“The Way of Love: From Accountability to Restoration to the Fullness of Life”
Homily for the Police-Fire-Sheriff Mass
September 10, 2023
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “A”
St. Anne of the Sunset Catholic Church
Last Friday our Cathedral Conference Center hosted a “Re-Entry Conference,” an event designed to bring together people who work on assisting the incarcerated in their transition back into society, giving them the resources and supports they need to turn their lives around and reintegrate into society as productive citizens. The real life stories of those who have accomplished this transition are truly inspiring.
I heard from a young woman and also a young man who are studying for their AA degree with a view to going on to earn their BA and become social workers, so that they can give back to society what was given to them. I met another young man who, after being released, graduated from San Francisco State and is now an ordained minister in his church and helping others to turn their lives around. And then there was the 70-year-old gentleman who had recently been paroled after spending 42 years in prison and has begun rebuilding his life, looking to get an education and prepare to enter the workforce it. I was amazed at his serenity and positive outlook on life.
Principles of Restoration
This is a different kind of approach to crime and punishment than what we are accustomed to, but not new. We see the basis for it in Jesus’ teaching in the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel we just heard proclaimed, a teaching that gives preference to reconciliation and rehabilitation whenever possible.
This teaching is based on the reality that whenever a crime occurs – or, for that matter, any kind of a physical disaster, whether natural or man-made – it causes a disruption to the community, a wound to society. Where such harms occur due to human fault, two principles are necessary to heal the wound: accountability and restoration. Pope Francis spoke to this in an address he gave four years ago to the participants at the World Congress of the International Association of Penal Law (November 15, 2019). He told them:
In every crime there is an injured party and there are two damaged links: that of the person responsible for the crime with his victim, and that of the perpetrator with society….
Our societies are called to advance towards a model of justice based on dialogue, on encounter, so that wherever possible, the bonds damaged by the crime may be restored and the damage repaired.
“Whenever possible”, he says: damage can be repaired, but it depends on those most immediately affected – perpetrator and victim – and on the wider society, that it have the determination to provide the mechanisms and supports – material, spiritual and cultural – for this to happen. And it happens on a continuum. You, my dear brothers and sisters in uniform, are the first responders, you are the first step in this continuum: you intervene when a crime occurs or immediately upon notice of an emergency involving some kind of a physical disaster or threat. After that, the repair work begins, whether that means the justice system with all of the officials carrying out the myriad roles of service for that to work, or those who provide economic and career opportunities, or those who provide physical, emotional, practical and moral support, or those who give spiritual care. Ultimately, it is spiritual resolve and stamina that will get both sides through the process and arrive at healing and reconciliation.
The Debt of Love
In the case of a crime, that healing is possible only when there is first accountability. That means that those guilty must be arrested and have a punishment that fits the crime meted out to them. This is “owning up” to what has happened; in a word, honesty. However, if the process were to stop there, it would fall short of the ultimate goal. The only way to get there, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, is the way of love: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Those who inflict a wound on an innocent person wound society, and so must pay their debt to society; but we all, everyone, owe a debt of love that we must pay, always. As the early Church Father Origin put it, “The debt of love remains with us permanently and never leaves us; this is a debt which we both discharge every day and forever owe.” But, one might rightfully ask, why?
It is because we owe a debt to God incurred by the disobedience our first parents, resulting in the condition of sin and mortality into which we are born. But this debt is too great; we cannot pay that debt on our own. We owe it, but cannot pay it without God. So God, because of His great love for us, became one of us, a human being, through the birth of His Son, so that, as a man, he could pay the debt that we never could without Him.
This is why St. Paul says: “The Commandments … are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’,” and, therefore, “love is the fulfillment of the law” – that is, our love for God expresses itself in fulfilling our duties toward Him, and it is fulfilled in showing love toward our neighbors. So, although we can never repay the debt we owe to God, we can express our gratitude by paying the debt of love that we owe to one another – indeed, we must, for otherwise our love of God is unfulfilled.
Centrality of God
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: in reality, none of us is innocent – in the sense that we all have that debt of sin to pay to God, which He paid for us. That opens for us the path to eternal life, and so, also, how to live rightly and righteously in this world.
We can take a lesson from the prophet Ezekiel. God tells him: “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” In the ancient world watchtowers were set up in vineyards and fields in order to watch out for wild animals and enemies at harvest time; they were also placed on top of hills to serve as a defense system, where the watchman could warn the people of foreign invaders. The watchman can see far, and so could see the enemy, or any approaching danger, off in the distance and so warn the people.
Here, God sets up Ezekiel as His watchman, to warn the people of the encroaching danger of their infidelity to the Covenant He made with them and the disaster it would cause them if they did not heed the message and turn back to Him. Ezekiel is prophesying here right before the fall of the Kingdom of Judah to foreign powers: Babylon is at their doorstep, about to pounce on them and destroy the holy city Jerusalem.
There were other watchmen who saw the danger, but they were pushing for a military rebellion. Ezekiel called for a reform of religion, a call to the people to turn away from the false gods of their powerful idol-worshipping neighbors and return to the one, true God, placing Him and the Covent He made with them back to the center of society. Ezekiel understood that the solution lay not in in the political ambitions of the people, who wanted to be like their powerful neighbors, but rather in a return to integrity and virtue, living in a way that was true to being the people God called them to be.
Likewise for us: the solution is to return God to the center of our lives, of our communities, of our society. And that path is paved with the sacrifices of love. It means imitating the example of Jesus himself, who gave his all for us, even though he had nothing to gain back from it.
Today we commemorate those of your ranks who have followed that example in the most literal way possible, who have died so that others might live. Indeed, as we know well, this Mass has its origins in the commemoration of the four San Francisco firefighters (Charles P. Lynch, John Borman, Albert Hudson, and Walter Elvitsky) who perished in the effort to save the people trapped in the Herbert Hotel when it went up in flames in the middle of the night on July 30, 1946. Others were injured, and police officers also worked to rouse the people out of the hotel as the firefighters fought the blaze, together saving the lives of more than 200 hotel guests.
You all take this risk every day, a risk that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated. But we in this church today are here, praying with you and for you, to say “thank you.” We recognize that the names on this list could be any one of you. For all of us, we are who we are and we do what we do all by the grace of God. As Pope Francis told his listeners in that address I mentioned a few moments ago, “All of you … need the help of God, the source of all reason and justice.”
Let us then turn to God anew, turning away from the idols of our own time and placing the true God at the center of our society, our communities, our families and our individual lives. His way is the way of love, modeled for us by His Son, the way that holds us accountable for our wrongdoing but offers forgiveness, healing and peace to the repentant, restoring us to the fullness of life. Let us walk in the way of that love, that we might live well in this life, and live in perfect happiness forever in the life that is to come. Amen.