I attended Mass today at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The experience gave me pause to remember that in less than a month, I hope to arrive at the original shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico.
The Shrine of Señora de Guadalupe is my final destination on this pilgrimage. After that, I begin the journey home. Essentially what that means is that I’m on the last month of pilgrimage. In one month’s time my life will radically change yet again.
After ten and a half months of wearing the same two pairs of clothes, I’ll probably find it bizarre to have a closet, and for the closet to have options that will require me to choose what to wear that day. My feet will grow curious that there are shoes that have varying degrees of weight distribution and comfort. Food will cost more, but then again, I won’t have to fear the varying bacteria that I might ingest from eating a raw apple or carrot.
I expect that I won’t be writing a journal entry every day to be read online, and the only reason that gives me concern is that there are several things that I have learned on this pilgrimage that I don’t feel I have communicated as of yet.
Several people have noted that I continually lend my gaze toward the plight of the poor, and what the Catholic Church does, or doesn’t do, as the case may be, to respond to that plight. Perhaps I haven’t adequately described why I continue to be so vigilant about these matters.
There is a passage in the Bible from Matthew 25:31-40 which reads:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.
I have thought of that passage several times during this pilgrimage. I think it is pretty straight forward. There is going to be an end to my life, and that end will result in me being accountable for what I did during my life.
I know that Martin Luther pushed the Church to admit that it is “faith alone” that saves a Christian, and while that is true, there also the issue of how we will be judged for our faith. The preceding scripture passage from the Gospel of Matthew does not put judgment on the moments in our life when we had faith or confessed its relative depth, but indicates that there is a simple measurement which will evaluate our faith, how we treated the least of our brothers and sisters.
The more I reflect on that, the more that I have to face the reality that my ultimate judgment will not be determined by the kind of car I drove, the size of my bank account, or who were my most distinguished friends. I will not be judged on my stock portfolio, what schools I attended, or the exclusivity of the social clubs to which I belonged. I will not be judged on my appearance or my clothes. I will not be judged on whether I had a few extra pounds.
I will not be judged upon a lot of things with which I selfishly seem to occupy my thoughts and actions from day to day. Apparently, I will also not be judged for the mistakes that I made, which is good.
I will neither be judged for how many countries have stamped my passport, nor how many shrines I have visited. I will not be judged for how many times I went to Mass, kept a Holy Hour, invoked a saint, or said the Rosary.
I will be judged on what I did for the least of my brothers and sisters, because they are Christ.
The last realization is challenging to a pilgrim, because the point of a pilgrimage is to visit shrines, go to Mass, to keep Holy Hours, and to pray, but these activities are neither done for their own sake, nor for attaining salvation. They are exercises, more specifically they are spiritual exercises, which strengthen the individual for the work that will ultimately determine his/her final judgment.
There are a lot of good people in the world who do a lot of good things. They provide services to others. There are social workers who obviously help the least of our brothers and sisters, but when you really look at the big picture… police officers keep law and order, which helps the least from being exploited, teachers educate in schools, which give the least opportunity, farmers grow food, which is fed to the least, and so on and so forth. There are many ways that an individual can serve the least among them. It doesn’t always have to be Mother-Theresa-type charity, but it still require Mother Theresa type spiritual exercise. If we do not care for our spiritual life, our faith, the work of helping the least, even for a social worker, can falter.
On the other hand, there are those who have a vibrant spiritual life. They may understand the Bible and Catechism better than the Pope. They may go to every religious shrine in the world. They may stand up in front of the Church and give witness to the assembly of heaven about the power of God. They may know the story of every saint, and pray for their intercession with the constancy of the ocean waves, but if they do not love and serve the least among them, their judgment will be harshly given. Spiritual exercise is only useful to a person’s ultimate judgment in so far as it manifests itself in activity that serves the least among us.
Spiritual exercises are done for the same reason that physical exercise is done. Physical exercise is done so that the body will be prepared for the physical demands placed upon it. A baseball player or football player goes to the gym for exercises, and the exercises are not done for their own sake, but so the athlete will be ready to play well, and be victorious.
An individual’s participation in preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven will always be dependant upon their unique gifts, used to serve the least among us. There are many ways to serve the least among us, and though I do from time to time surrender my resources directly to the poor, it is not my primary way of serving the least among us. One of my gifts is to be a storyteller. By telling stories of the poor, by being a voice for those who cannot speak, I participate in an association, informed and inspired by the Church, which speaks to the dignity of every human being. That is why I have leant a fair amount of my attention this year to the plight of the poor. When I make it to heaven, God will not judge me on whether I made a pilgrimage to see the sanctuary of Rome or to Jerusalem, but he will judge me on whether I made a pilgrimage to see the sanctuary of dignity in the least of my brothers and sisters. I pray that I will have made such a pilgrimage with all my heart.
It is the least I could do.