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Lent is an invitation to look at ourselves with unflinching honesty

Homily by Archbishop Wenski at Red Mass in Key West

Homily by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at Red Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West. Friday, March 3, 2017. 

Today's Red Mass - invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the officers of the court - unites us to a long and noble tradition which recognizes the sovereignty of God over all human claims to sovereignty. A tradition which our own experiment in constitutional democracy has embraced.  

At this Mass, we also evoke the happy memory of St. Thomas More, a lawyer and confessor of the faith whose martyrdom earns our admiration and should inspire our imitation even as we seek his intercession before Jesus, the Just Judge of the Living and the Dead. We ask the Holy Spirit to give you in your mission as Catholics and as professional people who are sworn officers of the courts of our land the aid of his seven-fold gifts so that you, like Thomas More, will have the courage of your convictions and thus be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. We also celebrate this Mass at the beginning of the Lenten Season.

These days almost everybody knows about Ramadan - we might not know when it begins or ends but we know that during Ramadan, Muslims do fast and pray. And apparently they do so quite intentionally and with appropriate seriousness of purpose.

Do we Catholics approached Lent with the same intentionally and seriousness?

As members of the Church, we are a pilgrim people who, as one prayer says, go about “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” In any case, our journey through life takes us along hills and valleys; that is, through high points and low points.  But, pilgrims given the difficulties of the trek should travel light – without being encumbered with excess baggage. Lent with its call to penance and repentance is basically an invitation to lose the excess baggage of sin and vice. The various practices of Lent - fasting, praying, mortifications and sacrifices - are not about punishing ourselves. Rather, by freeing us of the encumbrances of sin, they about helping us to achieve the freedom that can help us practice at being our own best selves - to incline ourselves to do the right thing at the right time.  

Thus, Lent is a way of checking our spiritual GPS – to make sure that with all the twists and turns of our life’s journey we are still going in the right direction. Lent reminds us that the true purpose of life is not to seek our glory but God’s glory and that is found not through self-assertion or self-seeking or, as Pope Francis likes to say, “being self-absorbed”; but, through self-giving and self-sacrificing.

Thus, Lent -which recalls Jesus' time in the desert - is a time of combat; a time of spiritual battle against spirit of evil.  

Lent assumes that we know the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. And so Lent is not an invitation to engage in moral arguments or debates about why something is wrong or right; but, rather, it is an invitation to look at ourselves with unflinching honesty during this special time of grace and in the light of the gospel to try to figure out why we choose wrongly, and learn what we must do.  

“Where is your brother?” This was question God asked Cain after he had murdered Abel.  And can we not also understand that God is asking us this same question today in the face of our seeming indifference and complacency. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain contemptuously asks the Lord God.  God uses the rest of the Bible to tell us, “Yes, you are.”

Understanding that we are our brothers’ keepers can be a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions to self-sufficiency.   Indifference to our neighbor and to God describes pretty much our world today marked, as it is, with an increasingly self-absorbed individualism.  

Pope Francis on his first visit outside of Rome went to Lampedusa to pray with and comfort African boat people who had been shipwrecked as they sailed seeking refuge in Europe.  He saw their plight as the result of the “globalization of indifference” that has created what he also calls a “throw-away” culture. The plights of refugees, the marginalization of immigrants, the loneliness of the elderly, the hopelessness of unemployed youth, the fracturing of the family are all part of a long litany of “woes” that a globalized indifference has created; and they lead to an equally long list of evils that the world “tolerates” – genocide, euthanasia, drug addiction, abortion, to name just a few.

Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.  For example, in our first reading, Isaiah challenges our idea that we can make a good Lent merely by giving up sweets or deserts. The Lord speaks through Isaiah saying:  “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”  

The catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – these works of mercy can help us remind us that we are not only to avoid sin as followers of Jesus Christ; we are also to do good. So perhaps, “fasting” for you could be some extra “pro-bono” work in your community.  

At any rate, the traditional practices of Lent – more intense prayer, sacrifices and mortifications, almsgiving and other acts of charity – are all about teaching us to say “NO” to ourselves so that freed from the slavery to our desires we can say “YES” to God and to our neighbor in need.

St. Thomas More – patron Saint of lawyers and politicians – knew very well those traditional practices of Lent. Praying, fasting and almsgiving helped him as they can help us achieve that freedom which helps us become our best selves – choosing to do what is right when it would have been easier to equivocate.

St. Thomas More suffered martyrdom because he refused to accede to the King Henry the VIII's unjust and overreaching demand that loyalty to him and to the State should precede More's loyalty to God and the Church. Thomas More refused to betray the truth revealed in Jesus Christ about God and Man - and the right relationship of man to his God. A man of a strong Catholic faith, he refused to betray his conscience. This conscience was not a capricious one; but one formed by reasoned faith and faith filled reason. "I am", he said, "the King's good servant; but God's servant first". 

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