Sunday, May 31, 2009

6-15-2008: 11th Ordinary Time (A)

Exodus 19:2-6/Psalm 100/Romans 5:6-11/Matthew 9:36-10:8
Calling people by their name can go a long way in attracting followers. And so today’s gospel lists the names of the twelve apostles, of whom we know next to nothing – except their names. This being Fathers’ Day it’s fitting to acknowledge that one of the most significant things fathers give us is their name.

Last week at a young priest’s first Mass I heard him tell the congregation of well-wishers the reason he and his brother had different surnames – I was adopted, he said. This fact of his life was, for him, a defining reality. The actor, Alec Guinness, began his memoir Blessings in Disguise by admitting that although Guinness was the name of the man his mother claimed was his father, he came to realize it couldn’t have been true. He said the search for his father had been the constant, though relatively minor, theme of his long life. Born illegitimate and sensitive to his mother’s extreme discomfort in talking about the circumstances of his birth, he never pushed her for the truth.

Erik Erikson, whose work in psychology has framed the way we now think about identity, began his long life unsure of who his father was – his mother having lied about his father’s identity, not once, but twice. He would eventually take the situation into his own hands and name - create - himself: Erik Erik-son. When I found my birth mother she told me who my father was -- yet he still denies paternity. The man he in turn imputed was actually my father died last year (he too had denied paternity). As Erikson’s life and work attest, the journey of self-discovery never really ends.

Last year, after writing an op-ed piece on the role many American bishops play in preventing adopted adults from gaining access to their original birth certificates (forbidden them in most states), our bishop silenced me in my efforts to change the law which would permit adopted individuals the same right as any other citizen – the right to see their own birth certificate. I have since adhered to the bishop’s demand, but can’t help but wonder why he – or anyone – would want to deny this basic human and civil right to those denied such through no fault of their own. As the great American theologian, John Courtney Murray, S.J., acknowledged, “The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell.”

The plight of searching-adoptees affects a very small number of people, but in their search for origins they symbolize, or even sacramentalize, the great human quest for lost identity and misbegotten origins, the pain for home (nostalgia in its literal meaning). From Odysseus’ journey in Homer’s Odyssey to Dorothy’s adventure in The Wizard of Oz, the return to home has been the hallmark of western consciousness. And that search for self, the return to home, is often synonymous with the search for the father – and, ultimately, with the search for the Father.

Remember: the heart of the Christian religion lies not in its moral teaching or its liturgical patrimony, but in the consequences born of the humble admission that Jesus was not Joseph’s son.

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