[Today we welcome our primary school community. It is good to see you back after the holidays. At this Mass, we also commission our leaders for the new school year, knowing that all our students are formed to be leaders. And our readings have a lot to say about leadership, especially the need for leaders to be involved or as Pope Francis says, for shepherds to smell like their sheep.]
When I was training to be a priest, the Rector of the seminary often would advise us: “Delegate but don’t abdicate.” I think he meant that it is important to get other people involved in the work of the Church, but it is equally important not to lose touch oneself. That it is important to be involved.
A friend of mine once made a similar point. We were both Aussies living in London. She is a very successful lawyer, and at the time she was working in a very big firm. She seemed to be doing really well. But I remember asking her whether she was going to stick it out in London for a while. She said she wasn’t. She was going back to Australia. When I asked her why, she replied, “Because no-one needs me over here.”
She meant that her life had become pretty insular. She could do whatever she wanted, and she didn’t see that as a good thing. She had no grandparents to visit, no nieces and nephews to baby-sit. She had no obligations. She didn’t mean it as a cry for help; she just could see what type of life she was leading, and she could see what type of a person would come out at the other end of such a life. She didn’t want that life. She didn’t want to become that person.
On a similar note, my dad tells a story about my maternal grandmother. My mum is one of eight children, and, knowing my uncles and aunts, it must have been a pretty lively household. But, I’m told there always seemed to be guests staying at my grandparents’ house. Either students from the university, or people passing through. My dad once asked my grandmother, why do you always have guests coming through when you have such a big family? My grandmother said that she did that because there was nothing so self-satisfied as a big catholic family. With so many people and so much going on, you could easily find yourself getting caught up in family life and forget about other people, the world outside.
I think each of these stories – the Rector, my friend and my grandmother – are examples of people who don’t want their lives to lose their flavour. Each of them has that sense that charity, like so many other things, is a case of: use it or lose it. Being involved preserves our lives. Involvement is the salt.
There can be a temptation when it comes to charity to abdicate rather than delegate the task. We can donate money to charities, pay our taxes or even simply throw our hands in the air at the complexity of a task. But our first reading is a reminder of the basic, simple things, the foundational acts of charity that we cannot abdicate, cannot abdicate without losing our sense of another’s humanity, and therefore cannot abdicate without losing our own humanity. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Clothe the naked. These are all things we can all do.
Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t think about the bigger, social problems. Responding to one beggar should make us consider bigger issues. But it should not make us forget or ignore the person right in front of us. In fact, it is paying attention to the person right in front of us, being involved at the grassroots level, that forms a society in which people feel a personal responsibility to do something, and also actually understand the issues. And it is just such a society that is more likely to deal with the big issues effectively.
This is one of the reasons why the principle of subsidiarity is so fundamental to catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity is the idea that you only go up the chain of command if you really need to. That is: where something can be addressed at a family level, you don’t push it up to a street-level. Where something can be addressed at a local level, you don’t push it up to a state level. In fact, the principle of subsidiarity states that that the higher levels only exist in order to serve the local levels. They exist to do what the lower levels cannot. The principle of subsidiarity therefore helps us retain our flavour by encouraging involvement, and so it helps to preserve our humanity.
So, in our Mass today, let us think about how salty our choices are. Are we involved at that basic level of charity on which everything depends? Or have we out-sourced this most fundamental aspect of our humanity?