The Scourge of War, the Blessing of Peace

July 30th, 2014
Pope Paul VI makes a special appeal for world peace in 1965 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. "No more war, war never again," he declared to the General Assembly. (CNS photo/Yutaka Nagata, U.N.)

Pope Paul VI makes a special appeal for world peace in 1965 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. (CNS photo/Yutaka Nagata, U.N.)

One hundred years ago this week began what is perhaps the greatest calamity in mankind’s history.  They called it the “Great War” and later a “World War.”  Before it was over, more than 16 million people would be slain and another 20 million wounded.  Moreover, the stage was set for an even greater conflagration, followed by years of proxy wars.

Among the primary causes of World War I were distrust among peoples and lingering resentments from past conflicts.  With bewildering swiftness, nation after nation mobilized their militaries and then declared war on one another.  Crowds in the street cheered and men eagerly hurried to enlist so they could join in.

After the American Civil War, General William T. Sherman famously remarked that there are some “who look on war as all glory, but it is all hell.”

Pope Benedict XV – who was elected when Pope Pius X died a few weeks after the outbreak of war – would dedicate his pontificate to restoring peace.  In his first encyclical, he confirms Sherman’s assessment of war – “There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine, as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven?” Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum.

The long teaching of the Church is that under certain conditions, war might be justified.  Precisely because of the value of human life, we have a solemn duty to protect life when it is threatened.  A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral, but those who are attacked unjustly have a right of legitimate defense, which might involve deadly force against other combatants, but never against innocent civilian populations (CCC 2307-17).

Even if justifiable, war in every case is a tragedy.  Because of the evils and injustices that all war brings with it, we must do everything reasonably possible to avoid it.  Thus, when Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to address the United Nations in 1965, he emphatically pleaded, “Never one against the other, never, never again. . . . No more war, war never again. It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind.”

The Church recognizes that peace is not merely the absence of conflict; rather, it is the tranquility of order and justice according to God’s eternal law of love and truth (Gaudium et Spes, 78).  With his embrace of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his hosting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to pray for peace at Pentecost, Pope Francis shows the way toward genuine and lasting peace – reconciliation and fraternity.

This is not a naïve dream of our Holy Father.  America’s own national experience demonstrates that it is the key to peace.  The principle of “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” as President Lincoln said toward the end of the Civil War – which finds its roots in Jesus’ remarkable injunction to forgive one another and love our enemy – has led the United States time and again to make friends of enemies.  We are friends with Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Japan and Italy.  We have welcomed the Vietnamese and Iraqi people to our shores.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  Our efforts toward peace are grounded in the knowledge that we are one human family, that God is Father of all.  Jesus sets before us a world of those who hunger and thirst for holiness, justice, mercy, righteousness and compassion for our sisters and brothers. To the extent that each of us participates in that effort there will be just a little bit more light, harmony and love in the world.  There will be genuine peace.

Our Redeemer is Christ Jesus

July 28th, 2014
St. Paul by Philippe Champaigne

St. Paul by Philippe de Champaigne

“What do I need to do to be assured of going to heaven?” This is a question that many of us have thought about, if not actually asked a priest or a teacher or a friend.  One of the most “famous” people to ask the question is the rich young man in the Gospels (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-23). Like many of us, the man felt he was doing all the right things and he wanted some definitive assurance it was enough. Jesus’ answer was not comforting!

Saint Paul also takes up the question because in his travels he found that people were debating about whether you earn salvation or whether it comes with believing in Jesus.  Paul was clear – our salvation is a gift from God, won for us by Jesus in his redemptive works (Romans 3:23-26).

Jesus preached that “only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven” will enter the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 7:21). It is by leading a life pleasing to God, obeying his commandments, all rooted in the demanding commandment of love, that we live in the world the life we have received. By doing the will of God in charity we grow in the divine life we have received.

The Christian is not called merely to conversion followed by a static preservation of a gift once received. Christ has given us new life, a life that must be dynamic and grow.

Paul insists – “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  By ever becoming more intensely alive in the Lord, who is Truth and Love, and by exercising this life in union with him in personal prayer and in liturgy and in deeds of love, we also prepare for the heavenly life to which all earthly sharing in Christ’s life is ordered as its final crown and final perfection.

