To listen to today’s homily please select the audio file below:
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” someone asks Jesus on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, described in Luke’s gospel, our Mass reading today. He doesn’t answer the question, but instead tells his listeners to respond immediately to God’s call when they hear it.
Why was the question asked anyway, you wonder? Was it because the response wasn’t great when Jesus made his way to Jerusalem? In our first reading Isaiah predicts people from all nations will flock to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. Were those who followed Jesus few in number then?
Will the response to Jesus sometimes be the same?
The journey of Jesus to Jerusalem never ends, we believe. It goes on through time as Christian missionaries go through other towns, places, even continents. It took place when European explorers, settlers and missionaries brought faith in Jesus Christ to peoples in North America who never knew him.
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Early Christian missionaries may have asked that as they reviewed their attempts to evangelize the native peoples of North America. Historians estimate about 50 million Indians lived in North America before the arrival of Europeans. A hundred years later, only 10 percent survived, mainly because of diseases brought by the newcomers. In a hundred or so years, as European settlers increased in number, most of the native tribes in eastern North America were forced westward or destroyed by war or small pox brought by the Europeans.
Coming to the new world, Catholic missionaries like the Jesuits and Franciscans hoped, not only to convert the native peoples to Christianity, but some thought they might create a fresh, vibrant Christian civilization, without the ancient antagonisms and rivalries of Europe. They looked for new Pentecost, but it did not seem to come.
Their harvest wasn’t great. The two civilizations were very different. The sense of superiority the Europeans brought, colonialism, and the diseases that decimated the native population made the native peoples question Christianity. It seemed to be a faith that brought death not life.
I hope to visit soon the National Museum of the American Indian, located in the old customs house across from Battery Park near the ferry in New York City, a good place to remember the native peoples in the story of America. They were the first the Europeans traded with; they were their guides into an unknown land. The native peoples provided new foods for growing populations in Africa, Europe and America. They had a greater respect for the land than those who came after them. Their story is now largely forgotten.
At the museum I’ll remember St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a native American who lived along the Mohawk River past Albany, New York. She offers an insight into the culture and social world of the native peoples. Smallpox brought by the Europeans disfigured and partially blinded her. Other diseases like tuberculosis, measles and malaria brought death to large numbers of native peoples, who were diminished further by wars and greed for Indian lands.
At the museum I’ll also remember Father Isaac Jogues, the fearless Jesuit missionary, who was eventually killed by the Mohawks at Ossernonon (Auriesville), past Albany on the Mohawk River. A strong faith in Christ brought him to the New World where he experienced the clash of cultures as Christianity entered a native American world. Fleeing from Indian captivity, he came here to New Amsterdam (New York) in 1643 and was put on a ship for France by a kindly Dutch minister. A few years later, he returned still eager to bring the Christian faith to the native peoples, but was killed in 1646.
He wanted them to know Jesus Christ.
What do these old examples say about our mission today as disciples of Jesus to make him known? “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age,” Jesus says. (Matthew 28,16-20) What does that mean today?
Some today tell us to think more positively of cultures like that of the American native peoples. Some say Christians should simply be present in these cultures and silently profess their faith and work for the common good. Some even say we should not evangelize at all.
Certainly, the Spirit of God has been active in humanity from the beginning and we have missed God’s gifts in cultures and religions not our own. The church today recognizes the good in other religions “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate, 2) . Still, it regards them as a “preparation for the gospel.” (Lumen gentium 16)
“The church is missionary by her very nature.” (Ad gentes 2) She is called to both dialogue respectfully, work for the common good and proclaim her belief.
We’re not only speaking of other cultures and religions, of course. What about our own culture, which is becoming increasingly resistant to Christian belief? How do we dialogue respectfully and proclaim our belief to our own, our young people, those who are drifting away?
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”