12 October 2020

Knights of Columbus: Mass for Life

As we gather this morning to celebrate the annual Pro-Life Mass with the Knights of Columbus, I am conscious of the fact that our Founder, Father Michael McGivney, will be raised to the altar, beatified by order of Pope Francis in just three weeks at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford.

Father McGivney was a remarkable man, who in just thirteen years of Priesthood taught us many lessons about the sanctity of human life.

Michael was brought up in mid-19th century Waterbury. The son of Irish immigrants, he was the oldest of thirteen children, six of whom died at a young age. And here’s where it gets incredible.

For the reason our Holy Father has ordered the beatification of Father McGivney in a couple weeks has to do with another family of 13 kids who live today in Tennessee. For thanks to Father Michael, their youngest is now five years old. Let me explain.

Michelle and Daniel Schachle were expecting their thirteenth child (there’s that number again!) when they went for the nineteen week ultrasound. Michelle described how the doctor took his time and then got very quiet. Then he layed down the scope and looked at them: “There’s nothing we can do; he’s not going to live. We can take you over and induce labor now, or you can wait and let nature take its course — but he will die.” The combination of Down syndrome and fetal hydrops, a life-threatening build-up of fluid in the tissue around the lungs, heart and abdomen, was always fatal, he told them. 

So Michelle and her husband went to see their parish priest and began planning the Funeral for their unborn child. But once they got home Daniel had an idea. Since they were both kids they had known the Knights of Columbus and had heard of their founder, Father Michael McGivney. They knew he had been declared venerable and needed a miracle to be beatified. 

“We emailed hundreds of people asking them to pray to Father McGivney for him,” Daniel later said. After all, he recalled, “Father McGivney needed a miracle to be named ‘Blessed,’ and there’s no reason it can’t be our son…He needs a miracle; we need a healing — let’s go get it.”

And they prayed in a very particular way: not for the Down syndrome to disappear.  “we welcomed that as a gift,” Daniel later said, “We simply prayed to Father McGivney “Save our baby.”

To the amazement of the doctors, the hydrops disappeared and Michael was born on May 15, 2015, the same day that the first Council of the Knights of Columbus had been founded some 123 years before.

Father McGivney loved his people. And he evidently still does, even those not yet born. For he would have agreed with our Holy Father, Francis, who wrote in his Encyclical letter Gaudete et Exsultate:

“Our defense of the innocent unborn…needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”

The Holy Father goes on:

“Equally sacred…are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

Father McGivney would have agreed with that too: Especially that year when he was in Seminary in Quebec and his father died, leaving his poor mother with six hungry mouths to feed. So he left Seminary for two years and got a job to feed and clothe and house his siblings. For he had learned that the lives of the poor and the destitute were sacred, beginning with his own family.

And he would apply that lesson years later when scores of families in his parish lost their fathers to the small pox and other diseases in the crowded Irish neighborhoods of his parish. Their children, I imagine, must have looked an awful lot like his hungry brothers and sisters had years before. Which is why he founded the Knights of Columbus, as a fraternal society providing death benefits to poor Catholic families.

He founded the Knights, he later wrote, on the principles of unity and charity: unity, he wrote, in order to gain the strength to be charitable.”

Charitable to all, and especially the ones whom everyone else had rejected, as when he refused to abandon the young James “Chip” Smith, who was sentenced to death for killing the police chief. 

Five days before the execution date, Father McGivney celebrated a Mass for James in his jail cell. And when he emerged there was a crowd outside, waiting to hear what happened. He told the gathered throng: “I am requested by Mr. Smith to ask pardon for all faults he may have had and all offenses he may have committed, and at his request I ask for the prayers of all of you, that when next Friday comes he may die a holy death.” 

Then he asked everyone to pray for those who would be there with James on the day of his execution, later writing: “To me this duty comes with almost a crushing weight. If I could consistently with my duty be far away from here next Friday, I should escape perhaps the most trying ordeal of my life, but this sad duty is placed my way by Providence and must be fulfilled.”

