Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"A People of Faith... A People of Hope"

As Washington began filling up with Inauguration Day revellers Sunday night, Archbishop Donald Wuerl celebrated a special Mass in anticipation of today's swearing-in at the church from which the lone Catholic called to the Oval Office was buried -- the capital's St Matthew's Cathedral.

No stranger to working ably with Democrats, especially over his 18 years leading the church in his native Pittsburgh, the prelate long-dubbed the "Education Bishop" will close tomorrow morning's National Prayer Service in Washington National Cathedral featuring the new President and Vice-President. It's Sunday night's homily from the St Matt's Mass, however, that bears close reading, not just as a meditation on this historic day, but as a primer on how the archbishop approaches the "hot seat" element of his own role the new arrivals bring to town.

Here's said homily, in full:
All over this city there are signs of the preparations for the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. This celebration marks for our nation a continuity in peaceful transition from one administration to the next, an historic moment as a person of color, an African American, a man reflective of a minority within our country, is installed in the highest executive office of the land. All of us can see in this occasion an indication of our historic, proud, but not always realized, boast to be a land where all are equal and where one’s aspirations are limited only by one’s own abilities and initiative.

Such an event – the installation of the President of the United States – causes us to reflect on our national history, our identity and, therefore, the significant role that religious faith plays in our self-recognition. In fact, the earliest European colonists who settled this land along the coasts of both shining seas were those who came imbued with a sense of call and mission reminiscent of what we read today in the First Book of Samuel.

It was Samuel whom the Lord called. Once Samuel understood who it was that beckoned him, he replied, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” This evening’s reading goes on to tell us, “Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him…”

In its own way in its history, our nation has likewise tried to respond to God’s word. We are a people of faith, we have been so from our beginnings, confident that God calls us to be a truly good and just society. As we have grown and prospered we have tried to see in our lives the hand of God.

Among the earliest European colonists to arrive were the pilgrims who landed on the coast of Massachusetts. Before they left the small ship, the Mayflower, and ventured to shore to establish what would be for them a new experience in living, they reached an agreement known historically as the Mayflower Compact. In 1620 these intrepid women and men seeking a life of freedom determined that they would recognize two principles by which their freedom would be guided: the law of God and the common good.

“In the name of God, amen” they began this first written articulation of a political philosophy in the English Colonies that has served as an underpinning for the American political experience for almost four hundred years. At the heart of this formula is the understanding that God and God’s law is normative for human action and that in the application of that basic principle and its translation into positive civil law the common good would also exercise a normative function.

We recognize that same vision and generosity of spirit among the first Catholic colonists who arrived in Maryland in 1634. They set about establishing a civil government based on religious freedom and on God’s law as a norm for a new society in which all would be free and each person’s worth would be valued.

We also recall those early Catholic settlers in what is now California. Just as the pilgrim and Catholic colonists planted the seeds for a novel form of governance and a new level of appreciation for the human person so too did those hardy explorers and valiant friars on the other coast.

Within our Capital city, in one of its most distinguished national symbols, is a memorial to the founding of our nation on the West Coast and the religious inspiration that guided it. The United States Capitol includes statues from every state. Representing California is Father Junipero Serra. It is hard to imagine another person who has left as deep an impact on any state in the union as has this quiet, modest, faith-filled Franciscan. We are reminded of his legacy in the name of communities along most of the coast of California. Interwoven into the very geography of that state is its religious history and the Catholic faith that played such an important part in both its founding and its spiritual and moral identity.

Today, Church buildings and houses of worship and prayer all over this land are a testimony to our religious heritage and tangible verification of its impact on our lives, individually and collectively. A visit to church, as we do this evening, is both an exercise in history and a religious pilgrimage of faith. Churches are a witness in our day that the same faith in God that marked our nation’s beginnings continues to thrive, to inspire, to form and to give identity to who we are today. Since we are both members of the Church and citizens of the state we should expect that our faith should be reflected in our public life.

When asked what is it that our Catholic faith brings to the world, to our society, to this city, to each one of us, we answer Jesus Christ, his Gospel, his vision, his way of life and his promise of a world of truth, justice, compassion, kindness, understanding, peace and love. We speak of a good and just society, but with the eyes of faith we see God’s kingdom coming to be among us.

In the second reading today from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians we are reminded of why it is that we need to be committed to working for a truly good and just society: “Whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. We are not given over to immorality but rather recognize that we are temples of the Holy Spirit and that we have been purchased at a price.”

As believers we look to our faith. We are both citizens of the nation and members of the Church, of a greater spiritual kingdom yet to be fully realized. We exercise our responsibilities in prayer for our nation, its leaders, its government and its people and, at the same time, we work so that, as the Gospel points out, we can recognize in Jesus our true teacher – the one who shows us the way.

Shortly after the elections, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI sent a congratulatory message to President-elect Obama and expressed his wish that the Lord “support you and the people of the United States in your efforts, together with all men and women of good will, to build a world of peace, solidarity and justice.”

We are reminded as we gather in prayer this evening for our nation and its new president of the invocation of divine blessing by Cardinal James Gibbons in 1887. Then he called our Catholic family to prayer in words that well serve us this day: “We pray Thee, O God of might, wisdom and justice, through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted and judgment decreed, to assist with Thy holy spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of the United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides, by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion, by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy, and by restraining vices and immorality.”

As Catholics we look to our Church for guidance that can only come from God. We believe that the teaching of the Church represents for us an opening on to the wisdom of God and we should look to our most deeply held convictions when we address matters that effect our nation’s activities at home or abroad. Over centuries the voice of the Church has been the voice of conscience.

The impact of well articulated faith-based principles have most evidently helped to form public policy in the United States in the area of human dignity and the improvement of working conditions that were a routine part of the American scene at the time of our grandparents and even parents. The Church brought to the debate the strongest moral voice even when she was not always welcome. Most of the social legislation of the 1930’s and later finds its moral foundation and philosophical formulation in the magisterium of the Church.

Today our struggle is to achieve the same success echoing Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, and its defense of all human life from conception to natural death.

What faith brings to our world is a way of seeing life and reality, a way of judging right and wrong, a norm against which we can see our life measured in light of the wisdom of God.

The voice of faith today, as it has been for centuries, is still the voice of conscience, the voice of God within our hearts calling us to what we ought to do.

In the world that still longs for perennial and spiritual values and in a society that needs to appreciate all the more the powerful gift of faith, we can take renewed strength in God’s grace.

Looking to the future of our great country, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that we bring something particularly valuable to the effort to build a good and just society. We share the wisdom and love of God.

Shortly, we will pray in the prayer of the faithful for our President-elect soon to be installed and for our nation. As we do so, let us be mindful of the words of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent and historic visit to our nation: “As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.”

We pray that this dialogue will help, above all, knit together a new respect for the dignity of the human person and the value of all human life. It is an appreciation understood by our founding fathers who wrote of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, rights so endowed to us by God, our Creator.

As our nation in a few short days turns a page in its history and opens a new chapter, let us as a people of hope pray for our President that he might always be open to the stirrings of the Spirit of God and as a people of faith that we might always respond as today’s Liturgy calls us to do in a way that our deepest convictions are expressed, heard and appreciated.
Come Thursday morning, Wuerl will preside in the capital's Verizon Center arena, celebrating a pre-March for Life Rally and Mass for a crowd of 20,000.

PHOTO: AP/Elise Amendola