On Sunday, April 14, I delivered the following homily at a Mass with GWU students in support of their chaplain, Fr. Greg Shaffer.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is always a pleasure for me to come to this campus ministry program Mass here at Saint Stephen’s Church that serves all of you who are part of the George Washington University family.
In a particular way, I want to offer a word of support and encouragement to your chaplain, Father Greg Shaffer. All of us have come here this evening for two purposes: to celebrate Mass and to stand in solidarity with a good priest.
I am inspired by the ministry here. I often use Father Shaffer and you students of the Newman Center as examples of the New Evangelization. In fact, my recent book entitled New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today begins by describing my visit here and witnessing the vitality of this chaplaincy.
In today’s Gospel, we are reminded of two very important elements in the life of the Church, foundational elements: that Jesus is risen from the dead and offers us a whole new way of life, and that Jesus chooses, appoints and empowers shepherds of his flock.
In the encounter between Jesus and Peter, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and in answer to the affirmative response of Peter, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
For 2,000 years Successors to Peter and those who work with the bishops – priests all over the world – have that same charge, feed Jesus’ flock.
The whole world watched one month ago as the Church chose the most recent Successor to Peter – Pope Francis. He continues to do the same work that was assigned to Peter – to every priest. “Feed my sheep!”
With what is the flock to be fed? There are two great sources of nourishment for those who claim to be a part of the flock of Jesus, those who wish to be associated with the risen Lord, those who have encountered Christ alive in their hearts, in the world, in the Church today. Those two sources are the Word of God and the sacraments – the Eucharist.
But before we even begin to talk about the Word of God and the sacraments of the Church as that substance with which the flock is fed, we have to ask, who are the members of this flock? Who are the sheep of Jesus’ flock?
If anything is clear from the Gospel, it is that some have chosen to follow Jesus. Jesus has chosen some to work with him in guiding his flock. But the choice to follow Jesus and his visible presence in the world today, that is, the Church, is rooted in the free will of people who say, “I would like to be your disciple. I want to be with you. I want to be a part of your Church.”
Not all who hear the words of Jesus, not all who hear the words of the Church, not all who hear the words of the Gospel, the Word of God, choose to follow.
With respect to those who do not choose to follow, we do not impose those words of the Church on anyone. We propose the ways of the kingdom of God in terms that the world can understand and examine, in terms they may freely accept or reject.
There are recorded in the Gospel many episodes of those who found what Jesus said to be simply “hard sayings” and they would no longer walk with him.
When Jesus was proclaiming his teaching that his own Body and Blood would be food for his flock, that the Eucharist that he would establish the night before he died would be the sustenance of his family, there are those who simply walked away. They said we cannot take this, we cannot accept this, we are not going to follow this.
Jesus did not respond by changing the teaching. Even when they said to him you need to be current, you need to be contemporary, you need to be politically correct, you need to be with the times, Jesus did not say, “Oh, then, I will change my teaching.” He simply said, “No, this is my Body, this is my Blood, this is food for you, this is sustenance for eternal life.” And some simply walked away.
Jesus continued to be a countercultural voice. Jesus did not change his teaching – indeed he could not change his teaching because what he teaches is truth.
He announced with firmness that he had come from God, that God loves us, that there is a way to live that is in conformity with God’s plan and will. He proclaimed that he had come to confirm the commandments of God. He proclaimed that he had come to bring us new life and a way of walking with him. He announced the Beatitudes. He announced his law of love.
All of this Jesus offers to us. What he does not offer to us is the right to change his words, his vision, his revelation, his teaching of truth and love to conform with any particular cultural demand today.
Priests, your chaplain, pastors all over this diocese, bishops all around the world are trying to be faithful to that Gospel teaching. That is what they announce. This is who they are – preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They cannot change our Lord’s message. They pass on the Good News.
Yet, there are those who claim that voices for the Gospel should be silenced, that we should be silenced. There are those who say there is no room for any other view but their own. As the first reading for the liturgy today reminds us, “When the captain and the court officers had brought the apostles in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, ‘We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name?’” (Acts 5:27-28). But the text goes on to point out, “But Peter and the apostles said in reply, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).
We are not talking about ancient history and faraway lands. We are talking about our own lived experience in our country.
The Church’s long history recounts many examples of efforts to silence her teaching. Pope Francis is the 266th Pope. Nearly all the first 60 Popes were put to death for the faith – by those in political power who disagreed with Jesus, his Gospel, and therefore his Church’s shepherds.
We have seen this over and over again, in various forms of narrow-minded discrimination and blind bigotry.
Catholics have suffered at the hands of all kinds of movements, the Ku Klux Klan, the Know Nothing Party, the burning of Catholic churches and convents in various parts of the then-Protestant colonies. This history teaches us that, like any freedom, religious liberty requires constant vigilance and protection, or it will disappear.
And so, here we are.
The idea that the pastor of a parish today or the chaplain of a religious community and campus ministry today should simply be silenced because he faithfully announces the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that he should not be allowed to engage in dialogue with our culture, even in a place that is dedicated to the free and diverse expression of ideas – may seem somewhat radical today, but you have to remember there have always been those who try to force their totalitarian views on all of us.
When we talk about marriage, when we speak about the dignity of human life, when we teach about the natural moral order, these are all elements that we find deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Just because someone wants to change all of that today does not mean that the rest of us no longer have a place in this society.
Remember after someone says you cannot speak here, then comes the sentence, “And you do not belong here.”
I want to make something very, very clear. Our response must be the response of Jesus Christ, the response of his Church, a response rooted in love. When we are attacked, there will always be the temptation to respond in kind. But we must respond out of who we are. We are followers of Jesus Christ.
But we also need to remember that we all know people – homosexual and heterosexual alike – who may disagree with particular teachings of the Church, but do not express that disagreement by demanding that the Church and her ministers be silenced.
We all struggle to live up to the demands of the Gospel – even when we fail – because we know that what Jesus and his Church teach are the words of everlasting life.
The Church calls us to keep trying to draw closer to Christ. This we do – not because we are perfect – but because he is the way, the truth and life.
We must be inclusive, we must recognize the bonds of mutual charity and we must continue to reach out to all of those brothers and sisters who come to Mass to be with us. We must be allowed to do so freely.
The Catholic Church welcomes everyone and tries to walk with them on life’s journey while at the same time upholding a moral law by which we are all obliged to live.
We have so much more to offer and so does America. There should be tolerance and respect among all people. There has to be room enough in America in a society as large, as free and pluralistic as ours to make space for all of us.
Dear brothers and sisters, never be ashamed of Christ, his Gospel, his Truth – or your identity as Jesus’ disciples. Always be proud of who you are.
Thank you for standing up for the freedom to speak our faith and thank you for standing up for your chaplain.
God bless him and all of you.