Father McGivney understood the sanctity of every life, and he understood it throughout the years he walked the Irish slums of his parish, especially the half dozen years they were were hit with smallpox. And in his final year, it got even worse with an influenza epidemic killing one out of ten of his parishioners.

Maybe it was during a Funeral that he caught it, or maybe in one of his trips to a sick parishioner’s house. No one really knows. But the thirty-eight year old priest died of pneumonia on the 14th of August 130 years ago.

And on that day, the Church now proclaims, young Father Michael was welcomed to the mountain of the LORD of hosts, where “the veil that veils all peoples” and “the web that is woven over all nations” has been destroyed. He was welcomed to that place where “the Lord will wipe away the tears from every face” and they will “rejoice and be glad” in his presence forever.

So let us pray with Father Michael McGiveney:

for every child in his or her mother’s womb: that they might be protected and defended from all harm;

for every little child in our church and in out country: that we might cherish and protect them, that they might thrive in safety and joy;

for every mother too poor to feed her children, or every father too impoverished to put a roof over their heads;

for those we threw away: for the abandoned, the homeless, the underprivileged, the handicapped and those who are different from us: that we might seek them out and welcome them home;

for the vulnerable elderly and the infirm: that we might thank God for their lives, their wisdom and their infinite value;

for the victims of human trafficking: that we might work to free them from those who would use and abuse them as commodities to be traded and not cherish them as sacred gifts from a loving God;

and for all who are rejected, forgotten or alone, that we might love them with the love of Christ, and lay down our lives for them.

Let us pray with Father McGivney, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, that heaven might look down on                ‘babies not allowed to be born, 

on the poor whose lives are intolerable, 

on victims of brutal violence, 

and on the elderly and the sick…

‘that we might defend them,

by proclaiming the Gospel of Life 

with honesty and love.’  Amen.

02 October 2020

A Prayer for President Trump

God of mercy and compassion:
look upon our President;
Support him with your power,
comfort him with your protection,
and keep him in your tender care.

Bless our country in this time of trial.
Make us good and true:
that we might proclaim the truth,
discern your will
and carry out your commands.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

29 September 2020

On Government and Virtue: A Homily

In April of 1776, John Adams, responding to a request from the North Carolina Colonial Assembly, sent a letter of advice on how to form a government. Constitutional scholars remark at Adams’ invention in this letter of three branches of government and other elements which twelve years later would end up in the Constitution of the United States of America.

But perhaps most remarkable was not his description of what our nation should look like, but why it should be a nation at all. For the purpose of government, he insisted, is the happiness of its people; and the source of that happiness, he wrote, “consists in virtue.” Government governs best, Adams argued, when it makes its citizens virtuous.

The first Catholic Bishop of these United States reiterated Adam’s view in his Prayer for the New Government some fifteen years later. Archbishop John Carroll (whose brother signed the Declaration of Independence) prayed that President Washington conduct the nation’s business with “righteousness,” and this, he went on, was how he was to do it: “by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality.”

Indeed, in the farewell address of the first President of the United States in 1797, he too declared that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are the indispensable supports.”

So it is that many of our founding fathers saw the pursuit of virtue as the foundation of the American experiment in self government. For as Adams elsewhere reflects: fear is the foundation of the governments of kings and despots, but this new American nation has been founded for the pursuit of happiness, and the virtue which makes it possible.