All our prayer, worship and works of love in this world are imperfect. Paul reminds us that we live in a state of faith and obscurity, and in a world still suffering, awaiting final redemption (cf. Romans 8:22-23).

There are people and things of this world that would seek to keep us from that redemption.  The people in Rome, no less today, faced temptations and opposition.  But Paul tells them to have hope.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” he points out. “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

While the works of a Christian may bring this world ever closer to conformity with the plan of God’s kingdom, that kingdom cannot be perfected here. What we strive after in living now the life of Christ will be fully realized only when we have come to see God face-to-face, and in his light rejoice in the utter victory of Christ over all sin, death and imperfection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

The grace of God, which moves us to good deeds and builds up the Body of Christ, merits eternal life for us. It is not our own power which makes our good deeds so effective, so fruitful. We ourselves could never initiate or draw out our own resources to bring about life forever with God. Rather, it is Jesus who merits for us all the holiness we hope for.

It is the Lord’s generosity that enlarges our life by his grace, so that we may truly believe and love, that we may truly share in the work of God. In that hope, Paul assures us, we are saved (Romans 8:24).

This is the fourth installment in a series on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. 

A History of Manifesting the Kingdom: The Catholic Impact on Our Community

July 25th, 2014

Once at a meeting, I heard a man ask, “What does the Church bring to society?” When people pose such questions as a challenge, deep down they seem to be expressing a note of hope. Somewhere they heard the promise of Jesus and his Good News, and they long for it to be true.

Our family of faith does a great deal of good for a lot of people today.  Many of the contributions made by the various agencies, groups and people of this local Church are highlighted in a booklet, Catholic Impact 2014, which was released by the archdiocese on Pentecost concurrently with the publication of my pastoral letter, Manifesting the Kingdom.

One of the primary ways the Lord continues to provide and care for humanity is through us, through the body of Christ we call the Church, co-workers for his kingdom.  To the extent that Jesus reigns within us, explains Pope Francis, “the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society” (Evangelii gaudium, 180).

Since its establishment by Pope Pius XII 75 years ago, the Church of Washington has made a significant impact on our community, manifesting Christ’s kingdom of truth and life, justice, love and peace. Yet this is only one chapter in a much longer story that goes back to the time when Catholic settlers first made landfall in Maryland in 1634, and then still further back, to the time when the Apostles and first disciples who walked with Jesus almost 2,000 years ago took up his great commission to be his witnesses. For two millennia, our Church through its outreach has brought Christ’s teaching, healing and loving service to our world.

At each Mass, we encounter Christ in the word of God that is proclaimed and in the Eucharist that we receive. Then, at the end of Mass, we are called to go forth, and bring Christ to our world.

Catholic Impact tells the continuing story of how Jesus’ love, mercy and hope unfolds every day in our own community, from the rising of the sun to its setting. That work of manifesting God’s kingdom is carried out in a special way in our Catholic educational, social service and health care programs. Our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs carry out the work of Christ the teacher, bringing his saving truth to people of all ages. Our Catholic social service agencies like Catholic Charities; St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families; Victory Housing programs; and the Center for Deaf Ministries continue Jesus’ call to love and serve the poor. Likewise, our Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and other health care institutions reflect the presence of Christ who healed the sick.

“Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters,” affirms Pope Francis.  “How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life!  Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity” (Lumen fidei, 54).

Over the years, Catholic agencies, ministries and everyday men and women have made a profound difference in the lives of millions of our sisters and brothers in this area regardless of religion, race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation.  The stories highlighted in Catholic Impact are just a few examples of how Christ transforms our hearts, and then we in turn change our world by bringing to others the vision of a more fully and authentic human life, hope for a better world, and a way of life which seeks to establish a culture of solidarity and communion.

Our local Church makes an integral contribution to the well-being of this community in a way that enriches us all. Now it’s our turn to manifest the kingdom, and impact our community with Christ’s teaching, healing and loving service to the poor.

Happy Birthday Archdiocese of Washington!

July 22nd, 2014

Papal Bull

Today we celebrate a special moment in our history.  On this day 75 years ago, July 22, 1939, the Archdiocese of Washington was born.

