Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware
Bishop Saltarelli, Bishop Malooly thank you very much for inviting me to be with you this day. It is an honor for me and it is an added blessing to celebrate this Mass with you.
My brothers and sisters, especially those of you from the judiciary and officers of the court it is an equal honor and joy to be with you this day.
In these uncertain financial times when stocks move up and down more than any roller coaster ride with no real assurance of when it will stop, and pension plans and the welfare of their recipients are at great risk, there is much talk about how such things could have happened.
Who is at fault? Is anyone, any single group totally at fault? What laws were broken? Were there adequate laws in place and not enforced?
Indeed we citizens depend so much on the law and on you, officers of the court, for protection that it must seem at times like an overwhelming burden has been placed on you.
For over ten years a part of my ministry included working as a priest and psychologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine with persons with long term problems with violent behavior. Often called upon by one side or the other to testify in court, my respect for your work and the challenges you face in trying to serve the community grew ever greater.
I presently sit as a commissioner on a panel studying the use of the death penalty in the State of Maryland. The commission has heard public testimony, very moving at times, and now we must deliberate before issuing a report to the governor and the legislature. The complicated process in death penalty cases, the cost to the citizens of the state, and perhaps worse of all the pain that the victims’ families must endure through the endless appeal process is exhausting cognitively and emotionally. In Maryland the average appeal process after sentencing, takes between 10 and 20 years. We received a letter from an inmate on death row just a few weeks ago; he has been on death row 26 years and is still appealing his case.
This experience too has also exposed me to the many challenges you face daily as officers of the court. The intricacies of the law I leave to you and your mentors but the challenges of the law for Catholic lawyers is what I would like to reflect on with you this day.
The readings for today’s Mass from the Letter to the Galatians and that wonderful passage from Luke in which our Lord tells the parable of the Good Samaritan as always bolster our journey together this day.
In today’s gospel passage from Luke “a certain lawyer stood up to test” Jesus – now don’t begin to feel uneasy here because we all just heard this passage from Luke and you know that the “priest” also is presented in this passage in not the most favorable of lights.
Actually there is a wonderful exchange that takes place in this passage between the lawyer and Jesus. Unfortunately for the lawyer, he appears to make a critical error by asking a question he didn’t really have the answer to before asking.
The lawyer didn’t have his yellow pad in hand as one sees in the courts, rise and say to Jesus: “Good afternoon Jesus and thank you for coming this way. I just would like to ask some questions for clarification, so that I can understand fully what you have been saying in other places.”
The lawyer asks about what he must do to have eternal life as though eternal life were an endless succession of happy days, something one achieves after observing certain laws.
In his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI, asks a similar question: “Eternal life – what is it?” Benedict’s subsequent assertion reveals that he has a sense of the answer to this rhetorical query.
The Pope lets us know how he understands “eternal life” in the 12th paragraph of Spe Salvi. It is not an unending succession of days on the calendar, but rather, it is a mode of being, a way of living, finding its expression both within time and beyond time. It is like a supreme moment of joy “in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality.” Jesus had himself revealed what eternal life is in his prayer before entering into his passion.
“ … Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you; so that, just as you have given him power over all humanity, he may give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him. And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17: 1 – 3).
Fr. Hugh Cleary, CSC, the Superior General of the Holy Cross Fathers said recently at a gathering of religious:
“Eternal life is an encounter with Jesus Christ who makes visible the invisible God. It is a mystical encounter to which no other relationship compares, yet which, paradoxically, imbues all other human relationships with the beauty and brilliance of Divine Love.
While we cannot scientifically measure a mystical encounter with Christ, we can surely measure the way in which we treat others. Our encounter in Christ’s love is fulfilled only when we meet others as Jesus greets us. We are sinners, who are forgiven day in and day out, striving to express to others, with our whole being, Christ’s own self-giving love.”
So really this lawyer, at one level, did know the answer to his question, and played in this divine destiny, the role of the straight man. For his question allowed Jesus to make quite clear that eternal life is living now in union with Christ and manifesting that union with Christ in the manner in which we relate to others. Just as the Good Samaritan aided the stranger while even putting himself at risk. It is perhaps in these moments that we most enter into eternal life.
As a commissioner on the death penalty panel, I have heard testimony of the death penalty being imposed when a defense lawyer was drunk during the trial, another asleep, and another having an affair with the sentencing judge. Just recently the forensic lab in the Detroit Police Department was ordered to suspend operations due to the serious mistakes coming out of this lab, whose data had been used errantly in the conviction of citizens. We have seen and heard of grave miscarriages of justice because some who were sworn to protect the citizenry failed in their duty.
At the same time almost all of these instances were brought to public attention and dealt with by other lawyers, other officers of the court, who were attempting to aid the stranger and in some instances putting themselves at political or other risk. Indeed they were not only protecting the citizens of the state but the very foundation of the law upon which the human family so depends.
