The angel had brought this announcement to Zechariah: “13 But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John:14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity.” (Luke 1:13-14).
Among the many who rejoiced at this birth are the citizens of Florence who chose St. John the Baptist as the Patron Saint of the city. Since ancient times the Baptistery of San Giovanni, “my beautiful San Giovanni” as Dante Alighieri calls it (Inf. XIX, 17), is ideal in the centre of the city, the custody of its highest values of faith and civilisation, a bond that connects the different generations to each other.
The solemnity that we celebrated on Sunday the 24th of June 2018, (I was a day late posting this article) revives in us the memory of the extraordinary gifts that have made the history of the city of Florence so glorious and incomparable and moves us to thank God for so many gifts.
The Gospel account we have heard of the birth focuses on the name to be given to the child. “John is his name”, his father Zachariah peremptorily writes on the tablet. John means “Yahweh is gracious, shows his benevolence”.
Trusting fully in the intercession of their Patron Saint; the Florentines invoke God’s blessing so that they may continue their historical journey in full fidelity to their singular religious and civil vocation.
In this perspective of joy and hope I address my homily to our Archbishop, the Most Reverend Alistair Bate, his auxiliaries, our diocesan clergy and the religious of our diocese and to all my readers who presently read my blog, also to the people who are called John, Giovanni, Jehanne, Jeanne, Joan and other derivatives in their many variations, with special affection I want to assure them of my, our brothers priests, the religious and St. Mary’s Hermitage’s spiritual closeness to all of you.
Celebrating the nativity of St. John the Baptist means rediscovering our reasons for joy and hope, but also allows us to question and take active responsibility of his teachings and the person he was, with the aim of guiding us personally in our daily lives.
In the I reading, from the book of Isaiah, we have heard: “Give ear, ye islands, and hearken, ye people from afar. The Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother he hath been mindful of my name.” (Isaiah 49:1). In other words: God thought of me before I was born, He loved me, He gave me a personal identity and a mission to fulfil.
Science highlights that the embryo is programmed to contain future development with all its fundamental characteristics. It is an undertaking of nature. But before that it is an undertaking of God and of his creative love. “The Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother he hath been mindful of my name from the womb of my mother he pronounced my name.” Therefore our relationship with God is constitutive of the human person.
Science further proves that the embryo, immediately after conception, is a new life, distinct from that of the mother, a life that will develop without interruption unless we get involved. Nothing suggests that the embryo is not already an individual of the human species and therefore it has a dignity of a person. It therefore deserves respect and protection from the very first moment.
Abortion, whether surgical or pharmacological, violates the first of the fundamental rights of the person, which is that of life. The Church does not fail to remind us of it, faithful to the teachings received from the apostle Paul: “ 2 Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. 3 For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: 4 And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
The widespread tendency to justify and trivialise abortion can not but worry a Christian conscience. Everyone is called to commit himself, according to his possibilities, to create more favourable conditions for the reception of nascent life. Moreover, for those who do not want to cooperate in the suppression of it, the right to conscientious objection must be claimed and firmly defended. I must add that just because a government makes laws in favour of abortion does NOT make it morally right nor pleasing to a God.
In the second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard a part of the discourse given by the Apostle Paul to Antioch of Pisidia during his first missionary journey. “ 23 Of this man’s seed God according to his promise, hath raised up to Israel a Saviour, Jesus: 24 John first preaching, before his coming, the baptism of penance to all the people of Israel.” (Acts 13:23-24).
John has preached a baptism of penance, that is of (μετάνοια) metanoia, of changing ones mind, of conversion. In the Gospel we find some features of this preaching. To the crowds John said: “He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner.” To the publicans he said: “Do nothing more than that which is appointed you.” To the Roman soldiers: “Do violence to no man; neither calumniate any man; and be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:11 & 3:13-14).
John therefore did not ask to change profession, not even to publicans and soldiers, but to practice justice and solidarity.
What does this mean for us today? What sort of conversion would John ask of us?
Surely he would warn us against the temptations of maddening consumerism. He would exhort us to a sober style of personal and family life, in order to generously share our goods with those in need and the poor.
With regard to the occurrences of migration, which is constantly in the news or being talked about for the last few years, he would ask us to adopt an attitude that is able to reconcile as much as possible the generous reception of a people in need within the confines of legality and public order.
More generally, he would stimulate us to engage in cultural, economic and political efforts to reduce the gap between rich and poor countries. Obviously in the dynamic economy of today, it is no longer simply a matter of redistributing wealth, (but it could be a start) but of helping to produce it, promoting education and the acquisition of new work skills, fostering democratic growth, directing international finance to create job opportunities, opening markets to products from underprivileged and poor countries.