When Pope Pius XII issued his papal bull establishing the archdiocese at the request of my predecessor, Archbishop Michael J. Curley, it only included the District of Columbia. Eight years later, upon the death of our founding shepherd, the archdiocese was expanded to include the Maryland counties of Saint Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery.  Today, the archdiocese includes more than 620,000 Catholics and each weekend, Masses are celebrated in more than 20 languages in our churches and chapels.

While the archdiocese had its beginning 75 years ago, the story of our Church goes back much further, with roots in the colonial era, when Maryland’s first settlers landed on Saint Clement’s Island and celebrated the first Mass in the English colonies in 1634. Those pioneer Catholic colonists established Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States.

From the beginning, the lives of the Catholic community in what is now the Archdiocese of Washington have been rooted in prayer. People who live along city streets, in suburban neighborhoods and in the rural countryside find a spiritual home in the archdiocese’s 139 parishes and nine missions.  Where priests once ministered to their flocks in Maryland and Washington on horseback and by boat, the Church of Washington now connects with its flock in the digital age, through the pulpit and via social media.

In an enduring way, the people of this local Church have participated in the mission of manifesting God’s kingdom in the world.  The crucible of the Great Depression shaped the faith of the first members of the newly formed archdiocese in 1939.  Soon they would demonstrate a spirit of generosity and sacrifice in serving their country overseas and at home during World War II. In the post-war years, many new churches and schools were built throughout the archdiocese to serve the growing Catholic population. The churches where our Catholics now pray and the schools where our children now learn stand as living reminders of the faith and generosity of earlier generations of Catholics in the archdiocese.

Our Catholic schools in this area began when our country did. For generations, Catholic schools in the archdiocese have educated leaders for our Church, our community and our nation. Partnerships among parish, school and community groups have helped develop innovative programs at local Catholic schools, like the bilingual Spanish immersion program at Sacred Heart School in Washington, the work study program at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, the global learning curriculum at Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring, the classics curriculum at Saint Jerome School in Hyattsville, and of course Archbishop Carroll High School, which continues to provide an excellent academic and faith-based education to a student population that includes a majority of financially distressed students who come from some of the most difficult neighborhoods in the city.

Catholic Charities founded in Washington in 1929 helped people during the Depression, and now in a new millennium, Catholic Charities is the largest private social services provider in this metropolitan area, bringing help and hope to 116,000 people annually in more than 65 programs at 48 locations.

The Daughters of Charity started Providence Hospital in Washington during the Civil War years, and today it continues as one of four Catholic hospitals in the area providing state-of-the-art health care and millions of dollars in care to the poor each year.

The theme of this 75th anniversary year is “Manifesting the Kingdom.” This reflects the faith and service of generations of Catholics who have brought Christ’s love and hope to our community and our world.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus taught, served the poor and healed the sick, and for 75 years this archdiocese has continued to carry out that work of faith.  Thankful for the legacy left us by earlier generations of Catholics, now we look forward to the future. Now it is our turn. As witnesses to Christ, his Gospel, his kingdom, each and every one of us can make a difference.

The Grace of New Life in Christ

July 21st, 2014

Saint Paul Writing, Pier Francesco Sacchi

As we pick up our reflections on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we now focus on what it means to experience new life in Jesus Christ. The great missionary was always grateful that he had been called to make known to the nations God’s plan for our salvation. “To me, though I am the least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan for the mystery hidden for all ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:8-9).

The mystery unfolds as we learn that the world was made so that created persons might in Christ come to share the blessed life of the Trinity. As we learned in last week’s reflection on freedom, men and women can only come to God freely. The freedom God gave created persons to love him and live in harmony with one another also made it possible for us to reject his call and sin.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the dehumanizing consequences of sin in human life. These effects could be seen with brutal clarity in the pagan society in the midst of which the young Church lived (cf. Romans 1:18-32). There one saw people who were “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:31), who made for themselves on earth a life that was a beginning of hell.

Yet, Paul’s message is one of hope. He says, “We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God is able to overcome in Christ all the evil that sin created and to make even suffering and pain instruments of his healing love.

How can this not be heard as good news for all of us who have experienced the suffering and pain that come in life and that come with committing sin?

