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23rd Sunday of the Year, Chicago 2013

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” So Jesus spoke to the multitude that followed him. The same words are also pointed to the multitude of 2.1 billion Christians in the world today, and these include each one of us. And Jesus’s words are very different from the systems and methods of modern national and international leaders and institutions whose only goal is to protect themselves and their interests regardless of the price, and the price is often war. We can see what this means in the case of the Syria crisis in which your new country assumes a leading role. Today’s Gospel also tells about war. However, we now know that war is always the wrong solution. That is why I call you to join those that raise their voice against it.  

Let us return to the Gospel. Jesus is honest with those who want to follow him. He does not conceal the difficulties which will come with their desire to be his friends, apostles and disciples. The point of Chrstianity is not to make our life on earth as comfortable as possible! The point of Christianity is Jesus Christ, having him in the centre of our life, even if it means losing everything, including one’s own life, for only he is capable of giving finite answers to all our questions. This is why the basic rule of Christian life has always been (and still is) to put Jesus first.

Once Jesus has first place, then everyone else in our life, father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, our very life itself and everything that is a part of it, fall into its proper place, where they should be. No one and nothing is or should be more important than Jesus Christ! To be a Christian is not an obligation. To be a Christian has been and remains a matter of choice, which, as all other choices (let us remember the parables from today’s Gospel that tell about the construction of a tower and waging war) should be well thought through. In choosing Christianity we should first carefully consider what it is we lose and what it is we gain by this choice, and what the choice means for our present and future life, and only then can we make the decision.

Without Jesus, or with a Jesus tailored to suit our whims, one that is on the same level as any other choice, this might appear to be easy. The only question then is what happens when life does not go according to our wishes and plans, and we are well aware that this will happen sooner or later. A life without Jesus Christ or with only our modified version of Jesus gives no answer to this question. We can find an answer to this question with Jesus Christ, the one that speaks to us through the Gospels, and the one that is preached by the Church. With him, every problem becomes easy for he “with the gift of wisdom of His Holy Spirit” makes our ways straight and broadens our horizons so that we can see not only “what is on earth”, but also “what is in heaven”.

The idea that the Lord makes our ways straight and broadens our horizons is also exemplified by the second reading, from Paul’s letter to Philemon. There Paul pleads with Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, his runaway slave: “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” If Philemon had not been separated from Onesimus, Onesimus would have remained his slave, and this way he has become a brother to him. In a similar way, without renunciation we would also remain slaves of the things we possess and which we put before Jesus. But with renunciation, by taking up our cross and following Jesus, we become his brothers and sisters.

The case of the runaway slave Onesimus and the sentence “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” remind me of the reason why I came to the United States, and this is the great anniversary celebrated by the Club of Poljica in Chicago. Its history reflects the history of many other Croatian regional clubs. First, allow me to congratulate you upon your anniversary. After this, allow me to wonder why you or your ancestors had to leave our country and region, forced either by economic or political circumstances. There are many reasons for this and many diverse personal fates involved, but among them is certainly the fact that the reason for going abroad involved the intention to return to your homeland after a period of separation. As much as the separation from one’s homeland may be difficult, I see in this reason the value of your separation, but also a new possibility, a new hope for our common homeland—Croatia. Meanwhile, back in Croatia which went through so many political systems and governments, we got used to change. But with change we have slowly forgotten and neglected the life and the values which you were forced to abandon, but which you kept in your heart and which you pondered on like the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose Nativity the Church celebrates at this time. With the help of our Catholic missions in the world (like that of St. Jerome here in Chicago), these memories have unified you and prevented you from being completely absorbed by this new world. Rather, taking the best of this new world (I’m not referring to money here for it is only a means to an end) you are able to offer to that world our best values, taken from the old world. For instance, in recent days I visited the University of Notre Dame where I was able to see some of the works of our artist Ivan Meštrović who taught there. This is what I mean when I say “our best values”, but that is not all. We may add to this another of our great values, which Stjepan Radić expressed in a sentence:
“Faith in God and harmony of the people.” These two values: your faith in God and harmony as a people is what you took from our Poljica and the rest of our homeland and brought to America. These are the values that assembled you together in your clubs, but also closely associated you with Croatian Catholic missions like that of St. Jerome. This is the treasure that you cherish, and which I fear we have lost in our homeland.

I wonder, isn’t it about time that you returned to your homeland and took with you the treasure with which you have enriched your new homeland as well as the new values with which your new homeland has enriched you? Unfortunately, I see no progress in Croatia when it comes to the issue of your return. In fact, rather the returning to Croatia, people are now leaving it again. Croatia is nowadays engulfed in an atmosphere of depression, of lethargy. It seems as if we have given up, as if we quit. What recently happened to Zvonko Bušić is indicative of this situation. It appears as if a better future is not possible. Our Poljica, the whole of Croatia and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina are affected by this state and many areas where we once had a majority, have now become desolate. From year to year, the mortality rate increasingly surpasses the infant birth rate! Don Anto Baković wrote an article in which he points out that we have now created the state of Croatia, but soon, if the negative trend continues, there will only be a country called Croatia, but no longer inhabited by Croats. I am convinced that Croatia can do better, that it can be a new world, a promised country as America once was. But Croatia itself does not know how to achieve this. It needs many Onesimi to this: those that come back with their traditional values reshaped and improved by their new surroundings abroad. Where will we find Onesimi who will return? I believe that we can find them among you, that each one of you is our Onesimus. Croatia needs you! Poljica needs you! All the parts of our homeland need you! The Church in Croatia needs you! Therefore, thanking you for the invitation and your kind hospitality, I use this opportunity to ask you to return to our homeland. Do return, find a way and do not be afraid of difficulties for with Christ nothing is difficult and with him everything falls into place and receives its true meaning. Help Croatia to finally become and remain the sort of country you dreamt about with all its wealth and beauty, with all its people and its history marked with blood, a sort of country which no one would have to leave and which everyone would gladly return to. Who knows?! “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate…” the late American president John Kennedy told his fellow citizens: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." What Christ means with “hate father and mother” is not literally hate. The point is to think of others: not just ask what others can give me, but what I can give to others. And putting Christ first, such is the logic of our life with him, involves renunciation. We can apply this logic to the United States, but also to Croatia. Let this line be your guide in all your future plans so that Christ may take first place (for us in Croatia as well as for you in the States) and then everything else (including our homeland) will fall into its rightful place. If we can do that, I am sure God will change the things that seem impossible to us and find a way to put us where we belong.

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