So what is this virtue on which we have been founded? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as "a habitual and firm disposition to do the good,” a disposition best lived out in faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

Likewise, Saint Paul defines virtue today in his spiritual testament, written from a jail cell in Rome, shortly before he was martyred for the faith. In this remarkable letter to the Phillipians, our patron defines virtue as imitation of Christ, counseling his readers to “do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory; but rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”

He calls us to imitate Christ, who the night before he died for us “lays aside his garments and girds himself with a towel, who bends down to wash the Apostles’ feet and asks them: ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’”

And then he opens his arms on a Cross, out of love for us in our sinfulness, empties himself and takes on the form of a slave, obedient unto death

Saint Eusebius of Caesarea put it another way: “[Christ] took upon himself the labors of the suffering members, and made our sicknesses his and suffered on our account all our woes and labors by the laws of love, in conformity with his great love for humanity.”3

So if Adams and Washington and Archbishop Carroll are right, and the foundation of American government and the American way of life is virtue, then the foundation of the American way of life and of this nation is to be like Christ. And our greatness may be found not in how many towers of Babel we might build to show how great we are, nor in how many nations or empires we can conquer to show how powerful we are. No...our greatness lies in our goodness and in our capacity to be the shining city on the hill, the nation who is good and true, with liberty and justice for all.

They understood that in the House of Representatives that night when they gathered in the presence of President and Mrs. Lincoln to honor the Christian Commission, a voluntary association of religious organizations which provided medical and chaplaincy services to Union troops. Preachers spoke, and so did Congressmen and other important representatives of the Federal Government. The talks went on and on.

But when the twenty-seven year old Chaplain Charles C. McCabe came to the lectern something happened.

Only the year before, McCabe explained, he has been captured by Confederate forces and was imprisoned with other Union troops in Richmond. He told of the night in Libby Prison when they heard of the Union Victory at Gettysburg, and how he led the Union soldiers in singing a song he had ripped out of the Atlantic Monthly, written by the poet and anti-slavery activist Julia Ward Howe three years earlier. And so he sang it for all these big and important people.

According to one paper: “Applause greeted the ending of nearly every stanza,” and the President asked that he sing it again. The papers told of tears running down Lincoln’s face, especially as the young McCabe sang the last verse:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, He is wisdom to the mighty,
He is succor to the brave,
So the world shall be his footstool,

and the soul of time his slave, Our God is marching on.

One last story:

In 1783, following the end of the Revolutionary War and the birth of this republic, George Washington gave up command of the Continental Army. Yet despite the victory, it was a time of great uncertainty and dissension, and it would be five years until Washington would become our first President.

And so it was from Newburgh, New York, where a few months before he had put down a mutiny by some of his former soldiers, the former commander-in-chief wrote to the Governors of the fledgling states with advice on the road ahead. He concluded his letter with a prayer, which should be hours as well:

“that God would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without which, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”

17 September 2020

On Envy and Being a Daisy

The Lord speaks to us through the Prophet Isaiah:

“my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways…

As high as the heavens are above the earth,

so high are my ways above your ways

and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Who is God? Totally, completely and unalterably.  Who is God?

God is love, we are told by John the Apostle in his first letter.  In fact he says it twice and the Greek is unambiguous: “O THEOS AGAPE ESTIN.” “God is love.”

If God, then, is love, we, his creatures, made in his image and likeness, are made for love: a love that is patient and kind; not jealous or pompous, rude or quick to judge A love which , in the words of Saint Paul, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” A love that bleeds every drop for love of the beloved, that dies that we might live, and suffers that we might be redeemed.

But, sadly, our love is seldom so boundless, and our ways seldom so loving. Too often, we are the grumbling workers, resenting those who seem to have what we want: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat,’ jealous of God’s goodness to our brothers, consumed by what Shakespeare called the “green eyed monster” of envy.

Pope Francis speaks eloquently about this “worm of jealously and envy,” that turns hearts bitter heart and makes these unhappy hearts pump vinegar instead of blood.  Such hearts are the cause of violence, conflict and discord.  The Holy Father goes on, “War does not begin on the battlefield: war begins in the heart, with this misunderstanding, division, envy, with this fighting with each other.”

Sometimes, we too are jealous, you and I.  Lotsa times, we are jealous.  “Who does she think she is?”  “Mrs. Astor on her high horse?”  “God’s gift to mankind?” And him! “The King of the world?” “God Almighty?” “The know-it-all!”

