God Talk 101: Immigration, St. Benedict & Welcoming the Stranger (Part 1/2)






Liturgical Catechesis: On solemn Masses, why do we incense the Book of the Gospel, bishop/priest, and the people?

They are the various ways in which Christ is “present” during the liturgy. Christ is certainly present in the bread and wine. He is present in the Office of the Bishop/Priest. He is present in the symbol of the Holy Cross (as well as the paschal candle during Easter and funerals). He is present in His Word, especially in the Book of the Gospels. God is also present in the congregation, the “People of God” - a term that was greatly, and uniquely, emphasized during the Second Vatican Council.


Earlier I wrote about Jonathan Merritt’s book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing-and How We Can Revive Them? I compared Merritt’s words to St. Benedict’s wisdom found in “The Rule of St. Benedict.” This week and next week I’d like to conclude our study of his work. Let’s examine a relevant and politically charged topic: immigration and the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Each year, priests are obligated to take a one-week spiritual retreat. Over the past 25 years of my priesthood, I have done this at Benedictine monasteries several times and in different countries. Hospitality is one of the charisms of Benedictine spirituality. I can personally vouch for that. I have always been welcomed and the time spent among the monks has always been enjoyable and fruitful.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been interweaving passages from the “Rule of St. Benedict” with thoughts from Jonathan Merritt’s book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch. This week let us look at how they handle the ideas of “guest” and “neighbor.”

I have heard it quoted that St. Benedict once said, “There is no such thing as a Benedictine monastery without guests.” In the Rule of St. Benedict, “Chapter 53, On the Reception of Guests,” we read,

Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (quoting Matthew. 25:35). And to all let due honor be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.

Chapter 19 of Merritt’s book, “Neighbor: Mister Rogers and the Global Refugee Crisis” opens with several stories. They are based on personal experiences by the author when he visited the Middle East. He tells the story of 13-year-old Mohamed. The youth has lived through traumatic experiences that we cannot even conceive. His cousin was killed by a sniper. When his uncle tried to assist, the uncle was killed too. Both bodies were left to decompose for days in the street. Merritt recalls similar tales told from young people in Syria and Lebanon. Merritt writes,

I recorded similar stories for nearly two weeks before returning home, where Americans were debating whether to allow Syrian refugees into our country. Arriving back to my apartment, I phoned a friend—a Christian of the southern conservative variety—to process the horrors I’d witnessed. He listened patiently to my stories and then responded, “That’s sad, but we can’t be responsible for those children. We’ve got our hands full here in America with our own problems.”

“But what if those children were your neighbors?” I asked him. “In that case, I guess I would have to do something to help them,” he said.

“And who is my neighbor?”

Listen to how guests are to be treated according to Benedict’s Rule:

As soon as a guest is announced, therefore, let the Superior or the brethren meet him with all charitable service. And first of all let them pray together, and then exchange the kiss of peace. For the kiss of peace should not be offered until after the prayers have been said, on account of the devil’s deceptions.

After the guests have been received and taken to prayer, let the Superior or someone appointed by him sit with them. Let the divine law be read before the guest for his edification, and then let all kindness be shown him. The Superior shall break his fast for the sake of a guest, unless it happens to be a principal fast day which may not be violated. The brethren, however, shall observe the customary fasts.

Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands; and let both Abbot and community wash the feet of all guests. After the washing of the feet let them say this verse: “We have received Your mercy, O God, in the midst of Your temple” (Psalm 47[48]:10).

In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received; for as far as the rich are concerned, the very fear which they inspire wins respect for them.

In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.

Merritt writes that

The English word neighbor derives from the words nigh or “near” and gebur or “dweller.” In the literal sense of the English word, a neighbor is someone who lives near you. If we are to love our neighbors, as Jesus instructed, as the second greatest commandment, we must care for those who live in close proximity to us. But in a world of hustle, bustle, and business, this simple task can seem formidable.”

Jesus’ understanding of neighbor, however, includes but also stretches beyond the fence posts of the English definition. In one of the Bible’s most famous passages, a legal expert asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

The Samaritan in Jesus’ story didn’t dwell near the victim. Samaritans lived and worshipped in a segregated community, so he almost certainly didn’t reside in close proximity to the bedraggled man. He just happened to be on the same road that day. So Jesus’ definition of neighbor seems to be “anyone who is in need.” They can live across the street …

…or ten thousand miles away in Lebanon or Syria.

Who is my neighbor?

Jonathan Merritt then takes us on a fascinating journey with the man who was arguably America’s most famous ”neighbor.” To find out who that is, watch this space next week.



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