Homily: 75th Anniversary Mass of the Archdiocese of Washington

Welcome to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Three-quarters of a century ago, Pope Pius XII issued his papal bull decreeing that Washington should be “adorned with the splendor of an archiepiscopal throne” and thereby erecting the new Archdiocese of Washington.  A few months after that, on the same date, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, that our Catholic ancestors first came to this land three centuries earlier, Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore walked into and across the sanctuary here.  In the presence of the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, he then proceeded to the chair we see today etched with his personal coat of arms and formally took possession of his new See.

He sat in the teaching chair, the cathedra of this new archdiocese, as the outward sign of his new spiritual duties and leadership of our portion of God’s family.  Those few short steps of Archbishop Curley were part of a much longer journey with many markers along the way.

Today, I would like to reflect on a few significant events that are embedded in our history because we are part of the great pilgrimage that began when Jesus commissioned the Apostles and disciples to go out into the world.  “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-19).

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.  We are called to be, in our very lives, an epiphany of the Lord to those we encounter.  To us, as to those first disciples, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  Manifesting the kingdom of God – this is the mission and blessing given to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Milestones of the great pilgrimage of faith dot the face of the earth.  In the East, the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and eventually Constantinople bore witness then and now to the Gospel.

Peter and Paul traveled to Rome, the center of a vast and coherent empire.  From there the faith spread to all those lands evangelized by a litany of later-day Apostles: Saint Augustine to England, Saint Boniface to Germany, Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavic lands as well as Saint Patrick to Ireland, Saint Francis Xavier to India and Matteo Ricci to China.  And the list – the litany – can go on and on.  These were the markers that were the sign posts for those who then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reach the New World.

Spanish missionaries arrived in Mexico, Peru and across Central and South America and the Caribbean as early as 1520.  French priests came to Canada, to Quebec which by 1674 was already a diocese.

On Sunday, June 29 of this year, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass at Saint Clement’s Island, where on March 25, 1634, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the first Catholic Mass in the English speaking colonies was celebrated.  When the Ark and the Dove landed in Maryland in that year, the colonists held a ceremony to take possession of the land and read Lord Baltimore’s instruction aloud which included the first policy of religious tolerance in America.  Father Andrew White, S.J. celebrated Mass and afterwards the settlers erected a large cross.  Today a 40 foot white cross stands at the southern end of the island honoring the arrival of these brave Catholic colonists and the establishment of religious freedom of America.

All of us, as spiritual descendants of these intrepid women and men, can rejoice and take pride in their vision, courage and faith.

The day before, on Saturday, June 28 of this 75th anniversary year, I also had the joy of celebrating Mass at the reconstructed Brick Chapel in nearby Saint Mary’s City.  In 1667, the Jesuit missionaries and the new residents of Maryland built a brick chapel in Maryland’s first capital.  The chapel, the grandest building in Maryland at the time, stood as a sign of our Catholic faith and the religious freedom in the colony, as inscribed in Maryland’s original charter and codified in the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649.

Now we fast forward to another milestone on our archdiocesan pilgrimage of faith.  In 1789 the first bishop for the Catholics in the English speaking colonies was selected.  The designation of Bishop John Carroll as first Bishop of Baltimore took place in Sacred Heart Chapel – now a part of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland – a part of this archdiocese.  Earlier in the spring we commemorated that event that took place 225 years ago because it became a cornerstone of the hierarchy for the United States.  In a sense, the Catholic Church in the United States had come of age.

Our journey of faith has been a long one.  From Jerusalem to Rome to England to Southern Maryland to Baltimore to this cathedral we trace our steps – the pathway of faith.

While our portion of this lengthy pilgrimage is relatively short – we are only 75 years old – it is equally and fully a part of this grand march of faith that manifests God’s kingdom now and someday will glory in its fullness in the eternal realm of heaven.

In 1938 a few months after he established the Archdiocese of Washington, Pope Pius XII wrote a letter observing the 150th anniversary of the appointment of Bishop John Carroll and the establishment of the first diocese in the United States.  In this document, the Pope cited many of the good fruits of the Church in our local area and across the nation observing that, “In your country there prevails a thriving life which the grace of the Holy Spirit has brought to flower in the inner sanctuary of your hearts” (Sertum laetitiae, 6).  However, the Pope went on to describe some of the challenges of the time.  Many of those problems we also face today only more acutely, including secularization, neglect of the moral life, challenges to marriage and family, and threats both to religious freedom and to social justice.

