Growing up in the United States, I was taught to view my neighbors as unique individuals, each with his or her own strengths and talents. This emphasis on individual identity and accomplishment is an important part of American culture, and it has played a large role in my life as a priest and teacher. In the classroom, I try to recognize and respect the uniqueness of my students. In the church, I strive to do the same. I believe that every person is a unique and irreplaceable member of creation and beloved as such by our God.
At the same time, my work as a priest has bought me to live in cultures that view things a bit differently. In rural Upper Egypt, where I conduct research as an anthropologist, people are rarely viewed as individuals. Instead, the Egyptians I know tend to view each other in terms of family and kinship. When meeting someone new, they might ask: “Who is your father? Who is your mother? Who are your brothers and sisters?” The answer to these questions will give them a good sense, for better or worse, of your moral character. In this world, individual identity can never be separated from the reputation of one’s family.
Moving between these two cultures has forced me to rethink the ways I evaluate the character of others. Now I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. We can grow to be different from our parents, but it is hard if not impossible to escape the influence they exert on our lives. In this sense, apples rarely fall far from the tree. But I do not think this is a bad thing. Instead, this power of family ties has helped me find beauty in the complexity of life, and in the mysterious ways, God bestows grace upon his children. In the end, we are all “sons and daughters of Adam,” as is said in Egypt, and Christ’s victory over death washes over us all, no matter our achievements or failings. It is in this spirit that Saint Paul proclaims: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I have also come to pay more attention to Jesus’s relationship with his mother Mary, and Joseph, her spouse. If knowing someone requires something about the family they come from, then we as Christians must learn to spend some time with Mary and Joseph. These were Jesus’s first teachers, and in his parables and teachings, it is not hard to hear echoes of voices from his childhood. A grain of wheat, a mustard seed, loaves and fishes, fig-trees, and bushel baskets: these are all things Our Lord would have first encountered alongside Mary and Joseph.
In Holy Cross, we look to Mary and Joseph to better understand our Lord and, as a result, to better follow Him. Perhaps no one in Holy Cross history best illustrates this truth than Saint Brother André. Through his lifelong devotion to Joseph, he came to learn the simple ways we can serve Christ. And he did so because he believed that to know Christ, we have to know something about the people who raised him and sent him on his way.
This reflection for the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of the Brothers of Holy Cross, was written by Fr. Aaron Michka, C.S.C., a member of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers. Fr. Michka recently completed his Doctorate in Anthropology at the University of Michigan and is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.