Social Justice Sunday


The fourth Sunday of September is designated by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference as Social Justice Sunday. The social justice aspect of Christian teaching and action will be emphasised at Masses today, but we need to be aware that worship and justice are always intimately connected.

This is clearly evident in the Hebrew scriptures. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5: 22 -24)
St Ignatius of Antioch who was martyred sometime around 110AD challenged those Christian who “concern themselves with neither works of charity, nor widows, nor orphans, nor the distressed, nor those in prison or out of it, nor the hungry and the thirsty.” (Letter to the Smyrnans 6:2).
The Didascalia, a Syrian document from the first half of the third century, states that “the orphans and widows shall be considered by you in the likeness of the altar” (#9). We treat the altar in our churches with reverence and respect as it is the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. Do we treat the poor with the same reverence and respect?
But the author goes even further. “If a poor man or woman arrives at Eucharist and all the spaces in the assembly are taken, it says, then you, the bishop, with all your heart provide a place for them, even if you have to sit on the ground” (#12).
The bishop is to recognise that the poor person deserves the greatest honour because he or she is the tangible presence of Christ in the midst of the assembly.
Perhaps the most eloquent and passionate writer on the subject of liturgy and justice was John Chrysostom who was born into a wealthy family in Antioch in 349 AD.
In one sermon, he rails against those who feed their dogs while they leave Christ in the poor to go hungry. What would he say about people today who spend thousands of dollars on outfits, housing and even holidays for their pets?
Chrysostom also criticises those who adorn the altar with gold chalices and beautiful silks while paying no attention to the poor. He advises them to feed the poor first and only then worry about adornments and vessels for the eucharistic sacrifice.
In another sermon, Chrysostom stresses that we participate in the Eucharist not only by words but by our actions: “If the sacrifice was instituted for the sake of peace with your brother or sister, but you do not establish peace, you partake of the sacrifice in vain, the work has become of no profit to you.”
These words remind me of an upsetting incident I heard about recently. Some people abused and threatened an organist because his playing as people left the church after Mass interrupted their praying of the rosary. What a mockery such behaviour made of their participation in the Eucharist and their prayers!
The community that gathers to celebrate Mass cannot hear the word of God and share Eucharist without reflecting on what it means to live as a Christian in a world where millions go hungry and endure persecution every day. Breaking bread together must lead us to question a social order in which the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the oppressed, is growing wider every day.

Elizabeth Harrington