And God looks at us with a patient smile and says:

“What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own mercy? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Is your love so little, so miserly and so grasping that you cannot understand my love for the lost, the forgotten and even the sinner?  Is your love so small, that you cannot accept my love for you?”

And there God is right. I seldom understand how much he loves me. Me, as I am, in all my messiness.  Not me the the super hero. But me, in all my littleness and in all the ways that I am not like those well paid laborers, the ones to whom he gives all the talents, the good looks and the fame.

Indeed, the more I accept the lot which God has chosen for me, and stop envying the life of the glamorous others, the more I accept his love, and the more I know, in the words of Saint James, the wisdom which is from above, “pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

And when we accept where God wants us to be, envy drops away and we finally realize that happiness and holiness is not about doing great things, but in surrendering to God’s will, so that he can do with me what he will, in all things, great or small.

Saint Therese of Lisieux said it best:

“Our Lord has explained this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtime beauty, and the fields would not longer be enameled with lovely colors. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but he has also created little ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at his feet, and whose mission it is to gladden his Divine Eyes when he looks down upon them. And the more gladly they do his will the greater their perfection.”

So there is the great secret: if we make our ways God’s ways, and if our love is like unto his, we need only surrender to his will and be glad that he made us a daisy.

10 September 2020

On Mercy and the Culture of Hate


From a Newspaper in the presidential candidate’s hometown:

“People now marvel how it came to pass that a man like this should have been selected as the [presidential candidate] of any party. His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile and disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world…[for he] indulges in simple twaddle which would disgrace a well bred school boy."

That ran in the Salem Advocate in Salem, Illinois.  The year was 1860 and the candidate was Abraham Lincoln.

As we embark upon the homestretch of that season when candidates for great office in our State and in our Nation vie for the votes of our citizens, this noble enterprise seems all too often dominated by those who succumb to what our Holy Father, has called the “all-pervasive and growing culture of hate.”

And let me quick to say that such behavior is not the characteristic of any one party, person, ideology or office. Rather it is a disease so virulent that it infects us all with what one author has called “the startlingly hate-centered nature of our culture and discourse.”

Nor is this a new phenomenon, as the opening critique of our sixteenth President reminds us, for as the 1826 essay of William Hazlitt, “The Pleasure of Hating” opined “Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. . . . The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible.”

Nor is this an exclusively political reality, as the disciples remind us when they approach Jesus with the  burning question “How often must I forgive my brother?” Now that’s a curious question, for what they are really asking is: “When can I stop forgiving my brother?”  When can I call fire and brimstone down upon him for all he has done for me?  When can I just let him have it!

It is the question of the fifth grader taunted by the bully at recess, the teenager jilted by his first love, the worker oppressed by a miserable boss, the divorced person negotiating alimony or the business person whose partner ran away with all the money.

"I have had it with all the hurt I have suffered and I just want them to suffer as well!"

The author of the Book of Sirach wrote this book of pithy sayings and deep thoughts a little over 2.000 year ago, but few of his sayings are quite as stark as the one we heard this morning:

“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.”

I don’t understand, Sirach’s disciples must have said to him. I’m more of an "eye-for-an eye" kinda guy. If he gives it to me, let me give it back to him twice as hard!

But Sirach disagrees. “The vengeful,” he tells them, “the vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance.” 

Then what does God want us to do?  With the disciples, we run to Jesus and say:

Do you know what he did to me?

Do you know you know what she said about me?

Do you know how purely evil that one is?

Just let me at him!

And Jesus smiles at us, with an infinitely patient love, and says, you know what you need to do? Forgive him. Forgive him once and twice and three times, and four times and five times and six times and seven times and over and over and over agin.

“For do you really think,” he says to us, “Do you really think that your sin is so much less than his?  Do you really think that you are so much more deserving of my love?

