This homily was given by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades at Holy Rosary Cathedral, Toledo, Oct. 3 and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne, Oct. 5.
The Red Mass is a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit. Every year at this Mass, we pray for members of the legal profession, lawyers, judges, students and professors of the law and also for civic officials. We ask the Holy Spirit to guide them and bless them with His manifold gifts. This year, when there is so much disunity and polarization in our nation and even within the Church in our nation, I invite you to pray for unity. The Holy Spirit is the principle and source of the Church’s unity. And “the Church is, in Christ, like a sacrament – a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all people” (LG 1).
We all see the division and polarization in our nation, the widening political chasm in our country. All we have to do is turn on any news channel on TV, skim political news on the internet, or watch a so-called “presidential debate.” There is not only a lot of disagreement on issues, which is nothing new, but also anger and outrage that some call a “public epidemic in America.” One might have expected that the Covid pandemic would have united Americans in fighting the spread of the virus, but it has divided Americans even more. So we have not only a coronavirus pandemic, but another pandemic – a pandemic of anger.
Social media, including Twitter, Facebook and blogs have often become forums used more for the expression of divisive and nasty commentary than for constructive and civil dialogue. Traditional social mores and norms of conversation are thrown to the wind. Respect for those with whom one disagrees is often missing. It has become culturally acceptable to abuse and injure other people and damage and destroy their reputation. Even many Christians engage in such a manner, seemingly oblivious to the eighth commandment’s prohibition of rash judgement, defamation, slander and calumny. The anonymity of social media emboldens some people to behave badly. We must not forget that we are not anonymous to God.
We heard the Ten Commandments in the first reading from the book of Exodus. Let us not ignore the too-often forgotten eighth commandment of the Decalogue. As lawyers and judges, you know the importance of the eighth commandment, the gravity of false witness, perjury and how it can lead to innocent people being found guilty or guilty people being exonerated. The exercise of justice is thus gravely compromised. As members of the legal profession, you are rightly sensitive to these grave offenses against truth. We all need to be sensitive to, and opposed to, the other offenses against the eighth commandment that cause unjust harm, as I mentioned, the sins of rash judgment, detraction, calumny and defamation.
Pope Francis has recognized this, noting that “Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forms of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned” (Gaudete et Exultate 115). This lack of civil dialogue and respect for others is a moral and spiritual problem, an area in which Christians should be setting a good example. As Catholics, we should be part of the solution, not part of the problem that we face in our polarized society. We are called to be better.
This past Wedneday, I celebrated the Red Mass at the University of Notre Dame in my diocese. Many of the Notre Dame Law School faculty and students were present. I spoke of their esteemed colleague who has been nominated for the Supreme Court: Amy Coney Barrett. She is entering into the angry and polarized political environment of the Senate’s confirmation process. We prayed that the Holy Spirit would bless her with His gift of fortitude. And we prayed for her husband and children. I invite you to do so as well.
In this time of division and polarization, violent words and even violent actions, we who are Catholic and Christian are called to be agents of unity and peace. We must not grieve the Holy Spirit, the principle and source of unity. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians in our second reading: “Do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice.” In today’s culture, we are called to live differently, not to grieve the Holy Spirit and to follow St. Paul’s exhortation to live in love.
We should not withdraw from the culture nor shirk our political responsibilities. As Catholics, we must not shirk our responsibility to promote the common good. We are called to be faithful citizens which means putting our Christian discipleship ahead of allegiance to one’s political party and fidelity to the Church’s teaching ahead of any political ideology. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to bear witness to the Gospel, to the moral truths and social doctrine of the Church. Imagine the good fruits for our nation if Catholics were united in our commitment to the common good, respect for the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death, commitment to justice and peace, love for the poor and care for the earth, our common home. We should be energized at this time by the Church’s consistent ethic in fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus, the Gospel of life. We can positively contribute to our nation’s unity if we do not adopt the sinful anger and hostility we see around us.
Our nation is in a moment of crisis. We need to find a way out of this crisis by looking to the patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations, the principles governing our political and social life since our founding. Those principles, Pope Benedict XVI said on the south lawn of the White House 12 years ago, “are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the ‘self-evident truth’ that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggles against slavery and in the civil rights movement.”
Our faith obliges us to work for justice. A truly just society is only possible if it is based on respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person. As Catholics, we need to be united in our embrace of the Church’s consistent ethic of life based on the truth of the dignity of every human person. Thus we will contribute to the creation of “a new culture of love and solidarity” for the “true good” of our nation and “of the whole of human society” (Evangelium vitae 101).
Our nation is imperfect. It always was and always will be. We won’t achieve perfection in the earthly city. We’ll only find it in the heavenly city. The Founding Fathers knew this. In the Preamble to the Constitution, they said that we the People were ordaining and establishing the Constitution “to form a more perfect Union.” In its original context, this meant a union more perfect than that established by the Articles of Confederation. But the founders also knew a perfect Union was not possible on this earth. We need a more perfect union today. Religion and morality are essential in this regard. As President George Washington said in his famous Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” History has shown time and time again, as Pope St. John Paul II taught, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation” and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus annus 46).
Radical individualism, materialism and moral relativism stand in the way of our becoming “a more perfect Union.” They are obstacles to the common good. The Church opposes the dictatorship of relativism that threatens genuine human freedom. When we Catholics are united in the truth that sets us free, we act as a spiritual leaven in our society. We become a leaven of hope in our society when we bring the light and truth of the Gospel to the task of building a more just and fraternal society. As members of the legal profession or as civic officials, by the witness of your faith and love, you are in a special position to further this mission. You can contribute to the moral renewal our nation needs by your witness to the moral values which will enable our nation to flourish.
In the Gospel today, we heard Jesus’ great prayer for the unity of His disciples and for the unity of all those who would believe in Him through their word. We need more unity among Catholics today, unity through fidelity to the Gospel and the social doctrine of the Church. Greater unity in the Church enables us to be truly a leaven for greater unity and harmony in society.
Brothers and sisters in the legal profession, the Church needs your witness of holiness in your noble profession. I pray that the Holy Spirit will give you the inner strength you need to persevere in faith and love during these challenging times. May the Holy Spirit help all of us to give a witness of holiness through our fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church, a fidelity born of love for God and one another! May St. Thomas More, your great model of fidelity and perseverance, intercede for you!
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