Our Oblate General House in Rome is an international complex within which live people from every continent on earth. We have three television rooms there, one Italian, one French, and one English. During my time on our General Council, I used to watch the BBC World News each night in the English room. It was an interesting experience, not just watching the events of the day, but watching them while sitting among people from different countries and sensing how people were affected in different ways, depending upon their country of origin.
I remember one night sitting in that room and hearing President George Bush comment on the Kyoto Accord, telling the world: “America will sign Kyoto when it’s convenient for America to do so!” There was a visceral reaction within many of the non-Americans watching the news as he said these words. You could sense a silent anger: “What about the rest of the world? Aren’t you part of the world?”
The point here is not to comment on the Kyoto Accord, which admittedly poses difficulties for leaders in every country. The point rather is what is captured in that unspoken feeling: “Aren’t you part of the world?”
The challenge is not just to George Bush but to all of us. We all too easily define ourselves, our citizenship, our loyalties, our concerns, and our interests in a way that does not reflect our wider citizenship. And we easily turn that narrowness of concern into a virtue by appealing to country (“We need to take care of our own! My Country, right or wrong!”); religion (“I owe nothing to the world, I belong to a church!”); family (“I’m loyal to my own! Blood is thicker than water!”); or gender and race (“We’ve been hurt and that justifies some present intolerance!”)
Not that this is all wrong. There is virtue and goodness in loyalty to country, religion, family, race, and gender. These are important identities, key parts of our self-definition, and they do demand certain loyalties, responsibilities, and duties, and do too make a moral claim on our freedom. We may never take these for granted and think we don’t owe anything to them.
But we too easily lose perspective, as do whole countries, cultures, and religions. Too often we lose the sense that we are also citizens of other realms and each of these too makes certain demands and moral claims on us. We are not just citizens of one country, members of one religion, members of one family, and members of one race and gender. We are citizens of the whole world, one with all who believe, brothers and sisters with all who are sincere, and part of the one family of humanity. And these wider loyalties constitute our deepest identity.
Jesus said as much: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters? Those who hear and keep the word of God are mother, brother, and sister to me!” In saying that, Jesus redefined both our citizenship and our loyalties. Real family, real country, real religion, and real identity are not based upon blood relationship, skin colour, gender, church affiliation, or shared geography. What makes real family, country, religion, or identity is a shared spirit, the Holy Spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, faith, fidelity, gentleness, and chastity. These transcend all other boundaries of country, religion, family, race, and gender. They are what we ultimately ask for our loyalty.
Socrates had the order correct when he said that, before he was a citizen of Athens, he was a citizen of the world. Leo Suenens, the former Cardinal of Brussels, was right too when he said in his diaries that, were he to become pope, he would not look upon the day of his papal consecration as the most important day of his life, but would rather still see the day of his baptism as more important. Baptism trumps papacy, just as world citizenship trumps the name of the specific country named on our passports. There will be no countries in heaven and, sometimes, already here on earth, we are asked to have loyalties beyond the countries and religions within which we find ourselves.
Both our humanity and our faith make us citizens of many worlds, demand of us wide loyalties, and demand too that we do not name intolerance, narrowness, racism, sexism, self-interest, and indifference to the suffering of others as virtue by appealing to some narrower loyalty.
Our real passport is not issued by an individual country and baptism puts us into solidarity with others beyond any one faith or denomination: We are citizens of the world before we are citizens of a country; women and men of faith before we belong to some religion; Christians before we belong to a particular denomination; baptized before we are priests, bishops, cardinals, or popes; and we are all bound together in a way that makes our signing-on to Kyoto, or any other global project, more than a issue of individual convenience.