Sunday, October 06, 2013

At Supremes' Mass, A Call To Civility and Community

For the 61st time, this Sunday brought one of the great meetings of church and state as a majority of the Supreme Court again led the congregation at Washington's St Matthew's Cathedral for the capital's annual Red Mass.

Organized as ever by DC's John Carroll Society, the liturgy invoking the Holy Spirit on judges and lawyers – its roots dating to the 1300s – is held on the eve of the new SCOTUS term, which begins tomorrow, and takes place in many other locales over these weeks. This time around, the high court delegation was topped by Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. (Wuerl and Roberts are shown left at the foot of the cathedral steps, with the CJ's wife, Jane, escorted by the capital's retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; the other justices follow behind.)

Kagan and Breyer being Jewish, only half of the Supremes' six-justice Catholic superbloc were present. The Court's third Jewish member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, attended the liturgy earlier in her 20 years on the bench, but boycotted the rites after she deemed one Red Mass' homily as excessively anti-abortion while the issue lay before the Court. (This first Sunday of October likewise marks the annual Respect Life Sunday in the US church.)

Among other prominent guests were the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, whose frequent appearances before the Supremes as the government's top appellate lawyer have led to his post's nickname as the Court's "tenth justice."

Back to the pulpit, the choice of the DC Mass' guest preacher represents one of the more delicate and coveted speaking slots given an American prelate. This year – in the wake of the Court's controversial end-of-term rulings on minority voting rights and same-sex marriage, with religious freedom very possible to figure on the docket just ahead – the task fell to Bishop Kevin Farrell, the (blogging, tweeting) head of the booming Dallas church, and a familiar face on the District scene from his quarter-century there as a priest and auxiliary bishop.

Amid a weeklong government shutdown that's only further inflamed Washington's usual political combat, Farrell dedicated his focus not to any hot-button issue, but to blast the country's hyper-polarized political discourse and its consequences for the governed. Along the way, the Dallas prelate subtly wove in the thread of immigration, reflecting both his own story as an Dublin-born émigré to these shores and his years at the helm of DC's Centro Catolico Hispano, where he succeeded the apostolate's founder, a Capuchin friar named Seán O'Malley.

Today's pulpit turn was just the beginning of a high-profile month for Farrell – at October's end, the latest edition of the Dallas church's annual ministry conference will be even more closely watched than usual as the designated chief of the Pope's "Gang of Eight," the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, swoops in to give the English and Spanish keynotes at the 7,000-person gathering.

Here below, Farrell's Red Mass preach as prepared for delivery.

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For me, there is something of a “homecoming” occurring here this morning. As many of you know, I came to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. in 1982 and was ordained auxiliary bishop here in 2002. In 2007 I was not told “go West, young man,” but I was told by the Holy Father to “go Southwest” and so it is there that I am blessed to serve as the bishop of the sprawling Diocese of Dallas, Texas.

When I have thought about this homecoming for me here today, I pondered the words of Robert Frost, who wrote “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Far more than that, I find a kind welcome each and every time I return to this archdiocese and want to thank Cardinal Wuerl for this opportunity to be with you today.

In preparing for this homecoming, I also thought about the title of Thomas Wolfe’s book, You Can’t Go Home Again. It is the story of a fledgling author who writes a book and makes several references to his hometown. The book is a national success but the residents of the town were unhappy with his depiction of them and so sent him menacing letters and death threats.

I would hope that what follows may be as invitational as is your welcome to me and that it confirms you in your faith and trust in God. I also hope that it gives each of us something to think about and to ponder. Many of us, myself included, often ask “What did you think of the homily?” Might I suggest that another question today might be, “What did you think about differently in light of the homily?” My hope is that if you find some of these words particularly challenging, they would not be so troubling that you preferred I followed Thomas Wolfe’s instruction [And] Not Come Home Again (!).

The Red Mass finds its origin in mid-thirteenth century France, and takes its name from the color of the vestments we wear today to recall the descent of the Holy Spirit with tongues as of fire as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (2:3). The reading continues to say that those gathered were devout Jews from more than a dozen places and who spoke a variety of languages. However, on that Pentecost day, they could understand each one speaking in his own language (2:7).

In point of fact, the background to the way the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is recounted here in Acts comes from the 11th chapter of the book of Genesis. There in Genesis, believers who were united in language and purpose decided to build a tower in order, as the Bible recounts, “to make a name for themselves” (Gn. 11:4). One more time pride goes before the fall. God finds out about this and goes down to them, confuses their language so that they cannot understand each other and scatters them to the ends of the earth. Thus they leave behind the tower, now to be called Babel “Because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth... [And] from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth.” (Gn. 11:8-9)

If you Google the word “babble” from “the free dictionary,” it states that babble means “To utter a meaningless confusion of words or sounds. Babies babble before they can talk.” In fact, the devout Jews at Pentecost were initially more like babblers whose speech became clear only through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is Babel undone.

Pentecost is clear speech over babbling, insight over ignorance, true wisdom over knowledge alone, the common good over individual privilege or individual ideology, communication over confusion, true humility over self-deceiving pride, and praying and speaking in God’s name over trying to make a name for oneself. That is what this liturgy celebrates, and even more.

I am not the first person to comment that we seem to live at a time of highly polarized and polarizing rhetoric. In that sense, today, we are more like Babel than Pentecost, we are more about confusion than wisdom, more separated in and by rhetoric than united. Among the things that we celebrate at this Mass today is the countercultural reality of God’s very spirit hovering over us as it did at the beginning of Genesis to create clarity out of chaos, (Gen. 1:1-2) and, as the Holy Spirit did at that first Pentecost, he now bestows wisdom, clarity, insight and, yes, unity.