If you do, think again. And the next time you want to make your brother suffer to pay his debt to you, remember the guy in the parable who threw his debtor into prison, and remember the words spoken to him by his master: ’You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’

Remember what you pray so many times a day; “Forgive us our sins as, to the extent we forgive those who sin against us.

As in Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord goes on: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Thus has Pope Francis frequently warned us against fanning the flames of  “a culture of hate.”

Pope Francis recently told the story of a priest back in Argentina who came to him with the sad story of an elderly woman who was on her deathbed. I’ll let him pick up the story. 

“The poor woman could not speak. And the priest asked her: Madam, do you repent of your sins? The woman said yes; she could not confess them, but she said yes. It was sufficient. And then he asked her: Do you forgive others? And the woman said, on her deathbed: No. The priest was deeply distressed, because he knew from the Gospels that if you do not forgive others, God will not forgive you.”

For “Jesus,” the Holy Father continues, “has replaced the law of retaliation (what you have done to me, I will do to you) with the law of love (what God has done for me, I shall do for you in return!)”

One last story. 

When Abraham Lincoln assembled his wartime cabinet, as Doris-Kearns Goodwin recently reminded us, he faced a critical choice in who he would choose as his Secretary of War.

Everyone urged him to choose the prestigious and talented lawyer Edwin Stanton, without knowing that Lincoln and Stanton had a history.

Decades before, the very young Lincoln had been chosen by a prestigious law firm to work with them on an important patent case. He was thrilled and for the first tin his young life, flattered. So, after working for months on his first big case, the young Lincoln took the train to Cincinatti, where the well-established and respected Stanton had been chosen to head the team on which Lincoln was to serve. 

Stanton treated the young lawyer with nothing but contempt. He refused to read hi brief, did not allow him to sit with him in courtroom, and loudly questioned his colleagues why the firm to had sent him this “long armed ape.”

President Lincoln could have enjoyed his revenge on Stanton, but instead he asked him to be his Secretary of War, and to lead us effectively through the Civil War. For as Lincoln later wrote: 

“I am slow to listen to recriminations among my friends, and never espouse their quarrels on either side. My only wish is that both sides will allow bygones to be bygones, and look to the present and future alone.”

On the night that President Lincoln died in that little room across from Ford’s Theatre, his cabinet gathered around the bed. And at the moment he breathed his last, it was Stanton who uttered those immortal words: “now he belongs to the ages.” And then he wept.

For, as the Psalmist reminds us, “the Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” And he expects us to be the same.

07 September 2020

It Doesn't Last

This was the homily I preached on August 23rd on poor old Shebna, as described by Isaiah 22: 19-23.

I think one of the coolest rites from the coronation of a Pope, started with Pope Alexander V and lasted all the way through Pope Paul VI. There was the Holy Father, all dressed up in splendiferous gold and silver vestments as he was carried into Saint Peter’s Basilica. 

Three tiames they would stop and a cleric, holding a burning piece of flax. And as the flax would quickly burn out, smolder and die, he would cry out: 

Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi. (Holy Father, thus passes the glory oft he world.)

We’ve really lost something by eliminating that rite from Papal inaugurations and I even suspect we might all be better off if it could be used at the inauguration of every public official. Sic transit gloria mundi. Timothy understood that, and so did Major Taylor and Shebna.

In the course of the Revolutionary war which gave birth to this country, there were few men more famous than the Worcester blacksmith Timothy Bigelow, delegate to the Provincial Congress, and leader of the Worcester’s minute men, who fought in Lexington and Concord some 245 years ago. 

He was a prisoner of the British for almost a year, commander of the 15th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army, and with Washington at Valley Forge, Monmouth, and Yorktown. 

He later served at West Point commanded the arsenal in Springfield, and bought, built and named the city of Montpelier, Vermont. He also has a mountain named after him in Maine.

Yet, after he accomplished all this, in his late 40’s, Timothy got sick and came home to Anna and his six children in  Worcester, only to find his household deeply encumbered by debt. Unable to return to blacksmithing, he was sentenced to debtors' prison, where he died a short time later. 