The life Christ gives us frees us from the deep wounds inflicted by sin.  It enables us to be more authentically human, to be the women and men of good that God made us to be.

Paul had tasted bitter helplessness before he received the Lord’s mercy and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The grace of realizing how one should live, of knowing the right thing to do, does not of itself give the power to live that way. “I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” he cried. “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.  I can will what I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . . Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” (Romans 7:14-15, 18-19, 24).

The frustration that Saint Paul is describing has been experienced by many. Saint Augustine wrote of similar anxious struggles just before his own conversion, of his disgust with the evil he himself did, and of his powerlessness to avoid it (cf. Confessions, 8:11).  There is a solution though.

This precisely is the gift of Christ: the power to do the good and avoid the evil.  “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done” (Romans 8:2-3).

God’s grace liberates; it gives us freedom. Grace supposes freedom of choice, for grace is not forced on us, but offered to us.  This liberating grace is precious. Without the grace of Christ, we are hard-pressed in every way. Unruly desires, fears and anger incline us toward sin.  But the freedom grace offers is rich and real, if we choose to accept and grow in it.

This is the third installment in a series on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

The Mission and Blessing of Manifesting the Kingdom

July 19th, 2014

Manifesting the Kingdom

Manifesting the kingdom of God – this is the mission and blessing given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus “went around all Galilee…proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23).  This kingdom is spiritual and not a political realm, and its final fulfillment will be realized in eternity.  Yet Christ’s kingdom is rooted in this temporal world.

The kingdom entered human history through Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate.  No mere poetic metaphor, this kingdom is a living reality – it is the presence of God.  “Before all things,” the Second Vatican Council teaches, “the kingdom is clearly visible in the very Person of Christ” (Lumen gentium, 5).  Entering this kingdom means being one with the Lord. His royal throne is the wood of the Cross and the law of his realm is love and truth.

When Jesus was put to death, the kingdom did not end, for he rose again on the third day.  When the Risen Lord ascended to heaven, the kingdom was not removed from us, it continues on to this very day. It falls to us now to manifest, to make present, by our fraternal love, the beginnings of the kingdom here and now.

Jesus laid the foundation for the enduring presence of his kingdom in the Church – the Body of Christ.  The Catholic Church is the enduring, visible yet spiritual, structured yet Spirit-led, human yet divine presence of Christ in the world today.  While not the fullness of the kingdom, the Church is the beginning, the outward sign and instrument of that kingdom coming to be among us, of communion with God and of unity among all people (Lumen gentium, 1).  In the Church, the Lord shows the kingdom to us as something visible, a community called together by him, of which he is the Good Shepherd, the true and lasting head.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that before Jesus returned to his Father in glory, he charged his disciples, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  Those words echo in our ears and hearts.  The continuation of the mission of Christ the Redeemer is what we are called to today.  The call is to bring all things to Christ and make this temporal order a truly blessed expression of God’s love, truth and justice.

For two millennia, it has been the work of the whole Church, all of the People of God, every member of the Body of Christ, to show forth to the world the presence of our Savior and Lord, one of us who is also the Son of God.  You and I are called to be, in our very lives, an epiphany of the Lord to those we encounter, a bright shining light so that others might be led to him like the Great Star of Bethlehem led the wise men to Jesus on that glorious Christmas day.

The kingdom of God offers humanity a different way of seeing life and the world around us.  We bring a fuller vision of life than that offered by the secular society that lives as if God did not exist.  In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear of a new way of life – a life of beatitude – and how it involves the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3-16).

Reflecting upon this Good News gives us a whole new way of looking at life.  It offers us hope, stirring within us expectations of a fuller life and a better world.  In Jesus, we learn the secret of true joy, which does not consist in having a lot of things – no amount of worldly goods can ever satisfy the longings of the human heart – but in knowing we are loved by the Lord who chose to become one of us, sharing in our human lives so that we might share in his divine life.

This is the first in a series based on excerpts from the pastoral letter, “Manifesting the Kingdom.”

The Cardinal Virtues and the Pursuit of Happiness

July 16th, 2014

The Cardinal Virtues by Raphael Sanzio, 1511

In the Declaration of Independence, when our nation’s founders spoke of an inalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness,” they did not have in mind a mere feeling or emotional state, as happiness is today often understood.  They did not mean the pursuit of money or self-indulgent pleasures, which invariably are fleeting.  Much less did they claim a right of seeking enjoyment in various vices or iniquity.

