’t think she minds sharing. As you know, the pope always issues a message on the World Day of Peace, and I am going to draw my own remarks today from that, because it’s a message that I think oftentimes gets ignored, but one that is ever more important. In a day and age of such political upheaval and polarization, I am relying on the Holy Father and the bishops of the Church to keep calling us back to the highest common denominator, and show us how to be and who to be in our society.

“Flight Into Egypt” by Luc-Olivier Merson.

Another reason that Mary and this year’s Message for the World Day of Peace go together is because the message this year deals with migrants and refugees, entitled: “Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace.” There is a strong connection between Our Lady and migrants and refugees. Beginning in 2016 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops named the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a day of solidarity with immigrants and refugees. The Church has also been celebrating the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on August 15th, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, since 1914. And of course during the Christmas season we remember Mary journeying to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to Jesus, and then fleeing into Egypt to escape persecution, as many refugees do in our own time.

Given all the indicators of the international situation, it seems as if migrations are going to continue to play a major part in our future across the planet. I love Francis’ response to that. “Some consider this a threat,” he says. “I, however, invite you to gaze upon this with trust, as an opportunity to build peace.” Pope’s have a lofty perspective: they do not speak for a country; they speak as the Vicar of Christ. And they do not speak only to Catholics or Christians; they are speaking to all people of good will throughout the world, whom they know will be listening. This isn’t just about our border walls and travel bans; there is a huge migration crisis going on around the world, in the Mideast, in North Africa and Europe. So Francis starts out calling on all people of good will to embrace those who are fleeing from war, hunger and persecution. And he calls for four actions––welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating refugees.

But apart from the practical solutions, the Holy Father addresses the deeper questions about the spiritual crisis that’s at the heart of it all––the disease not just the symptom, the cure not just a palliative––that really need to be addressed. A new mentality is called for, an evolution in consciousness.

There were two phrases about that new mentality that Pope Francis used that rang a bell for me. The first one is the phrase “our common home.” This was a recurrent theme in his encyclical Laudato Sì. (As a matter of fact its subtitle was “On Care for our Common Home.”) What I didn’t realize is that Francis got the phrase “our common home” from John Paul II, from John Paul’s “Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees” in 2004. Francis writes that he was  inspired by the words of Saint John Paul II: “If the ‘dream’ of a peaceful world is shared by all, if the refugees’ and migrants’ contribution is properly evaluated, then humanity can become more and more a universal family and our earth a true ‘common home’.”[i]

This isn’t just a hippie dream––that “humanity can become more and more a universal family,” and that we can come to see the Earth as our common home. This is the dream, the hope, the vision of the last five popes. Francis adds his own gloss on this when he says that, “Throughout history, many have believed in this ‘dream,’ and their achievements are a testament to the fact that it is not merely a utopia.” Progress has been made! We can do this! That’s Christian hope, waiting for the “tomorrow of God.”

The second phrase he used in this year’s message that caught my eye was “contemplative gaze.” I thought at first that I had seen this phrase before as well, but actually, again in Laudato Sì, what he had called for was “a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle,”[ii] a “journey of ascesis to limit our needs, to respect the earth and its vital rhythms, to learn how to share resources and redistribute goods, to make daily concrete choices.”[iii] Also a good reminder! Now along with a contemplative lifestyle he is calling for the contemplative gaze. And he gets that phrase from Pope Benedict (!) from his own Message for the World Day of Migrants in 2011. This is a gaze, Pope Benedict wrote, that is capable of realizing that we all “belong to one family, migrants and the local populations that welcome them, and all have the same right to enjoy the goods of the Earth … as the social doctrine of the Church teaches. It is here that solidarity and sharing are founded.”[iv] This is the social doctrine of the Church: that all have the same right to enjoy the goods of the Earth. And so Francis says we have to turn this contemplative gaze “upon the cities where we live, ‘a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares … fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.’”[v]

Then he urges us to turn the contemplative gaze upon the migrants and refugees themselves, and when we do, we’ll discover that migrants and refugees don’t arrive empty-handed: “they bring their courage, skills, energy and aspirations, as well as the treasures of their own cultures, thus enriching the lives of the nations that receive them.” That reminded me of the wise men, who came from a foreign land bearing gifts––and those gifts were welcomed, received, and accepted. No guests ever come to us empty-handed. Saint Benedict tells us to greet them as if they were Christ.

And then finally the pope asks for a whole lot when he asks that those responsible for the public good have this contemplative gaze, too, but it’s only that contemplative gaze that will encourage them to keep in mind “the needs of all members of the human family and the wellbeing of each and everyone.”

Those who are moved by this gaze will recognize the seedlings of peace that are already sprouting and foster their growth. Our cities, often divided and polarized by conflicts concerning the presence of migrants and refugees, will be transformed into building sites for peace.

What a dream! Like a new Jerusalem! That’s what you can see with the contemplative gaze!

I’m thinking of Mary again, Mary the model of the contemplative who kept all these things and reflected on them in her heart. Let’s pray that she––Mother of God and Mother of the Church, Mother of Migrants and Refugees and Queen of Peace––would inspire that contemplative gaze in us in the new year, a gaze of trust, and inspire in us the dream of a peaceful world, and the lively hope that humanity can become more and more a universal family. May Mary help us to see all our challenges as opportunities to build peace, and let’s pray that our home, and our community under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, would always be a place of welcome and safety.

cyprian 1 january 2017

[i] Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2004, 6.

[ii] Ibid., 222.

[iii] Ibid., 205.

[iv] Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2011.

[v] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 71.

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