He was buried in the old burying grounds on Worcester Common, behind the town hall. 

Less than a half century later, the town fathers laid flat all the gravestones and buried the cemetery in dirt. Then they laid railroad tracks over the forgotten cemetery and no one remembered Timothy. Except for an obelisk later erected in memory of the colonial soldier by his grandson, there was no sign that he, nor the bodies of the 400 other Worcester citizens who died between 1730 to 1789 were there. 

Indeed, it was not until the City began to erect a reflecting pool in 1968 that their graves were rediscovered.”

Timothy Bigelow was one of the most renowned of Worcester’s citizens for over three decades. Then he fell into poverty, died in a debtor’s prison and was buried in a soon to be forgotten cemetery over which they built a railroad and a reflecting pool. Sic transit gloria mundi.

And then there’s Major Taylor, the man for whom the old Worcester Center Boulevard was renamed and who is honored outside the Library by the only public statue to an African American man in Worcester.

The teenage “Major” came here in 1895 (he earned the nickname, by the way, doing bicycle tricks in a military uniform as a little kid).  

This was a time when Worcester was so into bicycling that we had half a dozen bicycle factories and more than thirty Bicycle stores. 

They used to refer to Major  as “the Worcester whirlwind” and “the Black Cyclone.” He lived on Hobson Avenue (up near Coe’s Pond) and was described by the New York Times as “the fasted man alive,” winning seven world championships…only the second black athlete in history to achieve a world championship in any sport. 

As you can imagine, he faced gross discrimination, barred from most restaurants and hotels in the south. And even in the enlightened Northeast, where they used to throw ice water in his face or nails in the road in front of the tires on his bike. Yet, devoutly religious, he believed, as he once wrote, that “life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart and that is why I have no hard feelings against anybody.” He missed out on several major competitions because they were held on Sunday and, as a devout Baptist, he believe it was wrong to race on Sundays.

Few athletes or great men of his age had accomplished so much. Yet after his retirement he moved to Chicago and lost all his money to unscrupulous con-men, mainly through the printing of his self-published autobiography. Toward the end, he lived in the YMCA in downtown Chicago, where he would try to sell tattered copies of his autobiography in order to get something to eat. After suffering a heart attack he died in the charity ward of the Hospital and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Sic transit gloria mundi.

And finally, there’s poor old Shebna in the passage from Isaiah which Theresa just read to us.

Shebna was the master of the palace, King Hezekiah’s treasurer or comptroller.  He was also an accomplished diplomat, sent by the King to negotiate with the Assyrians and he was a great advocate at court for closer relations with the Egyptians. He was really hot stuff, but the problem was he knew it.

In fact he built a great stone monument to serve as his grave, a portion of which has survived to this day and is persevered in the British Museum. He built a monument to himself, it seems, because he was convinced his fame would last forever. 

But, inevitably, Shebna’s luster faded and his hubris led the Lord  to replace him with Eliakim, a brighter and presumably more humble up and comer. As Isaiah tells us, he was dethroned and replaced, “thrust from his office and pulled down from his station.” Sic transit gloria mundi.


So the next time we sprain our wrists trying to pat ourselves on the back, convinced what an accomplished celebrity we have made ourselves and how lucky God is to count us among his creatures, perhaps we would do well to  remember Colonel Bigelow, Major Taylor, the Renaissance Pope on his sedia gestatoria and poor old Shebna.

For in the end, we are, each one of us, nothing but unworthy servants, poor wretched recipients of God’s mercy and grace. 

And all our grand and glorious achievements are really nothing more than God’s gratuitous gifts to us, gifts given to his children for a little while to show us how much he loves them and salve their fragile egos.

For, in reality, there are, as our patron reminds us, only three things that last: Faith, Hope and Love. 

Everything else is like a piece of swift burning flax, and thus passes the glory of this world.

06 September 2020

On Good People Doing Something

Helmuth von Moltke was born to a military family and taught from an early age of his responsibilities to his homeland.