Instead, the founders used the term “happiness” in the classical sense of eudaimonia, meaning to lead a good and virtuous life, from Greek and Roman philosophy and later expanded upon by Christian thinkers like Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who taught that the happy life is the blessed life found in God, who is Truth and Love.  For most of western civilization, in fact, education was directed toward helping the student identify virtue and then develop a life based on it.

Basically, virtue is habitual and firm disposition toward doing what is right and good, seeking the excellence of personal perfection so as to govern one’s actions and be the master of one’s desires.  Principal among the virtues are prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude, in that all other manifestations of good human activity in some way hinge upon these four “cardinal virtues,” which are knowable by human nature.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that prudence guides the judgment of our conscience in discerning our true good and in applying moral principles to particular circumstances (CCC 1806).  Following Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas described prudence as “right reason in action.”  Helping us to manage well our lives so as to do good and avoid evil, prudence is the guide and measure for all the moral virtues.

The virtue of temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC 1809).  God endowed human life with many good instincts and desires, but as a result of Original Sin, many of these desires have become disordered, leading us to sin.  Temperance allows us to exercise self-control and keep our worldly passions within the limits of what is good and honorable, rather than being a slave to them.  Perhaps another way to describe it is “moderation in all things.”  Temperance involves the balanced use of the many goods given us so that their use remains ordered and at the service of the development of a good, well-rounded and complete person.

Certainly all of us want to be a part of and contribute to a good and just society.  Justice is the virtue that consists in giving to God and neighbor what is due to each, giving to them what rightly belongs to them (CCC 1807).  A social virtue, justice disposes us to respect the rights and freedoms of others and seeks to establish the peace and harmony that bring together people and allow them to prosper while living in community.

When life presents its inevitable trials and tribulations, the virtue of fortitude, or courage in the face of these challenges, goes to work.  Fortitude provides the ability to persevere in adversity.  When we are confronted with moral choices, fortitude allows us to remain strong and constant in our pursuit of what is good and gives us the strength to resist temptation that would pull us in the wrong direction (CCC 1808).

The pursuit of happiness passes by way of virtue.  However, it is not always easy or automatic.  The old adage “practice makes perfect” is applicable not only to one’s golf stroke, tennis swing or piano playing, but also to virtue.

The strength of our character will reflect the perfection of our virtue.  Moreover, the highest happiness corresponds to the highest virtues – the theological virtues of faith, hope and love which relate us to God and then, ultimately, to one another.  These we will take up in a subsequent blog posting.

Human Freedom

July 14th, 2014

Saint Paul by El Greco

Many scholars believe that Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans has influenced the development of Christian theology more than any other book of the New Testament.

When reading Romans, one gets a sense that Paul desires to lay out the beauty of life when experienced through a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Paul often uses contrasts to illustrate the difference Jesus makes in one’s life.  With respect to those from a Jewish background, he will contrast life under the Mosaic law with life in the Risen Christ. For the Gentiles, many of whom were influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy, he often contrasts a way of life guided only by one’s self-will or individual code of conduct with a life guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. One example of this contrast is Paul’s teaching on freedom.

In chapters four through seven of Romans, Paul describes how our new life found in Jesus Christ brings a three-fold liberation: (1) freedom from sin and death, (2) freedom from self, meaning the effects of original sin without the grace of Christ in our lives, and (3) freedom from the Law. Here Paul speaks directly to the Jews and outlines the way in which Jesus has transformed the Mosiac law, that salvation is not gained simply by performing the deeds proscribed by the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Freedom is a gift from God and one of the aspects that makes us in the image of God. We mirror God in our intelligence, our concern for good and evil, our freedom and our immortal destiny (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 15-17). Our freedom, too, makes us like God, who is supremely free. Human nature is not driven simply by blind forces or instincts. We have responsibility and freedom. “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice” (Sirach 15:15).

Because of sin, our freedom is impaired.  Yet, even in our sinful fallen state we retain the freedom to make our own choices, to act or not to act, to do this or to do that (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, prologue).

As finite creatures in a sinful world, our human freedom is not full and perfect as God’s is. The pressures of circumstances can limit greatly a person’s freedom and responsibility. Yet, as long as a person has the power to live in a human way, one retains a measure of this freedom.

In creating the first human persons, God also gave them another freedom, one which is restored to us by Christ and in Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, drawing from Saint Paul’s writings explains, “By his glorious Cross, Christ has won salvation for all men, He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5:1).  In him we have communion with the ‘truth that makes us free’ (cf. John 8:32). The Holy Spirit has been given to us and, as the Apostle teaches, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17)” (CCC 1741).

What Paul is alluding to is the freedom that comes from grace, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).  This brings the freedom to live in God’s friendship, to do the good things that one’s heart longs for and fulfill one’s divinely implanted longings.

This is the second installment in a series on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Remaining Steadfast in Liberty and Our Gospel Mission

July 11th, 2014

It was my great joy recently to celebrate Mass at the reconstructed Brick Chapel in Saint Mary’s City and on Saint Clement’s Island, where our Catholic ancestors first set foot on these shores in 1634.  They had left England and travelled here precisely so that not only could Catholics live their faith without restraint, but others could as well.

The purposeful founding of colonial Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in our land in many respects anticipated the founding of our nation on the principle of liberty for all, which we celebrated last week.  However, it is one thing to declare that we are a free country, to proclaim that we are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights – including religious liberty – and it is another thing to secure the blessings of freedom.

A few years after religious freedom was established in Maryland, that freedom was lost as those antagonistic to the Catholic Church seized power, closed the original Brick Chapel, and enacted measures essentially outlawing the practice of the Catholic faith.  After a bright beginning, things looked bleak.  Nevertheless, our Catholic forebears kept the faith, firm in their hope.  Despite many harsh obstacles, the Catholic Church here overcame them and grew.

Similarly, within a few weeks of the Declaration of Independence, it looked as if all might be lost as New York City was captured by the British and General George Washington was forced to retreat again and again in order to preserve the American army.  But as Thomas Paine wrote during that perilous time shortly before Christmas 1776, “Though the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal can never expire” (The Crisis, no. 1).

Certainly the flame kept burning in General Washington.  While the British troops were superior in numbers, experience and materiel, the “Father of our country” had something more important – he was steadfast in his resolve.  And because of his bold action at Trenton at the darkest hour, the American cause rallied and with that revitalized hope, freedom would eventually be won.

In observing the anniversaries of the establishment of our nation and of our local Church, we rejoice in those accomplishments but also remember that history shows that we cannot take it for granted that our rights and liberties, religious or otherwise, will be respected of their own accord.  Instead, as the old adage says, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Freedom – including the freedom to fulfil the Gospel mission entrusted to us, to publicly live and proclaim the saving love of Jesus Christ – is something we must continually work for, and it is not always an easy task.  Today, in the face of an aggressive secularism and occasional legal setbacks, we may be tempted to view it as an impossible mission.  But Jesus never promised that our work would be easy.  On the other hand, we know that in the Lord, we have hope and the power of his Spirit, including the gift of fortitude, to enable us to meet the challenges of the day.

The Israelites in Egypt were oppressed for 400 years, but with the Lord, they obtained freedom. The first Christians also faced oppression and they began as a small band with no great resources, yet animated by the fire of the Holy Spirit, the truth of Jesus Christ set them free.  With that Gospel truth, they touched the hearts of others and managed to transform the world.

Throughout history, the Church and humanity as a whole have faced challenges to our natural rights and liberties given to us by God.  But like the early Church, our Catholic ancestors in this land, and General Washington and the other founders, we remain steadfast in determination, firm in our resolve and confident in our hope.  Christ’s kingdom will prevail.

Homily: National Migration Conference Opening Mass

July 8th, 2014

One time after Mass, a youngster asked me, “Why do you call us brothers and sisters?  You’re not my brother.”  I responded, “Ah, but we are all members of God’s family.”  After he received a nod of affirmation from his mother and father who stood behind him, he said, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Then, offering a youthful declaration of approval, he added “That’s cool.”

