August eighth marked my one year anniversary as pastor of St. John Bosco Parsh, Chicago. It passed without fanfare, and to be honest, without me remembering that it was the date of my arrival in 2013. Someone asked me the other day if I'd been here a year yet, thus making me do the math in my head. So, with one year under the belt, here's my perspective on life at Bosco.
To put it simply, I've seen two great realities converge in this year, realities that are usually seen as mutually exclusive, but I, increasingly, think not. One is that the material needs of the people are great. Many families are being squeezed by the present economic situation. The politicians can spin it any way they want; there are many unemployed or under employed people living from rent check to rent check, utility bill to utility bill not knowing how they'll pay them. The demands on our emergency family fund and food pantry is at an all time high, and this isn't an exaggeration.
The second is that more and more people are coming reporting problems of a preternatural nature: things moving in their house, seeing unexplainable shadows or themselves experiencing some form of demonic oppression or infestation. The common link is that these people, or someone close to them or someone living in their apartment building have dabbled or are involved in occult activities. Can some of these events be chalked up to mental illness or an overactive imagination? Sure. Just like not everyone who comes to the door looking for a handout is legit, not everyone claiming some demonic episode is on the level. And with a little experience one can learn to tell the difference, in both situations. But I just don't believe in mass hysteria, and really it's not hysteria at all. The people who come are generally very discreet, and are unsure of what's happening. In a strange way this is one sign that something probably is happening.
Like I implied at the start, issues of social justice and spiritual warfare are usually seem as preoccupations of two separate "camps" within Catholicism. People who read America or Commonweal and vote Democrat are perceived as usually being more concerned about the plight of the poor and economic justice. Those who read National Catholic Register or visit the Spirit Daily website regularly and vote Republican will wear St. Benedict metals and believe in demonic possession. But that has to change.
Pope Francis has spoken a great deal about economic issues, but has also about the reality of Satan. He has even linked the two things, implying that the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few is a product of both unjust systems and the machinations of the evil one (I read this a few months ago, and went back to try to find the article but couldn't. A reminder to me to bookmark more).
Obviously when a family comes in need of rent assistance or food I'm not suggesting that we sprinkle holy water on them and send them on their way. We as a parish need to do what we can to meet their immediate needs, while learning how to network more effectively with state and Church agencies to facilitate long range help. Also, we need to advocate for reforms that put people and families at the heart of our nation's economic and political life.
There is too this dark spiritual undercurrent. Secularists believe that reason replaces faith, but in truth as traditional religion fades superstition increases, as Pope Benedict once said. We are hardwired for the transcendent, and if we don't seek it through the conventional avenues people will find others. Spiritualism and occult practices are on the rise, in part, because Catholicism demands surrender to God's will and the occult promises control over spiritual forces, and by extension the natural world. But these are uncontrollable forces and the ministers of the Church are left to deal with the ramifications of playing with unholy fire.
To wrap up, my conclusion is that as a Church we shouldn't choose between social justice and spiritual warfare; we're not either devoted to Dorothy Day or St. Michael. We don't need to be doing both at the same time, but we need to be doing both. And I admit, I can't articulate where the Holy Father is coming from when he connects the two realities; I'm pretty much taking his word for it. Not just because he's the Pope, but because I've seen it with my own two eyes, even if I don't have the words to explain the reality.