Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Southern Preacher

It's been a good week for the Churchman of the Year.

The February edition of Texas Monthly hit the shelves featuring Dan DiNardo as one of its "35 People Who Will Shape [the] Future" of the Lone Star State, but not before the Cardinal of the South headlined his first high-watt event: Tuesday morning's Mass for Life in Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The archbishop of Galveston-Houston might've had to sacrifice his usual preaching venue -- i.e. the center aisle -- for the sake of EWTN's cameras, but (even at 7.30 in the morning) kept his usual disposition -- i.e. shot out of a cannon -- in making his maiden turn before a national, even international, audience.

The homily was unscripted... while the video would be more enjoyable, below is a transcription in full (emphases original):
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, I want to thank Archbishop Wuerl and Msgr Rossi and all the staff of the National Shrine here for their kind invitation to celebrate this liturgy this morning.

Great to see a whole group of you here... but it is 7.30 in the morning, friends. And I give you permission, if you've been vigiling all night, to doze through this homily. You are permitted... it is early.

Sisters and Brothers, my reflections begin in unpacking the wondrous readings of God's word that we hear this morning by a packet of information that was sent to all bishops through Cardinal Rigali's office -- the office of Pro-Life Activities for the bishops' conference. And this wonderful packet on the front has a magnificent painting, as it were.

Pictures say more than words, and this is a picture of Elizabeth greeting the Virgin Mary -- a scene we would've recalled last month in the season of Advent.

St Luke -- a great painter in words himself -- opens up his Gospel, his pages of introduction, by presenting to us two visible, and two invisible, persons. The visible persons are Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary -- the conception of John the Baptist, and then the conception of Jesus in the womb of his mother. And in a wonderful, wonderful bringing together of the main figures of this opening part of the Gospel, the Virgin Mary -- having heard that she was to be the mother of the savior, and having given her energetic acceptance of saying "yes," immediately -- without seeking the advice of PR people or without, in any fashion, even starting some independent group -- RUNS to see Elizabeth.

She fulfills what the Angel has said. And when Elizabeth sees her, JB -- John the Baptist -- stirs, and gives a kick, and that brings the Holy Spirit to gush forth from Elizabeth. And in that gushing forth, we see what the energy of acceptance does to others.

The Holy Spirit is active in Elizabeth through John the Baptist. Ah -- but Jesus is active in his mother, in a way beyond our comprehension.

What a pro-life scene, sisters and brothers! Elizabeth cries out "Blessed are you among women," and the Virgin Mary responds with one of the most joyful hymns we have in the New Testament.

I have a friend -- and you'll excuse this, it's typical of Southeast Texas... we're too far South maybe -- who claims that Mary yodeled the Magnificat. I don't think that's exegetically correct, but it's an interesting scene to fathom: the country girl who cries out in joy, certainly over the birth of the Savior, but who cries out in joy over the gift of life.

That should set the scene for us today, friends. "Blessed is she who trusted," in this house of Mary, to begin to look at these readings given to us today. Human beings -- how wonderful human beings are. And, yet, if we look at the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah has just finished scolding the people of Jerusalem, the people of Judea, the people of Israel -- that they are arrogant and look to purely political solutions instead of looking to their Maker and covenant-faithul lover, God.

Oh, you must've picked up the early parts of Isaiah before, occasionally. There you can hear Isaiah telling Israel, "You're arrogant! You must repent! On second thought, don't even bother -- you're so far gone, you couldn't repent if you tried."

Why does Isaiah say that? Because it's up to the covenant-faithfulness of God to transform Israel. Even if Israel's culture is a desert, God can make flowers bloom in the desert.

What a superb reading to put our focus on this day of abstinence and fasting, but a day of joy, friends -- it's a day of abstinence, it's a day when our food and nurture are first of all God's Word and God's gift of the Eucharist. From there, we rally into action. But it's a day of joy -- and if it's not a day of joy for us, then we've mistaken something. And that's what the Gospel is all about to set us in motion today, for the wonderful action that we will do.

By the way, friends, just coming from Houston and seeing -- were some of you here last night? Did you see all those seminarians coming down? I said to myself, "I just want 10% of them for Houston, just give me -- I'm not going to be picky, ten percent!" We need vital, active witnesses for Christ among our young people in a multitude of vocations, a multitude of professions, and we need an apostolic witness among our young people in priesthood and consecrated life. God be praised -- I hope that this pro-life rally will, indeed, internalize in many of you a more distinctive sense of calling.

In any case, back to the Beatitudes. Well, the Gospel today: Chapter Five, the first great sermon of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew organizes Jesus' marvelous speeches, talks sermons and parables into five great blocks of material. I think St Matthew must've been an architect. The great first sermon of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount, and the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount are the Beatitudes. Friends, the Lord Jesus must've been wound up -- he talks on for two and a half chapters, this first great sermon -- but the opening of the sermon is not in the imperative. He does not put forth his hand and say "thou shalt not" -- though that will come in the sermon, and there's a good purpose for the "thou shalt nots" later on. But the opening of the sermon, for those of you who are in high school, is in the indicative mood, not the imperative mood.