Clearly we belong to our own natural families, but we also belong to God’s family, with an obligation to care for one another.  It is from that perspective that we see the issues that form the agenda for this National Migration Conference.

The purpose of this National Migration Conference is to address the pressing concerns raised by the arrival in the United States of many, many migrants who come looking for a better life.  The issues that these waves of immigrants generate are many, complex, challenging, but need to be resolved.  Certainly it is not the purpose of one brief homily to try to do that.  Rather that is part of a much larger ongoing discussion that you are so qualified to participate in and to which you bring great wisdom.  I simply am going to share a few reflections based on the readings selected for this Mass.

The first reading for today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, exhorts us to be mindful of others.  One way we do this is the way in which we treat those around us.  We are told do not neglect hospitality.  Instead we are to share what we have in mutual love.

This is not just a good natured admonition.  It is an obligation that follows on our unique spiritual perspective.  Our view of reality includes the extraordinary vision that we have here no lasting city.  As fellow citizens of God’s kingdom being made manifest in our world, we need to look at one another precisely as brothers and sisters, children of a loving God who invites us to a new relationship to one another.

As Pope Francis lamented in his visit to immigrants on the island of Lampedusa last year, in much of the world, “we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters.”  There is an insensitivity with respect to migrants, he said, a “globalization of indifference” (Homily of July 8, 2013).

In your reflections during this Conference all of us are called to recognize the human quality, the faith dimension and the spiritual character to all of those individual faces that stand behind the data, statistics, numbers and policy responses.  While it is imperative to try to identify the steps needed to resolve the undeniable problems that exist with regard to migration and human trafficking, nonetheless in the meantime there is a need for concrete action on a personal level to help our sisters and brothers in crisis.

We can look to the Gospel today for inspiration on the attitude we should have when facing a human issue of this magnitude.  We are told that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will sit on his glorious throne and then he will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

One of the norms for this dramatic assessment will be our response that allows someone to say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  In discussing these issues we are asked to put ourselves in the place of the stranger looking for welcome.  Not only is it a spiritual imperative that we see Christ and therefore ourselves in others, but it’s a historical reality as well.  All of us at some point in our family history were strangers who wished to be welcomed.

If we personally are not immigrants, we are most certainly descendants of immigrants, so we can identify with the people of today who leave their home countries to come here, the place we take pride in calling “the land of opportunity,” the place where Lady Liberty says to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Given our personal family backgrounds, we can relate to immigrants and refugees and we are mindful of the contributions they have made and continue to make in our communities.

A few days ago our nation celebrated its Independence Day.  In two weeks, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington on July 22, 1939.  Since the founding of our nation and this archdiocese, both have seen enormous growth, much of it due to immigration.

Saint John Paul II noted in his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, that “immigration is an almost constant feature of America’s history from the beginning of evangelization to our own day.”  In the New World, he said, we have “experienced many immigrations, as waves of men and women came to its various regions in the hope of a better future” (17, 65).

Many of us may no longer be immigrants ourselves, but we are in a sense here as citizens of another place, with our primary allegiance to another kingdom.  We are ambassadors for heaven’s kingdom, missionary disciples, sent to a particular land. “Here we have no lasting city,” the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us.  Instead “we seek the one that is to come.”  As citizens of another city, our perspective is precisely that of the effort to realize the kingdom of God here and now.

Throughout the United States and other countries, there are people and organizations who are there to offer help in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity, including the hosts of this conference, the U.S. bishop’s conference, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and Catholic Charities USA, and many more.  They all do invaluable work providing food, clothing, housing, resettlement and integration assistance, health care, legal services and much more.  For all that each of you here today do to assist migrants and refugees, I say “thank you.”

Pope Francis tells us that we cannot be just another special interest group guided by ideology, much less partisan politics, detached from the Gospel.  What we in the Catholic Church bring to the table is Jesus Christ, his Gospel, his vision, his way of life, and his promise of a kingdom abounding in truth, justice, compassion, kindness, understanding, peace, and love.

Such a culture of inclusion is historically what has made the United States great, making neighbors of strangers and welcoming their contributions to our country.  Our history as a nation of people from every land has been enriched by the gifts, talents and ethnic heritage that immigrants have brought and continue to bring.  As Americans and as Christians, we are heralds of this blessing.