Having taught history for years in high school, I was often reminded that there was a portion of history the students in my classroom did not share with me. They belonged to a generation born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War thaw. The world threatened by freedom-hating, atheistic communism and the possibility of global annihilation set off by a nuclear war sounded to them like a far-fetched pretense for a fiction novel. And yet, how real those fears preoccupied the attention of an earlier generation. I might fault myself, however, when I think of my category, “Generation X,” or the baby boomers before me when we consider our parents’ generation – raised during the hardship of the Great Depression and experiencing the daily sacrifices and anxieties on the home front when the world was at war. As history passes lessons sometimes fail to be passed on, a collective sense of identity is forgotten.
This seems to be the case in the backdrop to our reading today from the Old Testament. Ezra the priest was a descendent of the Israelites carried away into exile in Babylon in 587 BC. For over a hundred years the Jews lived and worked in this foreign land, and gradually they grew cut off from their culture, their rituals, their stories, and their worship. Eventually, the Babylonian rulers gave them permission to return home. And so, this rag-tag band of Israelites returns to Jerusalem, their great capital city. What they found broke their hearts: the walls were breached, the streets desolate, and the great Temple destroyed. They wept. Then Nehemiah led a great campaign of rebuilding And Ezra the priest endeavored to re-educate the people who had grown ignorant of their history, of their traditions, rituals and practices.
Ezra brings the Torah out into the open, before the gathered community at the rebuilt Temple. This is the context for the dramatic scene in our first reading. He stands up on a raised platform and from early morning to midday, he reads the whole thing. Ezra speaks passionately to his own people who have forgotten about who they are and the religious identity they once had. Everyone listened to this great story of a relationship between a Chosen People and Yahweh. So moved were they that they raised their hands and said, “Amen! Amen!”
To know one’s story, one’s legacy and to have possession of it provides people their identity. It gives a community a sense of purpose, empowering them to move forward with confidence. For the Israelites they were rediscovering their deepest identity as a people in relation to God. That’s why they wept. That’s why they shouted, “Amen!”
What Ezra does for the Israelites in today’s reading is – in a more modest way – something I feel inclined today to do for the sake of St. Margaret of Scotland. We are at a juncture in our history when we face a future that presents new challenges. But the past must not be forgotten. Much is to be learned from where we’ve been.
I think recalling where we’ve come from can fortify us to forge ahead with confidence. In considering our parish’s history, I honor the choices made by so many of the families of St. Margaret whom I call “the veterans” – those today who years ago in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s chose to stay in these neighborhoods while so many others made an exodus to the suburbs of St. Louis. Despite the increasing crime and the lowering property value of their homes, they stuck it out. I honor those who might be called ‘urban pioneers’ who intentionally chose to settle in our neighborhoods because they valued the racial, ethnic and economic diversity of the people – and wanted their children to play with others so as to not grow up with prejudices. These are the families that withstood the lean years, a ‘Babylonian Exile’ of sorts, when it seemed the rest of the city and other parishes had forgotten them.
Today this parish community extends beyond the Shaw neighborhood. It is a treasure trove of people with rich and dynamic talents. For a while now we have been experiencing an influx of younger people attracted to the area and families very eager to enroll their children in St. Margaret School. And it is our school that in many ways accounts for our prosperity and our challenges. It has played an incalculable part in the stability and prosperity of this part of the city.
Today begins Catholic Schools Week. Last week many of you read the letter signed by the pastors and principals of the ten remaining parish schools in the South St. Louis deanery announcing the work to evaluate the enrollment situation and how best we can use our mutual resources in providing quality Catholic education to all our children. For some parishes in the city experiencing declining rolls, the alarm bells are only now sounding. I got to tell you something: the action to respond to this predicament was taken by St. Margaret people a long time ago. When it looked like our school should seriously consider shutting its doors, parents rallied to attract more students and a steady effort to improve the academic program put St. Margaret on the map. The fruits of this labor are seen today. We have a presidential Blue Ribbon school that is fiscally efficient and with an enrollment of 378 students that looks like it may grow close to 400 this fall. With this frequently called “good problem” comes the need to make decisions about the investment of our energy and resources in order to accommodate this growth with our limited space.
I ask that you keep yourself informed of our situation by turning regularly to our parish web site for updates on the developments that are happening. Become familiar with an effort that is called “The Spirit of St. Margaret” which is praying about our parish values and invoking God’s abiding grace in the steps we take. Plan to attend the Parish Assembly on Sunday afternoon February 10 to be part of this conversation.
We cannot afford to drift into an exile like the Israelites who forgot their identity, their history. Appreciating the legacy of St. Margaret’s past will give us the confidence, I believe, to lean into those challenges that stand before us.
If you have chosen to connect yourself to this Catholic Church, to this particular parish community, then I invite you to take ownership of the story. What we are today has been fashioned out of what has gone before us. To excel in the good work God has provided us will require your time, your talent – and, yes – a good deal of your treasure, all of which will be called upon in the coming years.
As we have been able to do yesterday, so may we be able to do tomorrow: like our Lord Jesus in the gospel who stood up in the midst of his community and declared, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people responded, “Amen! Amen!”