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On Good Citizenship

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

July 9, 2018
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 24, 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)
We all know how good citizenship, civic involvement, and concern for the common good are so important and necessary for society. Citizenship has been front and center in the news over the past few years. We have listened to inciting talk from political leaders who preach a message of fear rather than national unity. We have heard much about migrants, refugees, borders, walls, and citizenship. There has been much rhetoric and threats about keeping non-citizens out or how to deport those within our borders illegally to their homelands. Horrific stories of children separated from their parents and housed in metal cages in detention centers along the US southern border have shocked the world. Many are living in trepidation and fear for their very lives as government officials, acting in the name of law and under the guise of national security, have engendered unprecedented waves of xenophobia and racism. The worldwide refugee crisis that has impacted all of us is also a shocking story of desired citizenship and justice and freedom. Citizenship is at the forefront of the thinking of many people throughout the world at this moment in history.
Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos island, Greece (Photo credit: Ggia)
Long ago, St. Paul, the Apostle to the Nations, addressed his beloved community at Philippi [3:12-21] about another citizenship which transcends that of the nations on earth. Paul reminded the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.” The matter of citizenship was a very important one for the inhabitants of Philippi because that city, located in Macedonia, had become a Roman colony. This meant that a large number of Roman citizens lived in Philippi, especially many retired military officers. When Paul and Silas first arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey, they caused quite a scene and were subsequently imprisoned in shackles. That very night there was a large earthquake, and both Paul and Silas were set free. They even managed to convert the Philippian jailer and his family. The following morning, Paul complained to the city officials of Philippi, reminding them that he was a Roman citizen! Paul accused them of mistreating him.  They apologized to Paul. Roman citizenship carried with it certain privileges, wherever one happened to live in the Empire. All of this is the background of Paul’s use of the word “citizenship”. It was not only Roman or for that matter any earthly citizenship that mattered for him but rather heavenly citizenship. That is one passport or national identity that can never be taken from us or denied us.
Our citizenship is in heaven, but this is not a “natural born” citizenship. By nature, we are not citizens of heaven. We are natural born sinners, doomed to die and caught in the net of the evil one. We need a new citizenship, a new birth, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Christians receive this new birth at baptism – our real citizenship day when we promise to walk as children of the light and allow ourselves to be marked with the sign of the cross and sealed with the oils of gladness. Baptism is our Nexus or Global Entry card that never has to be renewed.  It is a life membership that makes us citizens of heaven.
What are the duties and obligations of such a citizenship? First of all, it reminds us that on this earth, we have no lasting city.  We will forever be sojourners, strangers, and pilgrims passing through on the way to the heavenly Jerusalem. We are in the world and not of it. There will always be a certain sense of discomfort, of dis-ease, in us as we realize that we just don’t fit into many of the world’s ways. Paul himself reminded us of that fact: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth.”
Heavenly citizenship, however, does not remove our responsibilities duties and obligations during our earthly sojourn. Isn’t this what US President John F. Kennedy had in mind when during his inaugural address he said: "With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forward... asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."
There is significant work to be done by us during this earthly sojourn. There are people to love, serve, care for, and protect while we journey. We have our various vocations to fulfill while we wait for our Lord Jesus to return: husband, wife, parent, child, church member, employer or employee, and yes, even citizen of land of birth or land of residence. Each of us has certain duties and responsibilities that go with that. We must pray for our governing officials, especially when we disagree with them and when they are downright wrong in decisions and actions.
Over the past five years, Pope Francis has provided for us three good manuals to help us live as good citizens on earth as we prepare for our heavenly homeland. We know those guides or manuals by the names of Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia. I consider the three guides to be this: EG is the playbook of how we live on earth - offering us a framework for relating to God and to one another and teaching us about priorities. LS is the home that God has given us: the earth and its riches and resources.  AL offers us some important instruction, advice and encouragement on how to live within that home.
Laudato Si’
We must heed the piercing questions of Pope Francis in his encyclical letter on the care of our common home: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (#160). This question is at the heart of Laudato Si’. This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. This question leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the basis of social life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” Unless we struggle with these questions, we will not be good citizens. A ray of hope flows through the entire encyclical Laudato Si’, which gives a clear message: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (#13). “Men and women are still capable of intervening positively” (#58). “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start” (#205).
As Christians who are good citizens, we do not just withdraw into our little, protective, safe shells and ignore what is going on around us.  Because we are citizens of heaven, we can handle whatever comes our way here on earth. The Church to which we belong must shine with the light that lives within itself. It must go out and encounter human beings who – even though they believe that they do not need to hear a message of salvation – often find themselves afraid and wounded by life.
Pope Francis tells us time and time again that today more than ever we need “a Church that is again capable of restoring citizenship to so many of its children that walk as if in exodus.” Christian citizenship is above all the result of God’s mercy. Pope Francis wants the Church to be an instrument of reconciliation and welcome, a Church capable of warming hearts, a Church that is not bent over on herself but always seeking those on the periphery and those who are lost, a Church capable of leading people home.
How can we forget the provocative, stunning address Francis gave to the special joint session of the Congress of the United States on September 24, 2015. It was an electric environment and a profound teaching moment on good citizenship. In extolling the valiant virtues and qualities of the American people, the South American Pontiff zeroed in on four American citizens who embodied the best of our culture and history: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
Pope Francis enters the U.S. House Chamber to address a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 24, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Lincoln, according to Francis, was “the guardian of liberty, who laboured tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom’.” Dr. Martin Luther King embodied the “compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
When Francis named as one of his heroes and our heroes the Servant of God, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, I had tears in my eyes.  Of this great woman Francis said: “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
And to complete the quartet of heroes, Pope Francis offered Thomas Merton to the powerful and mighty gathered that morning in the congressional joint session. Merton for Francis, “…remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. …Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
“Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.”
Pope Francis concluded his stirring address with these words: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
Let us hope and pray that we can imitate such good citizens and hold them up as role models for the people we love and serve during our earthly sojourn in the Church and in the cities and towns where we live. Let us not be afraid in building bridges, not walls.

Suggested resource:
CREATION series on Salt and Light Television

Salt and Light Television has produced a six-part series that seeks to find the answer within God’s revelation as found in his creation and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Creation shows that dealing with environmental issues by focusing on political, economic, or ideological solutions alone is noble, but lacking. Instead, what the Catholic Church has said over the centuries about the sacredness of all creation can lead us to real answers to today’s environmental challenges – answers grounded in the truth of creation as good, full of dignity, and deserving of our care.
Creation takes us all over North America to meet people with stories that highlight Catholic environmental principles. Our stories draw attention to many issues – waste management, urban and local farming, water shortages, contamination and waste water treatment– and offer the answers that many of you are seeking with regards to our concerns about the environment.

For more information on the series, visit: