Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

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Homily – 27 September 2015 – A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Homily – 27 September 2015 — A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Click here for today’s scriptures

Every so often an event happens, a person comes along, that makes us pause in our lives, to think and talk to each other about what really matters in life. The visit of Pope Francis is one of those occasions. Many of you have followed his apostolic journey and have your own comments and opinions. I am privileged to have this chance to share some of mine and how I thought of our parish as I listened to the Pope.

There is little doubt Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. We are moved by his humble demeanor, his non disparaging speeches, his warm smile and his focus on lifting up marginalized people to dignity. For the Pope all people matter as does our common home.

The title pope is derived from the Latin word Pontifex and means bridge builder. One of this Pope’s constructive tools is a concept known as integral ecology. He puts issues of human rights, the environment and economic justice all under one umbrella. He believes that care for our fragile planet is synonymous with caring for one another. These urgent concerns require undivided attention to assure there is a future for our children and people of all ages especially often forgotten elderly persons.

In addressing Congress he reminded us that political activity must promote the common good of all persons and be based on human dignity. This activity he claimed requires a spirit of solidarity and commitment. He graciously pointed out how four well known citizens of our country took action to assure that all people regardless of sexual orientation, class, race, creed or religion could live out their dreams without fear of rash judgement, prejudice or denial of religious and personal freedoms.

The Pope reemphasized these remarks in his speech at Independence Hall on religious liberty and immigration. “It is imperative that followers of various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and respect of others.”

There is a lot for us to think about in light of these papal nudges for living in a better way. This weekend in our parish we draw upon the memory of our patron saint, Vincent de Paul. In his lifetime France had serious problems: inflation, falling wages and rising taxes. Religious divisions at that time resulted in bloody wars. It was acceptable practice for Catholics to kill Calvinists and to be openly anti-Semitic. In this context Vincent and co-worker Louis de Marillac built bridges to ease the pain especially for those who were most vulnerable.

Today we keep St. Vincent’s memory kept alive by working in the food pantry, sharing resources and love with RISSE, [1] ministering to those in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, supporting our sister parish in Panama and innumerable unnoticed acts of kindness toward one another. Here in this parish we do our best not only when we gather to worship God but also by our cooperation with other agencies in the Capital District.

The Pope urged the United Nations General Assembly not to be satisfied with merely identifying problems, making to do lists, drawing up proposals or even writing checks. He encouraged the members to take action, to stop environmental degradation which causes human degradation. He called upon all of us to lead lifestyles that do not deprive others of the same goods and opportunities that we cherish.

In his homily at the liturgy in Madison Square Garden the Pope called  us to be purveyors of “A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others.” This afternoon our young brothers and sisters will learn about building relationships, tearing down walls that divorce people from greater opportunities in life. We imagine our youths will discuss not only those issues that they worry about but also the concerns the Pope encouraged all of us to ponder.

In the first reading today we heard how God shared the spirit given to Moses and Miriam with other people in the tribe. Moses wondered wouldn’t it be nice if all of God’s people were prophets. (The word “prophet” here does not mean someone foretelling the future. It means, rather, someone who tells it like it is.) The disciples in the gospel were not of the same mind. They were suspicious of others outside their club who were also doing good work. Jesus encouraged them to understand that good deeds are welcomed no matter who carries them out. It was an “invitation to the disciples to look away from their own distinctiveness and privilege to find goodness wherever it exists.” [2]

Jesus’ mission grew out of an apocalyptic worldview. His prophetic sharpness was derived from the seriousness of the issues at stake. This is the same agenda that Pope Francis has. The Pope said “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” I think the Pope was talking to all of us — to be prophetic, to care for others, to be bridges over those troubled waters that drown people in oppression. It is a call to take action to lift the lowly up out of despair and lead them to new horizons filled with hope and mercy.


1. Refugees & Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, Inc. is housed in St. Vincent de Paul church.

2. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 153-155



Homily – 13 September 2015 – I Am Because You Are

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time  – I Am Because You Are

Click here for today’s scripture readings

The recent discovery of the skeletons in the South African Rising Star cave system has created a lot of excitement for scientists. The species naledi has been classified in the genus homo to which we humans belong. Some researchers already are saying it could change the way we think about our human ancestors. Could it also change the way we think about one another?

In today’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples “who do you say I am?” Peter answers “you are the Christ” which means the anointed one. In Hebrew it means “messiah” or the liberator of a group. Jesus is quoted as using the phrase “I am” a lot in the bible. I am bread, light, shepherd, gateway, vine, truth, life.

Curious about the words “I am” and what they might mean for us today I learned another South African piece of information. The words “I am” also mean “you are.” I am because you are! This concept, known as ubuntu, emerged in the 19th century and developed as a world view for South Africans when apartheid was legislated in the early 1950s. It literally stands for human-ness or humanity toward others. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said ubuntu means “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Nelson Mandela wrote “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” Ubuntu then is a philosophy of interdependence.

Jesus sensed he would soon face a trial and be executed for crimes against the Roman state. He challenged his listeners to continue his mission, to take up the same cross. That cross for us is not so much a reminder of what happened to Jesus but a symbol of local and global injustices. It stands in our midst in this church prompting us to respond, to pick it up, if you will, and carry it together.

The current tide of refugees migrating to Israel and Europe is a huge global problem. It challenges the notion of “I am, You Are.” Countries are erecting physical, cultural and political walls to keep people out. President Obama announced that our country will accept 10,000 refugees from Syria next year. This is a gracious but small gesture for a country that has yet to fix its own broken immigration laws.

Sometimes these situations are so overwhelming we do not know what to do? Yet we know from our experiences that humans do rise to the occasion to help people in need. This past July 2015 a New York Times article reported that when many lives are at stake we will and should feel more empathetic and do more to help. 

The same studies however point out that we play favorites, that our empathy is dampened when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. Empathy, the writers report, can be a source of moral failure that will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.

The second reading is attributed to James the brother of Jesus. It is a ethical exhortation based on oral traditions and was probably addressed to those who oppressed poor people with acts of greed and power. It reminds you and me that faith flourishes when coupled with good works.

Later this month we will celebrate the memory of our patron Vincent de Paul. Historically we have created opportunities in this parish that connect faith and good works. Traditionally we all try to do something.

The astonishing discovery of the skeletons in South Africa, in what seems to be a burial vault, suggests that primitive beings were capable of ritual behavior and maybe symbolic thought. One scientist, Prof. Lee Berger exclaimed, “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human.” 

The finding in that Johannesburg cave reminds us that we have much in common with our primitive ancestors and all human beings. Maybe our dependence on one another is what Jesus meant when he said “I am.” As Christians we identify with that revelation. I am because you are.