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“Our Citizenship Is in Heaven”

“Pope Francis has provided for us three good manuals to help us live as good citizens on earth as we prepare for our heavenly homeland”

Here is the homily by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, given at vespers for the Archdiocesan Day of Sanctification of Priests on November 28.



Philippians 3:12-21

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

We all know how good citizenship, civic involvement and concern for the common good are so important and necessary for society. Citizenship has been front and center in the news over the past few years. We have listened to inciting talk about political leaders who may not have been legitimate citizens or candidates who may or may not be “natural born citizens” and thus eligible to run for office! We have heard much about citizenship, borders, walls and passports over the past year during the Presidential election campaign. There has been much rhetoric and threats about keeping non-citizens out or how to get those here illegally to return to their homelands. Many are living in trepidation and fear for their very lives as the US Government leadership transition is underway. The worldwide refugee crisis that has impacted all of us is also a shocking story of desired citizenship and justice and freedom. Citizenship is at the forefront of the thinking of many people throughout the world at this moment in history.

In the scripture reading we just heard from the Apostle to the Nations, St. Paul reminds his beloved community at Philippi about another citizenship which transcends that of the nations on earth. Paul reminds the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.” The matter of citizenship was a very important one for the inhabitants of Philippi because that city, located in Macedonia, had become a Roman colony. This meant that a large number of Roman citizens lived in Philippi, especially many retired military officers.

When Paul and Silas first arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey, they caused quite a scene and were subsequently imprisoned in shackles. That very night there was a large earthquake and both Paul and Silas were set free. They even managed to convert the Philippian jailer and his family. The following morning, Paul complained to the city officials of Philippi reminded them that he was a Roman citizen! Paul accused them of mistreating him.  They apologized to Paul. Roman citizenship carried with it certain privileges, wherever you happened to live in the Empire. All of this is the background of Paul’s use of the word “citizenship” in today’s passage. But Paul took that term to a higher level. It was not only Roman or for that matter any earthly citizenship that mattered for him, but rather our citizenship in heaven. That is one passport that can never be taken from us or denied us.

Our citizenship is in heaven. But it is not a “natural born” citizenship. No, by nature, we are not citizens of heaven. We are natural born sinners, doomed to die and caught in the net of the evil one. We need a new citizenship, a new birth, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. We received this new birth at our baptism – our real citizenship day when we promised to walk as children of the light and allowed ourselves to be marked with the sign of the cross and sealed with the oils of gladness. Baptism is our Nexus or Global Entry card that never has to be renewed every five years.  It is a life membership that makes us citizens of heaven.

What are the duties and obligations of such a citizenship? First of all, it reminds us that on this earth, we have no lasting city.  We will forever be sojourners, strangers and pilgrims passing through on the way to the heavenly Jerusalem. We are in the world and not of it. There will always be a certain sense of discomfort of dis-ease in us as we realize that we just don’t fit in to many of the world’s ways. Paul himself reminded us of that fact: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth.”

Heavenly citizenship, however, does not remove our responsibilities duties and obligations during our earthly sojourn. Could this be what President John Kennedy had in mind when during his inaugural address he said: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forward… asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”                         

There is significant work to be done by us during this earthly sojourn. There are people to love and serve while we journey. We have our various vocations to fulfill while we wait for our Lord Jesus to return: husband, wife, parent, child, church member, employer or employee, and yes, even citizen of this country. And as Americans, we have certain duties and responsibilities that go with that. We must pray for our governing officials, especially when we disagree with them.

Pope Francis has provided for us three good manuals to help us live as good citizens on earth as we prepare for our heavenly homeland. We know those guides or manuals by the names of Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia. I consider the three guides to be this: EG is the playbook of how we live on earth- offering us a framework for relating to God and to one another and teaching us about priorities. LS is the home that God has given us: the earth and its riches and resources.  AL offers us some important points on how to live within that home.

We must take to heart the piercing questions of Pope Francis in his encyclical letter on the Care of our Common Home: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (#160). This question is at the heart of Laudato si’. This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. This question leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the basis of social life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” Unless we struggle with these questions, we will not be good citizens. As Christians who are good citizens, we do not just withdraw into our little shell and ignore what is going on around us.  Because we are citizens of heaven, we can handle whatever comes our way here on earth. The Church to which we belong must shine with the light that lives within itself, it must go out and encounter human beings who – even though they believe that they do not need to hear a message of salvation – often find themselves afraid and wounded by life.

Pope Francis tells us time and time again that today more than ever, we need “a church that is again capable of restoring citizenship to so many of its children that walk as if in exodus. Christian citizenship is above all the result of God’s mercy. Pope Francis wants the church to be an instrument of reconciliation and welcome, a church capable of warming hearts, a church that is not bent over on herself but always seeking those on the periphery and those who are lost, a church capable of leading people home.

How can we forget the magnificent address Francis gave to the special joint session of the Congress of the United States last September 24, 2015. It was an electric moment and a profound teaching moment on good citizenship. In extolling the valiant virtues and qualities of the American people, the South American Pontiff zeroed in on four American citizens who embodied the best of our culture and history: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Lincoln, according to Francis, was “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”.  

Dr. Martin Luther King embodied the “compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”

When Francis named as one of his heroes and our heroes the servant of God, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, I had tears in my eyes.  Of this great woman Francis said: “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”

And to complete the quartet of heroes, Pope Francis offered Thomas Merton to the powerful and mighty gathered that morning in the congressional joint session. Merton for Francis, “…remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. …Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

“Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.”

Pope Francis concluded his stirring address with these words: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”

Let us hope and pray that we can imitate such good citizens and hold them up as role models for the people we love and serve during our earthly sojourn in the Church and in the City of brotherly love.

About Thomas Rosica

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