Today’s lawyers are invited to not only ask the question “what is eternal life?”, they are encouraged to live the answer proffered by the Lord in the story of the Good Samaritan, making visible the invisible love of God, by living in private and public a gospel driven life having encountered the Lord.
Life for the Christian is a pilgrimage. We go, having been called, to meet the Lord. We are changed by this meeting, and we return to lead our life. Paul Elie in his wonderful book The Life You Save May Be Your Own – An American Pilgrimage puts it this way:
“A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.
Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms.”
That’s what we do, we pilgrims of the Gospel life of Jesus Christ. We’ve heard over and over again passages of scriptures and many a sermon as well, but we are driven by divine grace to go and seek for ourselves and listen as Benedict XVI said, in his address to the youth gathered at St. Joseph’s seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, to those “Divine whisperings.”
Today’s Catholic lawyers in practicing law try to discern and know the mind of God through prayer and Christian living as well as through case books. The law is not meant to serve itself, or any self interest. It is designed to serve God’s highest principles. Paul in his letter to the Galatians encourages us to be guided by the sacred truths and beliefs of our faith as much as by any judicial precedent. What would our court system be like if this were so? What would it be like if our culture of faith guided the principles of our actions in the court?
Too long the hollow refrain of some politicians who willingly profess tenants of their faith but opine that it would be inappropriate to impose these beliefs on their constituents. Society yearns for the moral leadership of those whose lives will make up the chapters of another “Profiles in Courage” as was written by John F. Kennedy some years ago.
So often repeated in my mind’s ear are the words of the Oscar winning performance of Paul Scofield in the 1966 production of “A Man for All Seasons” when, as Thomas More, he says – Thomas having been condemned for high treason: “I am commanded by the king to be brief, and since I am the king’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Just last month while in Paris, Our Holy Father said: “The Word of God and his action in the world are revealed only in the word and history of human beings.” It is an exegesis yet to be fulfilled. Society, the world around us, cannot truly understand the message of Jesus Christ, unless its meaning is made clear by the lives we Christians live.
Creation goes on and we are invited by the Lord to be not only heirs to life hereafter, but to join in the creation of this new humanity, this “Civilization of Love.” Pope Benedict reminded us of this when he repeated Christ’s words in the 5th chapter of John’s Gospel; “My Father is working still, and I am working” (5:17). “Thus human work was now seen as a special form of human resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God’s activity as creator of the world.”
Why every good work we do, every even random act of kindness, every dutiful act we perform, why even every breath we take works to the building up this new humanity, this “Civilization of Love.”
For nine years I lived and worked in the Holy Land, a good deal of my work was in Palestinian refugee camps. In these camps with no infrastructure to speak of and for sure no government, their religious and cultural norms guided and protected the refugees in their camps.
I recall an incident that centered around the death of a young man who lived in the Kalandia Refugee Camp just north of Jerusalem. This man died while in the custody of Israeli soldiers. The cause of death was unclear with each group blaming the other. I went to offer my condolences to the family and as is the custom sat with the men, mostly in silence, drinking a cup of bitter coffee, joining in a symbolic way in the bitter sadness of the family. While there word came that the Israeli general responsible for the camp wished to come and also offer his condolences.
The brothers of the young man we mourned begged their father not to receive the general, they said it was a mockery, and they also knew well that if the general came and drank coffee in the house, there could be no retaliation as I think they had considered.
The father said the motives of the general should be left to the general and God, but if he comes he would be received and if he were received and drank of that mournful cup there could be no retaliation.
The general came, without guard, only a driver, and offered his sincere condolences. I, like the father, believed that the general came with the highest of motivations, to sincerely pay his respects and let the family know how truly saddened he was by this tragic event. All of this in the midst of the Intifada – the uprising when Palestinians and Israelis were going through great turmoil.
This is the sway that cultural norms can have even in the hardest of times.
When the norms of the Gospel and the example of Jesus are applied, the potential for a New Humanity, a “Civilization of Love” will become a reality. Of this we can be sure.
Yours is no easy task but God has called you to this place in this time and we can be ever sure that this is so and even surer that with that call comes Grace.
You in your vocation have an opportunity to share some of the benevolent, infinitely kind and reassuring teachings of Jesus Christ. Articulating those ideas through various situations contributes to the spread of the Gospel.
I know that you, Bishop Fran, have encouraged the daily recitation of the Litany of St. Thomas More. It is indeed a blessing for all of us that you have so acted. In that litany we ask this martyred saint and statesman, this “Model of Integrity and Virtue in Public and Private Life; this servant of the Word, this defender of the weak and poor, the promoter of human life and dignity, to pray for us. This is our prayer and this is a prayer that is answered each day for us as we make it in the spirit of living the eternal life with the Master, with that willingness to make our best attempts at leading a virtuous life in public and private, defending the poor and weak, and promoting human life and dignity.
Could God fail to hear this prayer? I think not.
My brothers and sisters I stand in great awe before you and in humility and great gratitude for all that you do in continuing the work of creation through your practice of the law.
Thank you and God bless you!