By Rev. Michael W. Panicali
Asked how he came up with the name for his jeans apparel company “True Religion,” founder Jeff Lubell said in a Los Angeles Times article, “To me, it meant there’s many religions in the world, but there’s only one real religion — and that’s people. And all the people in the world wear jeans” (“His Jeans have a Cult Following,” Andrea Chang, February 1, 2009).
No offense, Mr. Lubell, but that’s not that accurate. While not all people in the world wear jeans, more importantly, people aren’t religion. Religion is made up of the activity of people, in their pursuit of Almighty God. People aren’t religious in and of themselves.
It is accurate to say, however, that today many false religions do exist toward which much time, energy, and passion is directed: cult followings of rock stars, wokeism, neosocialism, secular humanism … we don’t have to think very hard to come up with what is the object of much religious fervor in today’s post-modern world. As I shared in The Tablet, in early June a few of us priests were accosted (some would say assaulted) walking down Court Street to pray the Rosary outside of an abortion mill by people whose religion, seemingly, is the promotion and safeguarding of ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘reproductive justice’ (not only are these terms misnomers but are modern-day constructs that are incongruous with the proper understanding of human flourishing).
Held together by common views, willing to organize, chanting the same things in unison – the men and women that day definitely resembled followers of a religious movement to me. It’s ironic that today, so many people who claim to not be religious, or espouse belief in organized traditional religion, tend to be among the most religiously zealous.
Truth be told, a friend of mine calls the New York Mets my “second religion.” While I try to direct my religious fervor toward Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother, considering the amount of time I spend on following the Mets, he’s probably correct.
Whatever your vice, whatever your distraction (and I know I have plenty), today the Letter of St. James gives us this indisputable wisdom:
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. … Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:21b-22, 27).
Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., in his treatment of the Letter of James in The Collegeville Biblical Commentary (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, copyright 1989, Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. and Robert J. Karris, O.F.M., general editors) writes that “God’s word created us, resides in us to save us, but must be acted upon.” … “The false Christian only glances at the mirror and has no perseverance, no memory, no moral response to the Gospel. The true Christian looks, sees, remembers” (p. 1221).
Finally, Neyrey articulates St. James’ goal, which is to establish a contrast between true believers and false believers. He writes that “while all are truly justified by God through faith, our sanctification demands that we live a life worthy of our calling … it manifests itself in concern for orphans and widows, [who are] the traditional people in the [first-century] community most in need of covenant support.” Finally, he writes, “True religion also abstains from worldly self-seeking and self-assertion and so is unstained and pure-hearted before God” (p. 1221).
Jesus in today’s Gospel passage from Mark emphasizes that “nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. … From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mark 7:15, 21-23).
True religion should make us better people, in all manner of behavior. And we know that THE true religion is our Roman Catholicism. The way we practice, however, is going to make a big difference in how our world is going to look … jeans, or no jeans.
Readings for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy: 4:1-2, 6-8
James: 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark: 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Father Panicali is the parochial vicar for St. Mark-St. Margaret Mary Parish, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, and local chaplain of Rosary for Life.