The text that we read as the first reading for today’s liturgy is Peter’s explanation to the Jewish Christians of how he came to baptize and eat with Gentiles, something that was completely forbidden by Jewish law. The chapter preceding this explanation contains the story to which this explanation refers. I am not sure why the story was not proclaimed in our continuous reading of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Parts of the story are used as the first reading for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and another part of the story is the first reading of the 6th Sunday of Easter in the B Cycle of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass. Chapters ten and eleven are both engaging texts and have always been favorites of mine when it comes to preaching.
Perhaps my fondness for this story comes from my own personal background. I am something of genealogy buff. I love doing research on my own personal family tree as well as the trees that are related to it. I have discovered that my mother’s ancestors were Jewish about three or four generations back in history. I suspect that they converted to Catholic Christianity because of the anti-Semitic climate of Germany and Austria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My mother’s father was a Catholic, but he did not practice his faith once he married my grandmother who was an Evangelical Protestant with a Dutch background. On my father’s side of the tree, we find that my ancestors fled from Germany in the late nineteenth century because of the “Kulturkampf” (Culture War) which was begun by anti-Catholic sentiment during the reign of Kaiser Bismarck. Unfortunately, my paternal grandfather, also a Catholic, gave up the practice of his faith when he married my grandmother. To make things even more complicated, my grandmother converted to Catholicism as a widow in order to be able to remarry, this time to a devout Catholic gentleman who wouldn’t think of marrying a non-Catholic woman. By that time, only my father was still at home and, as a result, was the only one of my grandmother’s children to be baptized Catholic. My aunt and uncle had already left home and were not included in the conversion of that household. However, my uncle converted to Catholicism in order to marry his Catholic sweetheart some years later.
I write all of this information simply to illustrate that I come from a family that has known some discrimination in the 19th century, and which has fled from discrimination in the early twentieth century. I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the decades that saw great advances in the cause of civil rights, but I have also lived through times of great racial strife. Of course, we all know that the cause of civil rights is still a struggle in the early decades of the 21st century. As non-Christian immigrants come to live in the United States, we see that struggle becoming even more rancorous.
All of this makes the story of Cornelius and Peter so very pertinent even though we live more than two thousand years later. The struggle between Catholic and Protestant, between black and white, between the immigrants of this century and the immigrants of the past two centuries, between rich and poor, between young and old, between Republican and Democrat, between gay and straight, between urban and rural, between 1st World and 3rd World, etc. still goes on in our day. In the midst of this struggle, the words of Peter to Cornelius and his household ring so very true: “Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, ‘In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.’” (Acts 10:34)
When we all stand before God when we pass from this world, God will show no partiality.
An older friar once said to me, “The reason God created a place called hell is simple. There will need to be a place for all those people who could not live with one another here on earth.” To be sure, if we cannot live together here, we will not have the privilege of living with God in the next life.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator