Homily: Mass for 175th Anniversary of Saint Matthew the Apostle Parish
The context for our liturgy this morning is the 175th Anniversary of Saint Matthew the Apostle Parish. We come together to recognize the particular expression of our Catholic faith that this parish represents in the life of the Church in our part of the world.
It is particularly appropriate that our celebration takes place on All Saints Day when we reflect on the universal call to holiness and the example of so many who have gone before us as witnesses to Christ, His Church, and our efforts to do the same – to manifest God’s love in our lives and in our world.
Last year we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington. When Pope Pius XII in 1939 issued the Papal Bull decreeing that Washington should be, in his words, “adorned with the splendor of an archiepiscopal throne.” He thereby erected the new Archdiocese of Washington. There was an obvious choice of the Church to be the Cathedral – the place of that archiepiscopal teaching chair.
With the cross atop its majestic copper dome soaring above the Washington, D.C. skyline, the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle is truly a landmark of faith situated in the midst of our nation’s capital.
Today, however, we celebrate something that preceded both the establishment of this Archdiocese and the building of this magnificent Church that is now its Cathedral. At this Mass we recognize the 175th anniversary of the Parish of Saint Matthew the Apostle. It was erected as a parish in 1840 when the original Church was located at 15th and H Street, NW.
One authoritative history of the Archdiocese of Washington tells us that the establishment of Saint Matthew’s Parish with the name of the Apostle who had been the equivalent of a civil servant of the Roman Empire was because many of the members of the new Saint Matthew’s Parish worked for the fledgling bureaucracy of the nation’s capital, in its federal city.
Today people from different branches of government and from international and national institutions along with visitors from across the country and our community worship at this Cathedral named for a tax collector who fittingly is patron saint of civil servants.
But there is an even wider context to our celebration today.
The Catholic community in what is now the District of Columbia traces its roots all the way back to those early Catholic settlers, a few of whom received land grants. Six of the sixteen land owners whose estates now make up the District of Columbia were Catholic. All of these Catholics have some spiritual tie with those who first arrived in what is now Maryland in 1634. The Catholics onboard the Ark and the Dove that landed at Saint Clement’s Island were part of the effort to plant the Cross in the English speaking New World.
But there is an even wider context. We are part of a larger, universal Catholic Church throughout the whole world. We are members of the spiritual gift that is the Church. As part of that family we make our way through life and eventually, we hope, to Heaven.
Our spiritual narrative, our history as a faith family, our story as the Church begins with the coming of Jesus. We identify ourselves as a faith community, as people who accept Jesus, his Gospel, his teaching, and follow him in the hope of someday joining him forever in the glory of his heavenly Father.
We are a people who today celebrate All Saints Day because we recognize we are a part of a great spiritual family called to be Saints. The Gospel chosen for All Saints Day is taken from the very familiar opening of the Sermon on the Mount – the Beatitudes. Here Jesus depicts for us the dual aspect of the kingdom he had come to announce. Its fullness will be in glory in heaven but it begins now with all of our works of love, truth, patience, kindness, caring for one another and even bearing the pains of persecution.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we are blessed precisely because what we do now will someday flower in glory when Jesus returns to claim his kingdom made up of his faithful disciples. We are the people who, in the words of the responsorial psalm, “long to see the face of the Lord.” (Ps. 24)
But we also recognize that in hearing and accepting Jesus’ Gospel and message, we do so not just as individuals but as God’s family, His Church.
175 years ago the Archbishop of Baltimore, the see to which the City of Washington then belonged, exercised several of the unique responsibilities of a bishop. He established Saint Matthew’s as a parish and named a pastor. In doing so he recognized that the Catholic faithful in this portion of Washington constituted a stable community of believers who were now to be gathered around their own local shepherd as a new expression of the ancient Catholic family of faith.
Pope Francis tells us that “Wherever we go, even to the smallest parish in the remote corner of this earth, there is the one Church. We are at home, we are in the family, we are among brothers and sisters.” This Church is most regularly expressed in parishes throughout the world.