So when, in the first years of World War II, when he began to hear of atrocities committed by German troops against the Jews, he was torn between his ancestral obligations and the words we heard a few moments ago from the Prophet Ezekiel: “if you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, the wicked man shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

So, with his friend Yorck, Helmuth gathered together a small group of intellectuals, theologians and aristocrats to dream and plot what Germany might look like once the Nazi Reich had met its inevitable end.

But those meetings were never enough to quiet Helmuth’s nagging conscience, as he wrote to his wife Freja in 1941: “How can I know all of this and yet sit her at my table in my heated flat and have tea? Don’t I thereby become guilty as well?”

So he did what he could, subverting the state through his work for the intelligence service, he used to smuggle out resistance pamphlets, which the Americans would reproduce and drop from the sky on major German cities. He urged all his Jewish clients and friends to flee Germany, reminding one of them, “Remember, Holland is not far enough!”

But still none of it was enough to satisfy Helmut’s nagging conscience. 

“What shall I say,” he wrote again to his wife, “What shall I say when I am asked And what did you do during that time?” “Since Saturday,” he went on “the Berlin Jews are being rounded up. Then they are sent off with what they can carry...How can anyone know these things and walk around free?”

So he continued to speak out and do what he could, until he was arrested and eventually charged with treason. He was executed in 1945.

And I suspect that with his last breath, his final thought was not unlike those which troubled him throughout his life: What more can I do?  How can I not speak out?

For Helmuth understood our obligation to speak the truth, despite the cost. He knew what Saint Paul meant when he lamented  “Woe to me if I fail to preach the Gospel!” And he understood what Pope Francis calls the danger of “comfortable and silent complicity” which can lead us to hell just as surely as the original sin.

That’s what the people came to learn that Christmas night in a small New England town as the Priest, standing in the pulpit to give his homily, noticed that most of the them weren’t looking at him. They seemed to be looking past him at a single candelabra that was placed just inches from the flowing sheer fabric that provided a backdrop for the manger. As he began to speak, he later wrote, he was perplexed. “What did I say? What’s going on with these people?”

And then above five minutes into his homily it happened. The vents blew the fabric into the candelabra and the flame traveled quickly up the cloth, followed by running, shouting, and the holy water bucket being used as a fire extinguisher.

The fire didn’t do much damage, except to the consciences of those who had stared for so long, but sat there silently afraid to be the first to interrupt the homily. They all saw it coming, but everyone was silent.

And we do it all time. We prefer to hide under a bushel basket, rather than blow the trumpet of warning.

Was anyone ever better at blowing the trumpet against injustice than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, less than 2% of the African Americans in the county where Alabama’s Edmund Pettis Bridge stood were allowed to vote. Indeed, as Dr. King wrote from the Selma jail, “There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.”

And so, as you have no doubt heard, they marched across a steel span bridge named after a Confederate general and reputed grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.  It did not end well, as was predicted by Dr. King, when the night before he preached a powerful sermon in which he reminded the congregation that when a man stands up against evil, he will inevitably suffer. His home may get bombed, he may lose his job, or get shot, or beatan down by state troopers.

But, he continued, the just man stands up to evil anyways. Because “a man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

For silence kills the soul. 

The silence of one who suspects a child is being abused and looks the other way. 

The silence of the one who sees an intoxicated colleague walk out to his car and does nothing to stop him.

The silence of one who sees a friend strike his wife, but doesn’t want to get involved.

The silence of one who knows his best friend in school is taking drugs, but doesn’t want to get him in trouble.

The silence of the girl watches as a bully makes another girl cry, and refuses to get involved.

The silence of the one who delights in the juicy rumor rather than coming to the defense of an innocent victim of malicious gossip.

Lotsa silence kills. For, as a wise man once said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” 

As we gather this morning to celebrate the annual Pro-Life Mass with the Knights of Columbus, I am conscious of the fact that our Founder, F...