But I don't want to do English class, I just want to say something about the indicative mood -- means the sermon, the Beatitudes, are first about Jesus. If one is looking at the Beatitudes for any kind of practical advice that will make you ultimately successful in the world by believing in Jesus, then they are the eight worst pieces of advice ever given! However, if our hardness of heart melts, and we let the Lord Jesus begin slowly, in trickling increments, to take us over in his grace, which he does, then in fact these eight words of Jesus -- the eight Beatitudes -- are the astatic entry into joy. And as we let them -- which means let him -- overtake us, then the movement towards preserving and saving and loving life in the midst of sometimes a desert culture here in the United States becomes all joy.

I can see it in the faces of the young people. In fact, in the ten years that I have been a bishop, one of the things that has struck me most is a line from the opening of the Gospel of St Luke that I see continuously manifest in so many of our young people, particularly those who give themselves over to witnessing for life. The line in St Luke is: "Theophilus, I'm writing what I'm writing so that you will know the kind of assurance you have in believing in Jesus." The Greek word for it -- parresia -- means conviction, assurance, truth!

It does not mean arrogance, by the way. It means a conviction.

Sisters and brothers, I see growing -- particularly within our young people, even in the midst sometimes of a desert culture here -- this wondrous parrhesia. I am impressed -- at times, whether in confirmations, or in meetings of young people, I am even overwhelmed. Don't get a big head, but stick with it. Because the parresia, the conviction, is not something you constructed, the parrhesia is not something we make -- its the gift that comes as hearts melt and as the Lord Jesus is the centerpiece: the one who is the son of the Virgin Mary, whose energetic acceptance of running from Nazareth to Galilee to greet Elizabeth and sing her Magnificat, her energetic acceptance of which takes her all through the life of her Son among us.

Now, you put those things together, friends -- you've got genuine power. But it's not a power of this world -- that's why Jesus announces the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. what is it? The beatitudes begin to unpack it, but by the end of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke you no longer ask "what" is the kingdom of God, you ask "WHO" is the kingdom of God? And you know who that is -- it's the Lord Jesus who has given us the Beatitudes.

And the central beatitude, from my point of view, you can make an argument it's the first one -- can't disagree: poverty in spirit -- you can say it's the final one because it's witnessing for Jesus in the world, even to persecution -- can't necessarily disagree with that one either. How about being merciful? Boy, that's a good one.

Why do I put as first purity of heart? It's because in the early church, friends, the early church -- the period of the fathers of the church -- it was considered the central beatitude. What is purity of heart? Everything gets out of the way, and you only see Jesus, and the life you get from that is what makes you witness -- by word, but by sheer... presence -- to so many facets of your personal, familiar, school and cultural life that is around.

Purity of heart... purity of heart is -- well, it's like Cardinal Rigali mentioned last night in the sermon about the Transfiguration, one of the scenes that's in the dome up there. You know, the Transfiguration is the central point of the public life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke -- it's dead center in the public life of Jesus. He goes up the mountain -- all of a sudden, he shows his true colors.

In the words of the high school students that I taught in the late 1970s, he blew their minds... He showed them who he really was -- just a glimpse, just a glimpse that was enough to make them... Why did that come through? What leads up to that? Jesus keeps telling the apostles: "We're going to Jerusalem." He keeps telling them: "I'm going obediently as my Father directs." And by the time they get to that mountain -- it's the mountain just like the mountain on the Sermon on the Mount -- once he gets up that mountain, the Father's joy can't be contained anymore and he just lets loose in his Son... and you see the Father shine. What makes the disciples at first run in fear -- because they don't have purity of heart completely yet -- but Jesus, whose purity burns away whatever is less than doing God's will, touches them, and when they look up they only see Jesus.

Sisters and brothers, you're going to rally today -- on behalf of life, on behalf of unborn children, on behalf of born children, on behalf of the elderly, on behalf of everyone who suffers from injustice, for this is indeed a justice issue we are rallying for today. But as you do it, make sure -- in the joy of the Beatitudes -- that you let the Lord Jesus shine through you in purity of heart. The more obedient you become to the Lord Jesus' face, who's looking on you, and letting it change you, the freer you are -- and the freer you are, your witness in culture becomes infectious. You'll become the Beatitudes -- the best virus that could ever be let loose in our culture.

We have some bad viruses around -- let's let loose a good virus, the virus of a purity of heart filled with the Beatitudes that lets God work in us and doesn't make us say, "God, if you're not gonna do it my way then I'm gonna find a better way than you."

That's generally our prayer: "Jesus, hear me! Jesus, you know I know best! Jesus, follow me!" Friends, we've got it all wrong -- even in the pro-life movement! "Jesus, you know best. You're the Beatitudes. You're purity of heart. In my desert heart, let the orchard grow -- that will be freedom, then I will know you and love you."

Sisters and brothers, do you realize if we get more and more people doing that what that does to the culture? It changes the culture towards one that grows in holiness -- that's what we need.

Sisters and brothers, Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary met and the joy that was unleashed of two unseen beings -- John the Baptist and Jesus, both in the wombs of their mothers -- that's power. There is much, much unseen in our own witness today. Let the unseen power of the Lord Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit touch you as you rally, make you joyful -- we may be fasting and abstaining today, but no, no bad looks today! Today is a day of joyful sadness or sad joy -- this is a day of remembrance of sadness, but it is joy at the Lord because we have been gathered by Jesus: first for this action of Eucharist, but then to rally, all on behalf of God's human beings -- born and unborn.

May the Lord bless you all, give you strength -- give you parrhesia, as they say -- that with conviction, you may wake the Lord alive in this culture.