Practicing justice and solidarity in our relationships between people and between nations: that is a summary of the conversion desired by St. John the Baptist. But conversion is not just these. The Gospel tells another significant point in the preachings of St. John the Baptist, the one that cost him his life.
To Herod Antipas, who had repudiated his first wife Phasaelis and whilst she was still alive took as wife Horodias who was married to his brother Philip, John boldly addressed them with stern reproach, he made sure he was heard by the people and by Herod and Herodias: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:18).
John therefore defends marriage and the family. Consider the relationship between two people of social importance, regulated by law, and not simply as a private contractual matter. [N.B.: I must stress that in this day and age a family can be comprised of “man and woman, two men or two women” who themselves raise families which are stable and productive as a family unit.. (whilst many religious organisations may not recognise that same sex couples now also have legal rights which are also covered by the state and the UCHR) we as a church have a duty to be inclusive regardless of our personal views, and when we say family we must include them in our statements, for if we did not we would be remiss in our duty to the family and we would be perpetuating an unfounded bigotry which most certainly has no place within Christianity nor within society as a whole today. Therefore it is not necessary when talking about a family, to constantly underline the phrase with a married man and woman as today this is no longer the dynamic of a family unit.]
The family, is really a social form with its own and irreplaceable functions of fundamental importance. The stability of the relationship, the generating or adoption of children, the educational commitment towards them, the mutual assistance among all the members of the family constitute his precious contribution to the good of society.
The state of health of people and of the social fabric is strongly conditioned by the quality of family relationships. Experience shows that various forms of disadvantage, especially for youth, and social disintegration are linked to the family in crisis. Not to mention the demographic decline and the consequent ageing of the population: in 40 years people over 65 are expected to comprise half of the population, while currently this figure is actually a quarter; this signals very serious human, social and economic problems for us in the future.
Given its relevance for the whole of society, the family has the right to be protected and supported by public institutions. The laws of the United Kingdom states it: “In the UK, human rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Act enforces the human rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to respect for your family and private life, your home and your correspondence is one the rights protected by the Human Rights Act.” (Article 8). By family life UK law further explains “Family life includes the right to have and maintain family relationships.” The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights solemnly affirms this: “The family is the natural and fundamental nucleus of society and has the right to be protected by society and the state.” And finally, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child reaffirmed: “The family, the fundamental unit of society and the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of all its members and in particular children, must receive the protection and assistance needed to fully fulfil its educational role in the community.”
The primacy of the family, however it is comprised, must be fundamentally protected at a cultural, judicial, social and economic level. For this reason, a preferential fast track should be reserved for them, like road traffic, with public service vehicles having a special fast lanes compared to private ones.
By way of example, some forms of support are particularly desirable, such as home facilities for young couples, reforms that promote job opportunities for young people, harmonisation as much as possible of the needs of the family for those at work, taxation commensurate with overall family income, significant reduction of the tax burden on the basis of the number of dependent children, so that families with children are not penalised compared to those without children, parity that ensures effective freedoms of choice without additional burdens for families.
The family is not a remnant of the past, but it is a fundamental resource for the future.
I can not but express gratitude to the many exemplary families, even in our church, who make my homily credible with them being daily witnesses, they are a source of hope for the Church and for civil society.
I would also like to encourage Associations that pursue the spiritual and the material good of the family and endeavour to recognise the wider rights of citizenship in local, national and European spheres, I would like to say globally but that would make this a dream rather than a reality.
Finally I like to recall that a prominent part has the family in a pastoral letter which was published in 2003 in my old Diocese in Italy, “Evangelising today: Christian community and ministries”. The pastoral letter outlined a broader perspective: the Church sent to bring the Gospel with actions in life and words; all Christians called to evangelise in all environments; the necessity of some specific shepherd coordinated ministries. However, in analysing the current situation with all its challenges and opportunities, it emphasises that the family is the natural and privileged interlocutor of the parish and should be placed at the centre of ordinary pastoral care, in particular by seriously involving parents in the Christian initiation of their children.
While I entrust to your reflection these considerations that the solemnity of Saint John the Baptist has suggested to me, I invoke upon all of you that kindness and grace of the Lord which is indicated by the very name of our patron Saint John the Baptist.
Lord God, you sent the prophets,
servants of your word,
we praise you and thank you
for the person and the preaching of St. John the Baptist.
Welcoming his message,
we want to convert to truth, justice and love.
We want to live with joy in your presence,
aware that you are a God of grace,
benevolent and merciful. Amen.