A major focus of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, who presided over the Vatican Council after the death of Saint John XXIII, who had succeeded Pope Pius XII, was the implementation of its teachings.  Recognizing that the objective of the Council was to make the Church in this age “ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel” to the people of our day, he called for “a new period of evangelization,” adding that “the conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 2-3).

In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of the Americas, Saint John Paul II said that this historic moment would achieve its full meaning only if it became a commitment to a New Evangelization.  This he famously described as a sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is “new in ardor, methods and expression” (quoted in Ecclesia in America, 6 and 66).

Likewise in continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis calls us to work for the New Evangelization.  “Those who have opened their hearts to God’s love, heard his voice and received his life cannot keep this gift to themselves,” he wrote in his first encyclical (Lumen fidei, 39).

Our celebration of the 75th anniversary, therefore, is not confined to looking back on our history, however inspiring it may be.  This anniversary year gives us opportunity to look forward as we renew our mission and ministry.  We are committed to being the heralds of the New Evangelization and the agents of a new Pentecost.

The outpouring of the Spirit upon the whole Church happened in a dramatic and visible way on Pentecost.  The Church continues to receive that great Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit.  Indeed, our very identity as Christians, as members in communion in the one Body of Christ that is the Church, comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit builds up and animates the Church.  Without the Holy Spirit, the Church is just a human structure.  But with the Spirit, the Church is formed into Christ’s new Body.

With this and the challenges of our day in mind, participants in the first Synod of the Archdiocese of Washington were asked to assess just exactly how well we, as a Church, are doing and to help formulate a plan for the future in light of, among other things, the New Evangelization.  The enduring fruit of our long preparation work over the past two years was a celebration this year of the first Synod which concluded on the Solemnity of Pentecost.

This Archdiocesan Synod, assembled in the Holy Spirit, clearly was a moment of grace to look at the life of our local Church, to evaluate areas where the ministry of the Church is successful and areas where there may be need for more improvement.

The outcomes of our Archdiocesan Synod are both tangible and spiritual. Among the spiritual results we must include the many graces and blessings bestowed by God on all those who participated in the entire synodal process. The tangible outcomes include an affirmation of our Catholic faith, directives for future pastoral programs, and statutes to guide us into the future that were promulgated at the closing Mass.

As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, we recognize that first Synod of the Archdiocese of Washington belongs to all of us.  This was the work of our moment just as we can look back and see the splendid achievements of those who went before us.

With the Synod statutes and recommendations there is also another visible sign of the vitality and vibrancy of our local Church.  The 2014 anniversary issue of Catholic Impact, copies of which are available in the back of church and through our communications department, tells the story of the works of the faithful and their generosity in areas such as education, healthcare, housing, Catholic Charities and social service outreach.  We have received feedback from those who have read this publication or seen the video version on our archdiocesan YouTube channel  and have  been impressed by all of the ways the Church contributes to this community, ways they were not aware of, and they have been inspired to share this information with others.

Today, then we can truly rejoice as Saint Paul tells us – in the Spirit.  In our history we see great blessings, courage and witness.

Throughout these 75 years, our Catholic family of faith has made a significant impact on our community, manifesting Christ’s kingdom of truth and life, justice, love and peace.  We have prayed and worked for justice by marching for civil rights and for the right to life, supporting programs for the homeless and the poor, advocating for newly-arrived immigrants, and expanding housing for the elderly and ministries to people with special needs.

In the now that is ours, we are challenged to continue along this pilgrimage path of faith and love.  Finally, as we turn our face to the future we can do so with great abiding and serene confidence.

Grateful for our Catholic heritage, we look to the future.  It is our moment now.  We, too, must always be open to the promptings of the Spirit.  Our commitment to religious liberty, to human freedom, to our faith, does not rest on our individual resolve or limited resources.  The First Letter of Saint Peter reminds us, “You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and the abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23).

The Holy Spirit is working in our age just as he has in every age.  But there is much to do.  So we continue to voice the prayer, “Come Holy Spirit” today and every day. We pray that we may continue to be a part of a renewal that will ensure for generations yet to come the ability of this Church to manifest the kingdom of God in our world.

And so as we celebrate our 75th anniversary as an archdiocese, we do so with gratitude for the past, with resolve for the present moment and with confidence as we look to the future.  We are convinced that as God was with those who went before us and on whose shoulders this Church stands, so, too, will God continue to be with us.  God bless you!