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Faith commits us to making world a better place

Archbishop Wenski's homily at Red Mass in Broward

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at the annual Red Mass for those in the legal profession in Broward County, which is sponsored each year by the St. Thomas More Society of South Florida. The Mass was celebrated May 15, 2018, at St. Anthony Church, Fort Lauderdale.

We gather at this annual Red Mass to invoke the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus and we pray tonight for a renewed outpouring of his gifts upon the members of the bar. We do so during some special days of prayer: the time between Our Lord’s Ascension and Pentecost Sunday. We recall how after the Ascension, Jesus’ disciples along with his Mother Mary returned to the Upper Room – the room of the Last Supper and of the first encounters with the Risen Lord – and there they awaited in prayer for the Promised Holy Spirit.

These days I and other bishops are engaged in celebrating many confirmations. In the confirmation ritual, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Paraclete, a word borrowed from the Greek, Paracletos. In the Gospel according to St. John, which was originally written in Greek, Jesus refers four times to the Holy Spirit as Paracletos.

I try to take care to pronounce “paraclete” carefully; but I am sure that the kids –and their parents – hear parakeet. This Greek word – paracletos, not parakeet – can be translated as Counselor, Advocate, Helper. Literally it means “one called alongside of” to aid, exhort and encourage. In the Alleluia verse, we heard Jesus’ words: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate (Paracletos) and he will be with you always.”

And so, we should not be surprised to learn that this Greek word was used in legal settings to refer to an attorney making a defense in court on behalf of someone accused. Thus, the Holy Spirit as “paraclete” is given to us, Christians, to stand beside us in support as we battle temptation and endure the trials of this world and to rebut the accusations of the…. devil. (Apologies to the prosecutors here tonight.)

Nor should we be surprised that lawyers – both defenders and prosecutors – and judges should feel the need to invoke the help and encouragement of the Holy Spirit as they carry out their duties as officers of the court.

We do so with no apologies – for while such a public display of religious faith by public officials might seem strange in the now old Europe that sprung from the secular republicanism of the French Revolution, it should not be strange to find American citizens unselfconsciously at prayer. After all, we inhabit a country that has been described as “a nation with the soul of a church.”

As St. Augustine pointed out in a book he wrote as he watched the Roman Empire collapse around him, we, Christians, are citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man. Today we do well to thank God that the City of Man where we dwell is the United States of America and not the Rome that sent Christians to the lions.

Our founding fathers got something right – which their contemporaries in continental Europe did not. They got it right when they secured religious freedom for themselves and their posterity by recognizing in the Bill of Rights a distinction between religious authority and state power. Church and State would be separated. There would be no religious test for public office. The State would not be the arbiter of religious claims. That would be left to the individual conscience of each citizen.

Yet there are inevitable tensions for any City built by men, even a City that shines, as it were, on a hill, as a beacon of liberty like our United States of America. For any City built by fallen men will unavoidably reflect man’s fallen nature.

Two-hundred years ago slavery was written into the constitution and of course women could not vote. Four decades ago, the “right” to an abortion was readinto our Constitution by our Supreme Court justices. And most recently, by an act of will rather than any judicial precedent, marriage was redefined by the Court. And, of course, our immigration system continues to be broken – inadequate laws rather than stemming illegal immigration make illegal immigration inevitable, creating a new underclass made up of irregular immigrants who could be described not so much as law-breakers as those being broken by the law.

Having a dual citizenship – one in the City of Man by birthright or naturalization, the other in the City of God through baptism – does bring about tensions. And I as a bishop and you as Catholics in the public square do live with those tensions.

No surprise here – but thank God that our forefathers, in establishing our republican form of democracy, did not pretend that they were building heaven on earth. In the 20th century, dreamers of that ilk – men like Stalin and Hitler and the Castro’s – ended up making their nations hells on earth.

Our Founding Fathers got it right in setting up a limited government – with checks and balances – in order to provide ordered freedom for its citizens. Even what has come to be called “separation of Church and State,” although these words are not found in the constitution, was to limit the power of the state over purely religious affairs. In other words, it was meant to keep the State from dictating to the Church. It did not mean that government must be insulated from religious values, or the separation of faith from society.

Indeed, from the beginning, the participation of God-fearing people in the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies was welcomed and encouraged. The Florida Catholic Conference and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops regularly engage on a number of public policy issues and we attempt to shape legislation that promotes the common good and protects the poor and the most vulnerable.

Unlike those governments promoting a secularized heaven on earth, here in the United States, at least most of the time, the State and Church do not see themselves as rivals but as partners – partners in a healthy dialog to encourage the integral development of the human person and harmony in society.

Our dialog is not about seeking to impose a creedal definition on any citizen; but, we do offer a proposal towards a fuller understanding of the truth about the human person and of his God-given dignity and freedom. This understanding is born of faith but it is not unknowable to human reasoning. We can offer our contemporaries a view of man which is certainly in conformity with our founding fathers’ belief in nature and nature’s God. We can offer a view of man that allows fellow human beings a means to find themselves.

Though on pilgrimage to an Eternal City, as a people of faith, we are called to be not against the world, not of the world, but for the world. Indeed, our belief in a transcendent destiny does not distract us from engagement in the affairs of the world. It commits us to making the world a better place. The proud tradition of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy carried on by the Church for two millennia is testimony to our commitment to human solidarity. We believe that our earthly life is not a dead end; but a road that leads somewhere. We commit ourselves to maintain that road – so that the obstacles placed along that road by sin – personal and structural – do not keep us or our fellow human beings from arriving at our eternal destination.

No one should have to apologize for being a Catholic in America today. And no one should question our contributions as citizens to our country. And no one should think that he or she has to abandon faithfulness to Catholic teachings as a price to enter into the public square. As officers of the court, you have a most worthy patron in St. Thomas More, martyred for his uncompromising devotion to a rightly formed and informed conscience. As he invoked the help of the Paraclete, may you too seek the Holy Spirit’s gifts.

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest, and in our hearts take up thy rest: Come with thy grace and heavenly aid to fill the hearts which thou hast made.

Kindle our sense from above, and make our hearts o'erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high the weakness of our flesh supply. 

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