James’ definition of “religion that is pure and undefiled” heard in yesterday’s epistle contrasts with the merely human “tradition of the elders” condemned by Christ in the Gospel. James writes:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
“Orphans and widows” seem a curiously narrow field of concern for the practitioner of pure religion. Yesterday, my pastor commented on that. He said that in James’ time, widows and orphans were the most defenseless members of society. Neither could support themselves, and in that society, neither had any to support them. Their condition placed them outside the normal protections of society. They were the helpless poor.
In our day, my pastor said, the unborn would be among our “widows and orphans”.
This is not a terribly shocking insight to a well-formed Catholic. But it would have been shocking to hear from the lips of Rev. Mark Hession, the homilist at this weekend’s funeral for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Although he and other speakers mentioned the care of “widows and orphans” several times, none mentioned the unborn.
If anyone had mentioned the unborn as among the “widows and orphans” at that particular Mass, I expect they would have been widely condemned in some quarters. It would have been more than impolite. It would have been seen as a condemnation of the merely human tradition that equates pure religion with the lore and beliefs of a particular political culture. The tradition of the elders of that culture is what was celebrated that day. And celebrating that tradition meant the unborn had to remain with none to support them – not even the Church.
I’ve posted nothing about the death of Senator Kennedy. I think our chief duty to the dead is to pray for them and so I do.
I don’t know anyone’s heart but my own – and that imperfectly. What I can say is that I’ve done much evil and what good I’ve done hasn’t been untainted by ulterior motivation. I haven’t cared for the orphans and widows as much as I’m called to and I haven’t kept myself unstained by the world. Our faith assures us that pretty much anybody can say the same thing. So dear family and friends – Don’t celebrate me at my funeral. Pray for me – I’ll need it.