Red Mass Homily for Legal Professionals
St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
Your Eminence, Cardinal Hickey, Dear friends who serve the cause of justice through the law, To the John Carroll Society go my thanks for inviting me to pray with you, and to reflect with you, for all those who live their lives in service to the law. Your invitation came with a unique condition--or at least a hope, that I wear the pectoral cross of John Carroll, our church's first bishop in this land and my predecessor as Archbishop of Baltimore. With privilege I do wear that cross today, and recall that in his famous "Prayer for the Civil Authorities" John Carroll gave voice to a conviction he shared with almost all the members of that noble generation of America's founders: the conviction that our country and its people would flourish only if freedom found its perfection in goodness. The prophet Isaiah spoke in the first reading of proclaiming "liberty to captives." For the nation born in Carroll's day, the independence declared in Philadelphia meant precisely embarking on that liberty, that freedom which is a great moral adventure. It has continued to mean constant testing of the people's moral capacity for self-government. That testing is never finished. Americans of every generation face that moral testing. We face it today in how we treat the unborn and the immigrant, the aged and the ill, the poor, especially children and their mothers. How we respond to each of these continues to test our sense of human dignity and our reverence for God's wondrous gift of life. More than two hundred years after Archbishop Carroll penned his prayer, another bishop, the Bishop of Rome, Pope John Paul II, came on pilgrimage to Baltimore and preached a powerful sermon on the meaning of freedom. His sermon at Camden Yards last October 8 would, I submit, have been warmly applauded by the Founders of our country and the Framers of the Constitution of 1789. For the Holy Father taught us a great truth, a truth which constitutes a basic building block of Western civilization, the truth that only a virtuous people can be truly free. Freedom, Pope John Paul reminded us, cannot be a matter of simply doing what we like--for that would strip freedom of its human drama, and its rich moral texture. Instead, lifting up an ancient insight, the Holy Father proposed that freedom is a matter of having the right to do what we ought. Freedom is given us so that we might pursue the truth, bind ourselves to it by a free decision, and then live it in goodness. The liberty which God promised His people through the prophet Isaiah is no mere license. It is a liberty that enables each of us as individuals, and all of us as a community to live together as neighbors. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain described this bond as "civic friendship." According to another distinguished French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, the distinctive American genius is our national capacity to form and sustain free associations that are born of our individual liberties yet advance the common good. De Tocqueville understood that, despite the rhetoric of "rugged individualism," Americans did not live as if they were rugged individualists. Rather, they lived their freedom in freely-formed communities, with others. Those "others," frequently enough, were of different ethnic backgrounds, of different religious convictions. But those "others" became "neighbors" through a common experience of community building. It is that classic American experience of community-building through free, voluntary association for the common good that I would like to reflect upon with you today, with an eye to three contemporary problems in our society and to the Scriptures we have heard proclaimed. The Gospel relates a most touching incident: Jesus takes a little child and proclaims that it is to such as these that the Kingdom is God is given. Last October, after Mass at Camden Yards, the Holy Father came to lunch at "Our Daily Bread," the soup kitchen in downtown Baltimore. He shared the standard fare, chicken casserole, with clients of our Catholic Charities. One little girl, six-year-old Brittany, perhaps concerned with protocol, asked, "Can I call him 'Uncle Pope?' She later asked, "Can I hug the Holy Father?" I led her to him and in an instant they embraced, in a warmth and spontaneity that made this Gospel passage come alive. Our Lord proposed that it was to children that the Kingdom would be given. Their directness, innocence, and the sense of wonder show us how we should approach our Creator. A culture that mocks, threatens, stifles, or kills that innocence and that sense of wonder in children is a culture that stands under grave judgment. And yet, can we look into the mirror of conscience and refuse to admit that is precisely what happens, far too often, in our society? Do our entertainment and news media--do our public schools--nurture the innocence and wonder which are the natural characteristics of children? There is no need to rehearse in painful detail what has befallen the school children in our urban areas: violence, absenteeism, high dropout rates, poor academic performance, promiscuity, and drug abuse. Some of these same challenges together with a rising incidence of alcohol addiction and suicide face children in the suburban areas. Children are being denied their childhood when they must deal with these problems. And children are being denied their humanity when they are taught that freedom is doing what you like, whether that teaching comes at home, at school or through the media. Many of those who work in prisons with young offenders tell us that the most chilling thing about juvenile crime today is that these young people seem to have no sense of the evil in which they are enmeshed. They seem disengaged from the impact of their actions. Police officers tell us of juveniles laughing at murder scenes. In those empty faces, in those empty souls, we may see the grotesque opposite of Maritain's community of "civic friendship." Years ago, we were shocked to hear of youths shot dead over a jacket or a pair of basketball shoes. Now almost anything, a glance, a casual remark, can become the excuse for a fatal attack. Many of us have become convinced that one path toward the moral reformation of our communities lies in the moral reformation of our public schools. School administrators and teachers, conscientious and committed to teaching the best and to drawing out the best their students have to give, have been telling us for years a sad aspect of their work. They feel their hands are tied by court decisions when it comes to teaching basic moral values. To teach that self-respect is linked to responsibility and