To us who live in a time when extremes on the left and right of the spectrum seem glaring, St. Paul comes with this counsel for keeping on course. “Do not conform yourselves to this age. But be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” To paraphrase him, “There are many currents swirling around in today’s culture. Some are God-inspired which in one way or other match up with the message of Jesus Christ Our Lord and flow along the lines of the life He holds out to us. But then there are others that not only spin away from this current, but even run directly against it. So how do you keep moving in the right direction? Let yourself be changed by continually letting new life (the life of Christ in the Spirit) come into your minds and hearts.”
A few comments on this deceptively simple advice, beginning with the example of someone who took it to heart and indeed at cost.
This past August the country of El Salvador celebrated the 100th birthday of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop assassinated while saying Mass in 1980 for his stance against a small power elite in the country who in different ways had been excluding the poor and underprivileged. He has recently been declared Blessed Oscar Romero, and under Pope Francis will likely be canonized a saint in the coming year.
His is a story of someone who allowed his heart to be renewed, and when responding to that new heart ran afoul of certain embedded beliefs in his society. In Paul’s words, Romero’s attitudes and behaviors did not conform itself to its age.
He started out on a conventional path, polite and self-effacing, making no waves. In his early years as bishop he moved comfortably among the prosperous and powerful. But then because of happenings in the wider Church community, along with the deepening of his own prayer life, he began to look out at his world with refocused eyes. Some of his priests had taken up the cause of the farm laborers and the indigenous peoples. At first wary because they stirred the waters, Romero gradually moved closer to their vantage points. And as he did, certain passages in the Scriptures began to sound more loudly inside him: “Whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters, you do to me.”(Mt. 25); “Is this not the kind of fasting I want: to set the oppressed free, to share your food with the hungry.”(Is. 58) “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” (Lk. 4)
A dissonance rose up in his heart and mind. The conventional wisdoms, the arguments of “Well, that’s just the way things are,” no longer squared up with what he was hearing and seeing not only around him but most importantly inside him. Paul’s words struck, “Do not conform your view of the world to the viewpoint of some in this society around you. Open up your eyes of faith and let your mind be changed.”
More and more did Romero expose himself to these influences, the Scriptures, the witness of others, the stirrings of The Spirit within. As Paul predicted, they worked to transform his point of view. And it was that changed heart which brought him into conflict with the powers that be, so much so that they conspired to execute him.
With his example and many like him, how can we hear Paul’s summons today to recalibrate our own socio-cultural outlook?
An underlying ingredient in any response would be openness.
Certainly openness to the meaning of the Scriptures, especially to the message of Jesus:
- Hearing these readings with fresh ears and pliable minds, willing to let them lead us in whatever directions they would.
- Trying to step out of our own shoes and into The Lord’s so as to see the world more as He sees it.
- Making the effort to see everyone as a child of Jesus’ Father, possessing that inner worthiness that comes with being loved and valued.
And then from this stance, assessing the various movements in the culture. We might then be able to:
- Look at the news at night and grasp it more with the eyes of a prophet like Jeremiah who didn’t want to notice what was happening in his world because it was so personally threatening. But because God moved in him he knew he had to look again, then to cry out and at cost to do something.
- Pick up the paper and read it more with the heart of the Lord Jesus who felt others’ pain and experienced the outsider’s isolation, and then stepped in, indeed at cost, to change things.
- Spot the witness given by others around us, those in whom this same disharmony has sounded and begun to transform.
This is to walk behind prophets like Jeremiah and Oscar Romero, and surely behind a Vincent de Paul who through that same mixture of prayer and experience came to discern the blindness to the marginalized in his age.
When Paul advises us to “let ourselves be transformed by the renewal of our minds,” he’s also asking us to bare ourselves to that wider range of influences streaming in from God’s Spirit. Things like: the Word of God in the Scriptures, the Sunday gathering at Eucharist, the gospel example of those around us, the promptings rising in our hearts — and indeed the witness of all those who did not go with every tide of their age but who let themselves be taken along in the current that runs down from that font of living water flowing from the crucified side of Our Lord Jesus Christ