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'One way or another, discipleship has a cost'

Archbishop Wenski's homily at Red Mass in Miami

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily Oct. 24, 2019, during the celebration of the annual Red Mass for those in the legal profession in Miami-Dade County. The Mass is organized by the The Miami Catholic Lawyers Guild. It was celebrated at Gesu Church, Miami. Click here for story.

With all the divisiveness in our society and in politics today, it might seem like the last thing we need to hear is a gospel text that seemingly encourages more division. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Jesus says. 

But, of course, Jesus has set the world on fire: it first happened when, in fulfillment of his promise, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and those gathered in that Upper Room as tongues of fire.

Today, we invoke that same Holy Spirit on the members of the bar. May the Holy Spirit enflame your hearts and enlighten your minds so that you may “be truly wise and ever rejoice in his consolation.”

Today, at this annual Red Mass, we wear red vestments to evoke that fire of the Holy Spirit – but red is, also, evocative of the blood of martyrs, like that of the great Catholic lawyer and statesman, Sir Thomas More.

Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Two weeks ago, the United States Attorney General, William Barr, gave a remarkable speech at Notre-Dame University’s School of Law. His talk was a passionate defense of religious liberty. “The problem,” he said, “is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.” If Attorney General Barr didn’t set the earth on fire, he certainly caused some fireworks – judging by the reaction his speech provoked among those who fancied themselves as “progressives”: their reaction to his words exposed the divisions that beset our society today.

Barr is of course correct: in our Western liberal democracies, discrimination against religion in general and Catholic Christianity, in particular, is growing — albeit in perhaps more sophisticated and less violent ways than in the past. In order to fit new political agendas, religious freedom is being reinterpreted narrowly to mean merely “freedom to worship” but excluding the freedom to serve and the freedom to witness.

Education, family law, and healthcare are just some of the areas in which narrow readings of religious freedom are paving the way for anti-religious policies. These efforts to restrict religious liberty are seemingly founded in a reductive secularism that has more in common with the French Revolution than with America's founding. They seek to delegitimize the Church's participation in public debate about issues that will determine the future of American society. And, so we see a presidential candidate threaten to revoke Church’s tax exemptions if the Church dissents from “political correctness” by teaching that true marriage is a union of one man and one woman and nuns running nursing homes being forced to provide contraceptives in their health plans. This term, the US Supreme Court will rule on significant cases dealing with religious liberty: one, a challenge to the constitutionality of Blaine amendments that discriminate against religious schools; and another, that will uphold or redefine the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title V’s understanding of the word “sex.”

The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person. Religious freedom is the human right that guarantees all other rights — peace and creative living together will only be possible if freedom of religion is fully respected.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote approvingly about our American experiment in democracy in the early 19th century, said: “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot.” But even as de Tocqueville pointed out almost 200 years ago, despotism comes in both soft and hard forms. Thomas More was a victim of despotism in its hardest form, as was John the Baptist, martyred for his witness about the truth of marriage. Today, this type of hard despotism continues to decimate the Christian populations of the Middle East.

But, in this country and in other liberal democracies, people of faith are being increasingly subjected to a soft despotism in which ridicule, ostracism, and denial of employment opportunities of advancement are being used to marginalize us. We see this when butchers and bakers and candlestick makers are being put into the legal dock for refusing to renounce their religious beliefs.  

“From now on,” Jesus says, “a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three ... son against father, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

The Cross divides. The Cross divides everyone and everything. It is important that we recognize how different the Jesus of the Gospel is from the image of Christ that prevails in our culture today. Today, the popular image of Jesus is of a Jesus who demands nothing, who never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything – a Jesus who no longer does anything but affirm us. As a great theologian – who was once known as Cardinal Ratzinger – once said, “The Jesus that makes everything okay for everybody is a phantom, a dream, and not a real figure.”

The Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus that the Catholic Church preaches, is by contrast demanding and bold. If he was really accepting and tolerant of all things and toward all people, do you think he would have ended up murdered on a cross? And, if St. Thomas More just went along with the King, he would have kept his head. 

One way or another, discipleship has a cost. To follow Jesus is never easy – because Jesus takes us to the narrow way, not to “easy street.” And today, you, as Catholics and as judges and members of the bar, if you are to be the effective presence of Christ in the world today, you cannot be ashamed or afraid of those very real demands of discipleship that Jesus boldly makes on those who would be his followers. And so, for you, we pray, Come Holy Spirit.

More than ever, you need those gifts of the Holy Spirit given at baptism and confirmation, to guide you as the demands of discipleship increasingly bring you into conflict with the culture that surrounds us. And so, we pray, Come Holy Spirit.

If we are to be faithful to Christ and his teachings we will have to swim against the tide, as Pope Francis says – the tide of relativism that is changing the way our contemporaries understand sex and marriage and the dignity of human life at its very beginnings and its end. And so, we pray, Come Holy Spirit. 

“The Wages of Sin is death,” St. Paul tells us in today’s first reading. “But, the gift of God is Eternal Life in Christ, Jesus, Our Lord.”

And so, we pray: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

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