In a new well reviewed book called “Wanting” author Luke Burgis, entrepreneur in residence at Catholic University of America, presents many interesting concepts, including what he calls “disruptive empathy.” He explains that disruptive empathy, rather than sympathy, seeks to enter into a conflict, harm, or injustice in a way that changes the trajectory for the good – it positively changes the narrative, while ultimately preserving the authenticity and identity of the one who enters in. Disruptive empathy helps change the scapegoating dynamics of culture and humanity – seen for centuries in history and literature – which seeks to blame, isolate, or purge others. Disruptive empathy rejects scapegoating by naming harm and repairing relationships at their core – often through vulnerability and humility.
I thought of this persuasive concept as I was preparing for this weekend’s homily. Two of the central figures we encounter in today’s readings – Jeremiah and Jesus – employed disruptive empathy in their approach to whom they were sent. Indeed, the saints of the Catholic tradition – including many great women – also used disruptive empathy to call people from apathy to embrace the love and grace of God. These women set the world ablaze with the love of God – St. Clare, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, to name a few.
Ironically, in today’s first reading the very thing that gets the prophet Jeremiah cast into a muddy cistern is that he is seeking the well-being of those in the city, but in order to do this he must disrupt their present course – he must call them back to God and fidelity to the covenant – back to right relationship with God and neighbor. St. Paul was also relentless pursuer of disruptive empathy – going throughout the Mediterranean world preaching the Gospel of Christ and suffering all manner of harm as a result – prison, stonings, insults, shipwrecks – all for the spread of the Gospel.
As Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem his message becomes more prophetic – even anguished – as he predicts in today’s Gospel – the consequences of his own ministry and consequences for his life – he says, “ I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” Jesus has come to enter in – to take our very flesh – so that our lives and our world might be transformed. But there is a cost – an invitation to dying and rising that is consequential and cannot be experienced through tepid faith or half measure. His prophetic message today is meant to rouse his listeners from apathy and call his followers to a deep accountability that flows from faith. More than any figure in Scripture, Jesus embodies the disruptive empathy which I described at the outset. This is the essence of the incarnation with all its disruptive power and divine love as its source.
Yesterday, Archbishop Hebda installed me as the 12th pastor of the Basilica of St. Mary. It was a beautiful liturgy and it was moving to have members of the Basilica and close family and friends present for this occasion. Notwithstanding this, the installation of a pastor is not about the pastor – its about the people of God. The pastor is called to be a bridge, a servant, and a shepherd – to serve all of God’s people as Christ serves us. The role and life of a pastor must be rooted and lived in humble service and faith. Please pray for me that I would be the type of pastor that God intends for the Basilica at this present moment and into the future. I have said previously that the beating heart of the Catholic Church is the parish setting. The beating heart of the Church is here – where God walks with His people in tenderness and love.
In preparing for this weekend, I have been reading some of the history of the Basilica as a landmark and a parish. In “Voices from a Landmark” by Peg Guilfoyle, she notes: “[i]t is a tremendous act of faith to build something like the Basilica – faith and grand vision, a large measure of hard-nosed practicality, and a certain willful blindness to obstacles and hardships.” Indeed, my first intuitive response to this great Basilica – including my first days here has been to stand in awe of the faith that was the foundation for this beautiful church. What a legacy of faith we have in the Basilica of St. Mary – and “a cloud of witnesses” through the years that have marked this fine parish.
Interestingly, in his homily for the laying of the cornerstone of the Basilica of St. Mary, Archbishop John Ireland did not talk about his faith or the faith of the people, he did not talk about the magnificent church that was planned here, rather for nearly the entire homily he spoke about the drama of salvation history and the glory of God – what God has done for us – and the fact that Christ is alive – the same yesterday and today. His homily aligned with the words from Hebrews today – we are to always keep our eyes fixed on Christ. This was also Archbishop Hebda’s message at last evening’s liturgy – to keep our eyes fixed on Christ. I was struck by this and it contains an important lesson for us today – when we follow God’s lead when we humbly give God the glory and follow God in faith, great things can happen – great things at the Basilica of St. Mary.
From Marvin O’Connell’s great autobiography on John Ireland, I was struck by the intentionality of Ireland’s choice of sites for the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica – they were meant to convey visibility and manifest the purposeful decision to engage the community, to announce God’s presence robustly and beautifully to the city. The choice of the location of the Basilica near the intersection of the broad avenues of Hennepin and Lyndale intertwined the growing city with the growing Catholic community, walking together through time and history. O’Connell notes that Ireland believed in the compatibility of Catholicism and the American ideal; I do too, but much work remains to be done toward humble and meaningful engagement between the civic and religious spheres. This task has not gotten easier since the time of John Ireland. One of the areas where Catholics can be a leaven and force for good in American life is to exhort other Catholics and Americans to always pair the American value of autonomy with the important value of social solidarity – autonomy without social solidarity frustrates the good and stability of our republic.
Lastly, I have also been moved by the Basilica’s use of the verse from Jeremiah as a prophetic call to serve and seek the good of the city: “[s]eek the well-being of the city to which I have sent you. Pray for it to the Lord. For in seeking its well-being you shall find your own.” Our identity as Christians is rooted in humble service – this is how we seek the well-being of those around us – this is how we seek the well-being of the Twin Cities community. This journey certainly requires of us a strengthening of our own community at the Basilica – fostering a renewed energy and purpose as we emerge from the pandemic. But seeking the well-being of the city also requires great faith and the spiritual freedom that manifests in humility and boldness, as we follow God’s lead. We are called to meet the moment – to the meet the challenges and divisions of our age with a love that listens, serves, and engages our community. Our call is similar to the act of disruptive empathy that prophetically enters into a city and country beset by injustice, polarization, and unrest. As a leaven, the Basilica community can joyfully announce that there is another way – the way of Jesus – a way of humble service, commitment to justice and care for those on the margins – a way that heals the wounded and sows seeds of a deep and lasting peace.