Red Mass Diocese of Wheeling/Charleston
January 30, 2015
Since 2009, a “Red Mass” has been celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Joseph’s in Wheeling, West Virginia. The Mass is celebrated specifically to guide those who work in the administration of justice. Last weekend I had the honor of preaching the “Red Mass” in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Here’s what I spoke:
You honor me with your gracious invitation;
You leave me speechless (and I am not used to that) by the warmth of your welcome;
You find me grateful to be back in the fraternal company of a good friend and widely admired shepherd, Bishop Michael Bransfield;
And you inspire me by your example of distinguished public servants – – political leaders, jurists, attorneys, elected and appointed officials, so many who have high responsibility for the common good – – who, on this Sabbath, bow their heads, close their eyes, and whisper a supplication for those elusive yet essential gifts the Scriptures – – as well as poets and philosophers – – call wisdom and prudence, those virtues that assist us to know both the right thing to do, and the best way to do it.
These two gifts – – wisdom and prudence – – have such a burning significance for the commonweal that Jews and Christians symbolize them with a glowing red tongue of fire, associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit . . . explaining why we call this solemn Mass red.
A venerable professor of history at The Catholic University of America, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, used to begin each class, “If you lack knowledge, I can give it to you; if you lack wisdom, God can help you; if you lack common sense, nobody can help you!”
That all of you in this distinguished congregation have knowledge is a given; you also have common sense because here you come humbly admitting that you need the wisdom only the heavens can give. With the psalmist today you ask, “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth. He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.”
Turn with me, please, to God’s Holy Word from the Bible, just proclaimed here at Mass. Concentrate with me for a moment on that observation from Saint Paul, “The world in its present form is passing away.”
We can’t help but detect urgency in God’s Word this Sabbath, can we? An urgency to the preaching of Jonah, to the exhortation of Saint Paul, and certainly to the ministry of Jesus as He bellowed out, “This is the time of fulfillment! The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
“For the world in its present form is passing away . . .”
You are all familiar enough with the history of our beloved country to know that, in some providential way, we, from the start, have always believed that God expects more of us Americans; that He has blessed us in a singular way, so that, thus, “To whom much is given, much is expected”; that this land in some way has a destiny to mirror the divine plan and the attributes of that eternal reign not of this world.
While such a deeply cherished ideal has caused, honesty compels us humbly to admit, some excesses and arrogance, this noble ideal- – that this country, in this passing world, reflects the values of that eternal homeland that claims our true and enduring citizenship – – also inspires people like you to devote your fleeting days to public service, government, and the administration of justice. Thanks for keeping this American understanding of providence, destiny, dream, and duty alive.
Since “the world in its present form is passing away;” and, since, in some admittedly ever-elusive and easily misinterpreted belief, the edict of Jesus that “the Kingdom of God is at hand!” has special resonance in this land of the free, we in service to our fellow citizens itch for the wisdom to conform our judgments not to the fading trends of this transient world, but to the eternal truths revealed by our true sovereign, God, and placed into the rational nature of the human person.
Our laws, our interpretations of them, our decisions, do not “come out of nowhere,” are not dependent upon ever shifting opinion polls, trends du jour, the editorial pages of newspapers – – especially the one from New York! – – or the chic mores of sitcoms, slick magazines, and rap lyrics, but are dependent upon eternal truths, which our founders considered, self-evident truths.
For us, striving to make this earthly republic reflect the eternal kingdom, – – American exceptionalism at its best – – decisions, judgments, legislation, and interpretation are not “made up,” are not “re-definitions,” and are not in opposition to the truth and wisdom revealed by God in reason, nature, and, for us believers, in Revelation.
To be sure, this ardent yearning to see that our decisions in this “world passing away” flow from the truth and wisdom of that world that will last forever, is always tough to do. No wonder we are here to ask for light!
But, what we can conclude is that;
– – We seek eternal goals over expedient ones;
– – “forever” values over “fading” ones;
– – We give attention not only to the twitters, tweets, music, and entertainment that our kids and grandkids seem to live for, but also to the convictions and virtues that our parents and grandparents were willing to die for;
– – that we look more to the law of Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Beatitudes than we do to the sometimes shrill voices on CNBC or Fox News;
– – that “self-evident truths” trump self-willful urges;
– – that the poor and vulnerable have rights, not just those with property and wealth;
– – that consultation with a properly-formed conscience is more important than checking with pollsters;
– – that our homes here in this passing world are built only on sand if our laws and policies are not grounded in the realm where we have our true and eternal dwelling;
– – that marriage, parents, family, and children need protection rather than redefinition;
– – that the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life can never be chipped away by pressures such as security or choice.
Yes, we readily admit, this “republic on earth” can never perfectly mirror the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus today tells us is “at hand,” but that should never stop us from trying.
Earlier today I had the honor of participating in one of the more inspirational events I’ve experienced in a long time: I gave the commencement address at a college graduation of prisoners at Eastern Correctional in New York State. The inmates had invited me as their speaker during a visit to the prison last summer. Nearby Bard College, in collaboration, I’m proud to say, with the Holy Cross Congregation at Notre Dame and Holy Cross College, offers these convicts a rigorous college degree program. The student valedictorian moved us all to tears with his address. Now with his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, he described how his courses had taught him axioms that guide the science of numbers. But then he went on to describe how the intellectual and interior liberation of his mind and soul through his prison college education taught him that axioms – – which he described as self-evident truths ingrained in nature and human reason that, while often ignored, ridiculed, or even disobeyed, never lose their validity – – guide human conduct. In an atmosphere that often breeds despair, violence, and degradation – – prison – – this inmate discovered such axioms: human life is a sacred gift never to be wasted; human worth and dignity does not depend on possessions, prestige, or power; a mistake not learned from is a mistake made worse; self-worth deep down can never be taken away; another person is never an object for me to use or abuse; to lose trust in worse than losing a thing.
If you ask me, that inmate deserved a Ph.D. in human nature. That person has wisdom.
The exigencies of this world “that is passing away” that Saint Paul speaks of can sure make the attention we must give to these axioms of which that convict spoke, – – those eternal truths from the God and His sovereignty, that will never pass away, – – controversial and thorny, but that never justifies ignoring them . . .
Which is why we humbly acknowledge that we need a wisdom and prudence that this world cannot give, but that can only come from the Spirit we call “Holy,” who brings gifts that make us green with envy, and on fire with enthusiasm at this Mass we call “red.”