accountability, to inculcate the virtues of honesty and respect for others: these are thought, somehow, to be "sectarian." But morality, like nature, abhors a vacuum; and in the absence of serious and sustained moral education, it too often happens that children come to see themselves as the source of moral truth and that their desires are the only relevant measure of right and wrong. Five years ago, in Baltimore, the religious leaders of our community met to discuss the lack of positive moral teaching in our public schools. We were convinced that we had to restore to our public schools a respect for, and a commitment to, the common values that Americans took for granted two generations ago: respect for self and others, honesty, industry, compassion, and the courage to do the right thing. We realize that teachers cannot replace parents or religious leaders; however, teachers can become consistent sources of moral reinforcement. Together--Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Catholics--we agreed to bring our concerns to the city government. An interfaith committee worked with the city's schools to develop a values-education curriculum, which began to be put into place, with United Way funding, three years ago. The process has just begun, but this year, with the help from a local private foundation, the program reaches students in 125 elementary and middle schools. We call on the parents of the city's children to be involved in this effort, for theirs is the primary responsibility for education. And this is a daunting challenge because so many of them are themselves the children of a generation of confusion. We have a long way to go; but the point I stress here is that it is still possible, amidst the great plurality of American life, for citizens of different faiths to work together to restore a sense of common morality to our common life. We know, in a most painful way, what happens when freedom is reduced to license; what happens is that children shoot other children. We are determined to do something about that, and in so doing, we believe that in working with the schools we are making a contribution to the cause of true freedom. Children are often at risk because parents and families are at risk. Disposable spouses and disposable families inevitably make for disposable children. How can we strengthen the institution of marriage and the institution of the family in our society? The interfaith community is beginning to work together on this, through common efforts at marriage preparation. In many places interfaith partners have reached an agreement on a common approach to preparing young people for the responsibilities of married life and family life. Religious leaders have agreed that they will perform weddings at their respective places of worship only for those couples who have sat down with counselors for frank, structured discussions of the future. Within those discussions, couples have to confront the question of the values they do and do not share; they must face how well or poorly they communicate with each other; they have to think, together, about financial responsibility and relating to the in-laws; they discuss what their religious faith teaches about sexuality, marriage, and family life. Here again, we are only at the beginning of the road but the results are already encouraging. Some couples, during this process, have decided to break their engagements. The great majority find that they enter marriage with a more mature understanding of its meaning and its challenges. Throughout the country, where these programs have been put in place, divorce rates have dropped. And more stable families we know, make for happier, more secure children. Children and families live, face moral dilemmas, and make moral choices within the context of a culture. Those of us committed to saving children at risk and to reforming family life in America must therefore ask what our culture is teaching us - teaching especially the youngest and most impressionable. I wonder whether those responsible for the incredibly powerful news and entertainment media consciously consider the impact of their programming on children. And by "impact on children," I mean moral impact. To reduce children to merely another category of consumers is to demean and degrade childhood. To expose children to repetitive coarseness and violence on television, in the movies, in interactive media, means inevitably, to produce children inured to coarseness and to violence. To treat human sexuality as merely another contact sport is not only morally offensive in itself, it teaches our young people to indulge the very behaviors which have caused a generation of out-of-wedlock births, and even disease and death. Goodness does not come at discount prices. To become good people, we must perform good acts, over and over and over again. To learn how to recognize goodness, we have to be exposed to it, in real life and in literature and the arts, over and over and over again. To learn to love goodness we have to experience men and women of heroic virtue people we can admire and love and wish to emulate. It is not enough to eliminate gratuitous coarseness and promiscuity and violence from the entertainment media--although doing so would be no small contribution to saving the children of America. The point is not to replace the offensive with the vacuous. The point is to raise up models of virtue, decency, honesty, compassion, courage and honor for our young people. We are here now to pray, to ask for the strength which we as people of faith believe that God, our Creator, can give the strength, the grace to know, choose and to do what is right, to choose good over evil in the exercise of genuine freedom. We are gathered this morning to pray that our country may be given a new birth of freedom: the freedom that is founded on truth, the freedom that finds its fulfillment in goodness. We pray that those who are called to the vocation of the law may serve the cause of freedom by enabling all of us to exercise our basic human right to do what we ought. Let us pray with hearts open to the words of hope expressed in the reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians: "Dismiss all anxiety from your minds. Present your needs to God in every form of prayer." And these needs we bring, praying that the bond of civic friendship which we know exists among the religious peoples of our land may bear fruit in a restored teaching of moral values in public schools, in renewed commitment to family life, and in a sense of responsibility among those who shape the media. May we be blessed in our hearts, in our families, in our neighborhoods, and throughout this land with "God's peace which is beyond all understanding." Amen.