Please notice that I did not say uniformity. I deliberately said unity because the Holy Spirit is the source of unity on all that matters and the source of variety in and among the differences we have that make us who we are.

It also means that we can and should debate, refine positions, truly listen to each other and seek consensus on essentials and respect details that may well be different. The history of Catholicism is that there is a kaleidoscope of figures in our theological tradition to which we can turn and on whom we rely for a history of evolving and ever refined theological ideas and statements in our teaching called the magisterium. In essentials unity, but there was diversity between even medieval masters such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, to cite just two from a compelling time and highpoint in our theological tradition, the rise of the Catholic universities.

The same is true in the church today and should be in our world today. We exacerbate tensions and deepen polarizations when we caricature another’s position and, worse, when we caricature another person.

We believe in the dignity of each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God. We may disagree. But there can be no place for derision or smugness. Especially at this time of particular polarizations, we need to be reminded that we Catholics have every right to register what we believe in the public square and do it with pride and conviction. However, in a pluralistic society, we also need to be respectful of those who do not agree with or follow our teachings.

If dialogue means anything, it means not only that we take another seriously but it means that we revere the other as a fellow human being with gifts and talents from God. If honest and respectful dialogue means anything, it means that we need to strike a balance in our words and rhetoric so that conviction should never become stridency and saying things with commitment should never become caricaturing anyone else’s positions or beliefs.

E pluribus unum means just that. It does not mean one size fits all. And it does not mean “I Did It My Way” has replaced the national anthem.

When I visualize what e pluribus unum means I think of the church of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart at the corner of Sixteenth Street and Park Road, about a 10-minute drive from here.

It is a very special place in the archdiocese, served by Capuchin Friars. Built by Irish and German immigrants at the end of the 19th century, the parish now serves many immigrant populations. Sunday Masses are in four languages. Each weekend Mass is celebrated once in Vietnamese, once in Creole, twice in English and five times in Spanish. A little Pentecost happens every weekend at Sacred Heart. E pluribus unum indeed.

The parish also does what so many parishes do today. They welcome the stranger in our midst in new and ever-changing circumstances. The immigrants who built the church building and the immigrants who populate the church today had and have different needs. The languages spoken are many, and it is from the many languages that we and they offer praise and thanks to God for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on these shores. There may be many languages spoken on the Fourteenth Street corridor but there is among so very many a common purpose; many languages yet a common purpose to better themselves and the lives of their families and the nation where they have made their home. The history of our nation is a living proof of this common goal.

The parish also helps to give voice to the voiceless. It is there that the Holy Spirit’s power breaks in like tongues of fire and driving winds to continue the welcome of Miss Liberty in saying “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses....”

With pride the Catholic Church can say that the poor are welcomed by the Spirit, called the “father of the poor” (Sequence Pentecost Sunday). And we can say with pride that we serve all in need not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic. That is our mission and ministry. That is not just what we do; it is who we are. With pride the Catholic Church serves the Fourteenth Street corridor in this city, which was destroyed when race relations meant race riots in this federal city less than 50 years ago. Yet from the ashes has risen the phoenix of prosperity, multicultural diversity and economic success. There are countless “Fourteenth Streets” in our nation and countless Sacred Heart Churches which serve them. The term “catholic” means “universal.” This is the universal church in miniature on the street of this, my adopted hometown.

All of this is an expression of the abiding presence and power of the Holy Spirit whom we invoke today at this Mass on our nation’s highest court and on our nation’s elected officials.

Petty partisanship and ever-politicizing rhetoric should have no place at all when men and women of goodwill come together to serve the common good.

In a few moments we will consecrate bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We do this by invoking the name and power of the Holy Spirit. And we will then pray that this sacred meal might make us “one body, one spirit in Christ.”

Those are not merely high hopes; they are high ideals always realizable in and through the Holy Spirit.

When we admit our differences in honesty, then there is the possibility of unity in diversity.

When we offer our gifts that differ as a result of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, then we can together do something beautiful for God and country.

When we see and revere in the other person of a different color or creed or ethnic background the image and likeness of God, then we together can move forward as God’s pilgrims on this good earth.

When we remove obstacles in the way of welcoming the stranger in our midst, then we truly reflect the best of what this country stands for as a nation of immigrants.

When we respect differences of opinion in dialogue, we respect and revere the differences that provide variety and give texture to this great country of ours, made so by others having welcomed our forefathers and mothers.

When we recognize and revere the many cultures that comprise this great nation and the many languages, we speak as we seek to be one in mind and heart, then we live the gospel of good news with all peoples, to the ends of the earth.

This Eucharist is about confirming what is the best of our church’s teachings about how the Holy Spirit continues to guide, inspire and renew.

It is about shoring up a unity that is begun at the waters of baptism and is strengthened by this eucharistic food. In that sense all the baptized find here and in every church a home. May the possibility of a homecoming never be made impossible because of narrow-mindedness or mean- spiritedness. May it be possible because of what is represented in the breaking of one bread and sharing the one cup of salvation.

In the end, we are a nation and a church whose best instincts and interests lie in homecoming at its very best. That means eschewing Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. We can always come home. And it means capitalizing on Robert Frost’s words, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” More than that, home is the place where, when you go, no matter who you are, they want to take you in. And to them, by word and deed, we would say what my Irish parents said and my relatives say to this day:
“Cead mile failte.”
“A hundred thousand welcomes.”

May God bless you all with the gift of his wisdom.