[homily given at St Mary of the Snows, Palazzola, Albano, Italy]
In this ‘Year of Faith,’ that the Church has called us to, I’ve chosen in my parish to follow a pattern of preaching on the Catechism — an attempt, at least, to teach about the whole of the Catholic faith, the Catechism cover to cover. And not only to deliver them to my parishioners, but to upload them also to the internet, for anyone else interested. So, in fact, I will continue that here also at Palazzola, even though in some sense for you, we just land in the middle of this cycle. We find ourselves at Section III, The Commandments: presently at no. 7: “Thou shalt not steal.”
As with each of the commandments, and in keeping with all that Our Lord preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, the commandments are to be kept not in a minimal way, but to the greatest extent possible. So, when we hear the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” we’re not just to say, “OK, that’s alright, I’ve definitely not broken into anyone’s home; and I’ve done no shoplifting … I think I’m clean on that one”!! This commandment stretches in the Catechism to over 60 paragraphs: to cover the world of owning and possessions, of the dignity of employment, workers’ and employers’ rights and duties, the fair wage, care for the environment and the wholesome treatment of animals, political engagement … in a word the whole panoply of social justice. We can’t treat all this vast area of human moral life in one homily, but we’ll say what we can.
Here at Palazzola — especially in the summer — we are conscious that the Pope’s summer residence in there, over on the other side of Lake Albano, at Castel Gandolfo. We’re also conscious that Pope Francis is not in fact there, being today in Brazil for the culminating day of the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. Repeatedly, and notedly, in these first months as the Holy Father, Pope Francis has made reference to poverty, urging the Church to keep it high on the agenda. He did so again, this week, to the clergy of Brazil, urging them not to neglect the people of the favelas, the shanty towns, but to bring them also the Gospel, and with the Gospel, too, some hope and dignity of better conditions. Throughout the Church’s history we have been concerned for the poor: think of the collections that St Paul made on his missionary journeys to sustain the poor back in the Church’s birthplace in Judaea. Countless saints have lived and worked in conditions of poverty — I’ve come here directly from Lourdes, so St Bernadette is an obvious example; her family lived in a hovel unfit even for use as a prison cell, at the time of the apparitions. And then there are the saints who have given up great wealth and inheritance to embrace poverty — St Francis is perhaps the most famous example here in Italy; but then the early Jesuit St Aloysius Gonzaga did the same; and the two Queens, Elizabeth of Hungary and Elizabeth of Portugal both gave vast amounts of their royal wealth to serve the poor, and each did so with their own hands. The Catechism says,
2444 “The Church’s love for the poor . . . is a part of her constant tradition.” This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to “be able to give to those in need.” It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.
It is against the 7th commandment, then, to withhold from the poor what they need for life. It is to steal from them what is rightly theirs, the dignity of being fed and sheltered. At the end of term, one of my Primary schools performed a version of ‘Robin Hood.’ I guess I was a bit uncomfortable with the theme, since his mantra is to “steal from the rich to give to the poor,” and stealing is clearly wrong. His concern for the poor is good, but his methods may not have been … But I was then rather surprised at the directness of another of the Catechism’s provisions:
2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.
Not exactly advocating “St Robin Hood” … but certainly making us think. The goods of the world are not ours in an absolute sense, but are given us by the Lord to use justly and with charity, and for the benefit of all mankind. We are stewards of what we possess, and not outright owners. Nothing that we ‘own’ has been earned by us in the beginning: all of it is simple put here, the resources of the earth. St John Chrysostom expresses this often in his golden-tongued homilies:
2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”: When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
We are on holiday here — a good thing, to allow ourselves the time for recreation and the rebuilding of our relationship with God and with one another in the peaceful setting of a vacation. Maybe it is awkward for us, then, to have to ponder the issues of poverty and our duty to the poor. But it’s no bad thing to take time to consider: what do I do for the poor? Do I give to charity to the extent that I should, given the 7th Commandment; I must not use my goods as if I had no concern for my poor brother and sister. I always think that the Lenten model — the model used by CaFOD for its fast days — is a good one: to give up something, so as to be able to give what is saved to the poor. In that way we are both simplifying our own lives, and making provision for others in their need. As we enjoy the peace and the prayer of Palazzola together, let’s not neglect the poor too. Let’s set ourselves that task of thinking through: am I making the right use of my money day by day? Am I using the good things God has given me, to help those who have less? We are one pilgrim people in this world; am I lifting up my poor brother and sister and helping him or her on this path of life?