Pope Francis also tells us that, “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship, and celebration.”
This parish is one, faith filled manifestation of the Church. We are one particular, local expression of the Church Universal. A vivid reminder of our connection to the whole Church was the presence here in this sanctuary just a month ago of the Chief Shepherd of the whole Church, of which we are an expression, our Holy Father Pope Francis.
In his encyclical God is Love Pope Benedict XVI used the description of the ancient Church found in the Acts of the Apostles to describe Church life today, and therefore the life of this parish.
The description of the first Christian “parish” can be found in Chapter 2, verse 42 of the Acts of the Apostles. Christians would gather together for four main purposes: 1) to pray; 2) to hear the teaching of the Apostles; 3) to build community, and 4) to join in breaking of the bread, the celebration of the Eucharist.
We are a people who pray to be one in spirit. The very language of the Church is prayer. It is the Spirit manifested in prayer that binds us together with all the other members of our family — our diocesan family. This Cathedral is a place set apart for prayer.
We also remain faithful to the teaching of the Apostles. It is for that reason that the ambo or pulpit in each Church, but certainly in this great Cathedral, is such an important fixture. The Word of God is proclaimed here and the teaching of the Church – the teaching of the Apostles – is made manifest.
Another sign of that apostolic continuity is the fact that here in this cathedral are memorials to three successive pontiffs who visited this archdiocese to confirm it in the faith that comes to us from the Apostles. The most recent, Pope Francis, spoke from this very sanctuary.
We are also a people who come together as a community. We are not just isolated individuals, but we come as members of God’s family and we work to build the community of the faithful. This also explains the tradition – our longstanding practice – of social responsibility – to care for those in need.
Finally, we recognize that in this community, we are gathered around the Eucharist. Hence the altar is the principle furnishing here as it is in every Catholic Church. The great mystery of our faith, a share in death/Resurrection of Jesus, is made present and we enter that mystery every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Saint John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist, he said: “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord’s death and Resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and ‘the work of our redemption is carried out’” (11).
What we see here at Saint Matthew the Apostle Parish we see throughout the entire diocesan Church, we see in fact throughout the whole Church Universal. We are God’s people. We come together to be formed by God’s Word, and we come together to be nourished by the sacraments, most particularly the Eucharist. And we come together so that out of God’s love for us and our love for God and one another we can care for the needs of one another.
The Liturgy today speaks of the Church here and now and of the Church in glory. In the Book of Revelation, Saint John describes this great multitude which no one can count from every nation, race, people and tongue standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
It is precisely as his Church, his people, that we make our way through life with the hope of being a part of that great heavenly multitude.
What we celebrate today, then, is the fidelity of this portion of God’s family to the mission of the Church, to God’s plan, to God’s word, to God’s sacramental presence with us, and to the recognition of our identity as God’s family.
But we do not just celebrate the past and look back on the accomplishments of the parish. Today we look also to the present moment and to the future.
As we celebrate this Cathedral Parish of Saint Matthew the Apostle, we can rejoice because it continues the great vibrant tradition of living faith. One look at the weekly bulletin of this parish provides ample instruction in how much of the work of the Church is carried out each day in this parish.
On the drive to the airport for his departure from Washington, Pope Francis spoke about his experience of the Church here as, in his words, alive in the vibrancy of the Holy Spirit.
As we celebrate the present, we recognize that it is our turn to pass on the faith as did our ancestors all those many years ago.
But this is also a time to ask God’s blessing on the future. The future is ours too.
This faith community – the Parish of Saint Matthew the Apostle – understands its role in implementing our archdiocesan Synod, its challenge to be missionary disciples of the New Evangelization.
We embrace the challenge of Pope Francis, to go out, to encounter, to invite and to accompany on the journey with the Lord all of those we meet.
This celebration is a time of joy, of recommitment and of great expectation.
Congratulations on these 175 years at this parish — let us look forward to the future with the same faith and confidence that the founders of this parish did.
And continue to do the work of God, as they did.