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.

“Through Christ We have Received the Grace of Apostleship”

July 7th, 2014

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne

Today and over the next three Mondays we will examine Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans to consider how we can be witnesses of the hope and joy we find in the Christian life.

Pope Francis writes in Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), “In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization” (Evangelii gaudium, 120).

Missionary discipleship captures well the spirit of the New Evangelization. If we could choose one person who embodies these two aspects of the Christian life – discipleship and mission – it would be Paul, the great missionary preacher.

As a persecutor of Christians (see Acts 8:1-3), he seemed an unlikely candidate to be the great evangelizer.  But, in the famous account of Paul being thrown to the ground and hearing a voice, he encounters the Risen Christ and is transformed (see Acts 9:1-22).  He became as fierce a defender of Jesus as he had been a persecutor.  Today, we too can experience Paul’s preaching and teaching through his letters of instruction which are part of the New Testament.

The Letter to the Romans is considered by many to hold a pride of place among Paul’s writings.  The faithful to whom he wrote were Christians who were already living in Rome, gathering in house churches. These first Christians most likely came from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.

More importantly however is that when Paul describes the community, he notes that there are those who are strong in the faith (Romans 15:1) and those who are weak in the faith (Romans 14:1).  Among other things, the community lived in a hostile situation in Rome.  In this, we can see our own situation.  We can imagine these new Christians having to defend their new-found faith in the face of skepticism from family and friends alike.  In light of these challenges, Paul desired to bolster the young Christian community’s courage and commitment to hold fast to the faith.

Paul proclaims the truth of the Gospel. He reminds the Romans that Jesus is our source of salvation.  He is the new Adam.  The Lord’s resurrection contains for us the promise of eternal life. Faith in our resurrection is inseparable from faith in his resurrection.  He rose not for his own sake, but as our Head, as the pattern of our rising and as the life-giving source of our new life.  In another letter, Paul writes, “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised: if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14).

This is a constant theme in Pauline thought:  “The one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. . . . We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. . . Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:4, 9, 11).

All Christian life, even now on earth, is a sharing in the resurrection; but our rising with him will be fulfilled in the resurrection on the last day.

Being alive in Jesus Christ brings a whole new experience of freedom to our lives. Next Monday, we will reflect on what we mean by finding freedom in the Christian life.

This is the first in a series on the Letter to the Romans.

The Religious Foundation of Freedom

July 4th, 2014

Fortnight-for-freedom-blog

As we reflect on the history of our nation’s founding on this Fourth of July and also bring to a close the Fortnight for Freedom, it is appropriate to recognize the role that religion has played in that effort to build a free and just society.  No small part of that history is the generosity of spirit of the first Catholic colonists who arrived in Maryland in 1634 and established a civil government based on religious liberty, an act that anticipated our Declaration of Independence and the subsequent First Amendment to the Constitution.

We are all aware that we live in a world that is highly oriented toward science, technology and information, as well as a time of aggressive secularism that seeks to exclude God and religion from the public forum.  But these are not the factors that keep us free.  As Thomas Jefferson stressed in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” (Query XVIII (1792)).

The words of our nation’s founders make undeniably clear that religious faith is not only at the historical foundation of the American experience, but religion is essential to freedom.  For example, a few days before our nation’s birth, John Adams wrote to a relative saying that statesmen might “plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand” (Letter to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776).

The Declaration of Independence itself recognizes the self-evident truth that fundamental rights and liberties are not manmade, but have their origin in our Creator, who has endowed us with certain unalienable rights, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  With respect to the pursuit of “happiness,” Congress did not mean worldly pleasures or material wealth, but instead used the term in the classical sense of leading a life of moral good and virtue.

At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin asked that prayer be offered to begin each day’s session, attesting that “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men” (Speech of June 28, 1787).  Likewise, George Washington, widely lauded as the “father of our country” and our first president, counselled, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports” (Farewell Address, September 19, 1796).

