Where are the Prophets?

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

April 2, 2007


            Where are the modern voices of prophecy in the church? Not just in the Catholic Church, but in the Christian churches in general.

            Recently I went to Atlanta to visit the Martin Luther King memorial. I traveled with a friend of mine, Rev. Jack McClendon, who had been one of the clergy in the early 1960s in the vanguard of the civil rights struggle.

            On our drive back to Washington, DC, we listened to a recording of Dr. King reading his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Written in 1963, his letter responded to an open letter from eight white Alabama clergymen, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, calling the demonstrations for civil rights in Alabama, “unwise and untimely.”

            When the tape finished playing King’s words, Jack and I sat there in silence for a long time. When we finally spoke, we made the same observation. No one on the contemporary church, Protestant or Catholic, speaks with the eloquence or prophetic power of a Martin Luther King, Jr.

            Like some of St. Paul’s epistles, Dr. King composed his letter in jail. He wrote on the margins of the newspaper and on scraps of paper supplied to him by a black jail house employee.

            Without benefit of a library he quoted St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, and Jewish theologian Martin Buber. King demolished the arguments of those white clergy who counseled delay in civil rights.

            “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” King wrote. “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dart of segregation to say, ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will, and drown yours sisters and brother at whim, when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; … then you will find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

            Every line is filled with poetry and power.

            At one point, King takes the white clergy to task for their unwillingness to speak out for what is morally right. “In the midst of blatant injustices … I have watched white churchmen stand on the sidelines and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

            What would King say about the church today?  

            In the midst of a word wide conflict between religions and cultures, are the churches prophets or do they speak only “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

            Prophecy is not some “add on” to our religion. It lies at the heart the Judeo Christian tradition.  

            Jesus spoke with a prophet’s voice that echoed Isaiah.

            In our Easter vigil liturgy we have four readings are from prophets. They spoke the uncomfortable truth to the Kings of Israel.

            In the prophetic tradition, saints of the Christian church have been witnesses of truth to emperors and kings and, at times, corrupt clergy.  

            So where are our voices today?

            The Catholic Church has distinguished itself in speaking for life.

            But why is the Church so rarely listened to on so many moral issues like torture, the exploitation of labor, immigration rights, and unjust imprisonment of prisoners of conscience. Why is our voice for the poor of the world so anemic?

            Where is our prophetic voice in word and witness? Where is the King of the 21st century?