While the founders came from a variety of faith traditions, they uniformly agreed that there could be no freedom without God.  That same religious faith that marked our nation’s beginnings, with its wide range of religious traditions, continues to thrive, inspire, form, and give identity to who we are today.  Since we are both members of the Church and citizens of a country that has long prided itself on being “the land of the free,” we expect the presence of God to be appreciated in public life.;.

Religious believers stand, as they have from the beginning, ready to serve our nation in the public square, helping in particular the poor and vulnerable while shedding the light of God’s wisdom into the heart of the great American experiment in religious pluralism and liberty.  In this way, we contribute to the common good, advance human dignity, and foster the natural and spiritual prosperity of our people.

Rooted in faith and aware of God’s providential care, we pray with confidence and hope that God will bless our nation. This we do because we are a people of faith and, therefore, a people of prayer. In our fervent and sincere prayer, all of us recognize our relationship to God and God’s care for us individually and collectively. This is the reason we can pray, “God bless America.”

“You Will Be My Witnesses”

June 30th, 2014
During a 2007 beatification at the Vatican, Spanish students hold portraits of clergy killed in the Spanish Civil War.

During a 2007 beatification at the Vatican, Spanish students hold portraits of clergy killed in the Spanish Civil War.

On this day we remember the nameless Christians who gave the ultimate witness in Rome in the first century.  During the reign of the Emperor Nero, a huge fire raged through the city destroying homes and shops and killing many, many people. The Roman historian Tacitus reports that the public suspected that the fire was intentionally started on the orders of Nero himself, who wanted to clear ground to build a larger palace (Annals 15:38-40). Nero subsequently blamed the fire on the Christians and had “an immense multitude” killed as a form of sport, as much as punishment (Annals 15:44).

These Christian martyrs, like women and men in every age of the Church, were killed simply for being Christian.  Today we know that, particularly in some areas of the Middle East and Africa, Christians live in great peril and are even threatened with execution unless they renounce Christ. A recent study by the Pew Forum reports that more Christians are suffering persecution throughout the world than any other religious group.

Though the circumstances that lead to martyrdom have varied, the Catechism tells us that “[m]artyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity” (CCC, 2473).  This brings to mind the scene before Christ’s death when he stands before Pilate and proclaims that he “has come into the world to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

We who have received the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are also called to give witness to the truth.  The fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us that “[a]ll Christians by the example of their lives and the witness of their word, wherever they live, have an obligation to manifest the new man which they have put on in Baptism and to reveal the power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at Confirmation” (Ad Gentes, 11).

Thankfully, at present, for us in the Church of Washington, this does not mean that we will be asked to give our lives in defense of our faith, but we are asked to make our daily lives a witness to the Christian faith and imitate the martyrs. In this, “it is always necessary to die a little,” says Pope Francis, “in order to come out of ourselves, to leave behind our selfishness [and] open ourselves to God and to others.” (Message for the Beatification of 522 Spanish Martyrs, October 14, 2013).

Today’s feast for these first martyrs of Rome, whose names are known only to God, also reminds us that when Saints Peter and Paul came to Rome, a sizeable Christian community was already there.  The first seeds of the Gospel preceded them, having been brought to Rome by way of some everyday nameless people who shared what they learned about Christ or maybe even a personal encounter with Jesus.

To help those early Christians before his arrival, Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans.  Over the next several Mondays, I invite you to join me in examining his letter to understand more profoundly how the young Christian community came to be strong in the way of discipleship, how the missionary Apostle helped them understand what it means to be a witness to Christ, particularly in the face of hostilities in the larger society.

Saint Paul’s desire was to encourage these Roman Christians to hold fast to the faith, to know that nothing can keep us from the love of Christ.  Joining with our Holy Father, “[w]e implore the intercession of the martyrs in order to be true Christians, Christians not only in words but in deeds; so as not to be mediocre Christians, Christians painted with a superficial gloss of Christianity but without substance. . . . Let us ask their help to stay firm in faith, in spite of difficulties, and let us too nurture hope and be architects of brotherhood and solidarity”(Message for the Beatification of 522 Spanish Martyrs, October 14, 2013).