Cathedral Rededication and Diocesan 150th Anniversary Homily at Mass
It is a joy to return to Savannah for another historic, jubilant day in the life of your Diocese as you mark your 150th anniversary. I had come for the Episcopal ordinations and installations of Bishops Lessard and Boland, and I thank Bishop Boland for the gracious invitation that underscores the historic links between this See and the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Seven of the first eight bishops of Savannah were ordained bishops by Archbishops of Baltimore, four of them at the historic mother cathedral of our country, now known as the Basilica of the Assumption.
The Reading from the First Book of Maccabees recalls the exuberant and holy joy of God’s people at the re-consecration of the Temple. They celebrated the event with "songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals." Today, as three times in the past, the Diocese of Savannah dedicates its central place of worship, the mother church of 79 parishes and missions across Georgia. In 1853, Bishop Gartland celebrated the expansion of the parish church of St. Joseph into the first cathedral of the infant diocese. In 1876, at the invitation of Bishop William H. Gross, Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley came from Baltimore to bless the new cathedral. Bishop Augustin Verot, who had been bishop here through the 1860’s, returned from St. Augustine to celebrate the Dedication Mass and Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston preached the sermon.
Twenty-two years later, a devastating fire reduced most of the Cathedral to ashes. Bishop Thomas Becker called forth every effort to speed its restoration, but he died the following year, in 1899. His successor, Bishop Benjamin Keiley, selected October 28, 1900, one century, one month and one day ago, for the dedication of the rebuilt edifice by the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Sebastian Martinelli. On that Sunday morning, the congregation must have felt themselves in the antechamber of heaven.
Once again, the Church of Savannah celebrates its Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. From foundation to new roof, the venerable building stands renewed, with plaster and paint giving a fresh glory to the interior, and new systems in place to illumine the church and fill it with the sounds of prayer and preaching and God’s praises sung with power. Through the remounted stained glass windows pours sunlight, a reminder of the love of God that surrounds and sustains us on our pilgrim way.
In the second reading the Apostle Paul moves us from celebrating the completion of a physical building to reflecting on the dynamic reality of the spiritual building of the Church, the Body of Christ. It rests on the one foundation of Jesus Christ, and individuals can build upon that foundation with various kinds of motives, energy and commitment. The Apostle writes of those who build with "gold, silver, precious stones," the unselfish, faith-motivated generous movement through life of people whose serenity and kindness reflect the gospel values taught by Jesus. There are others who build with "wood, hay or straw," fashioning in a half-hearted, distracted way a less worthy structure but still one related to the Lord.
The Apostle reminds us of our dignity, the dignity of every baptized person: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" With that dignity, the liturgy today recalls for us, is a destiny, a destiny that is eternal and one in which those who worship God "must worship in Spirit and truth." The passage from the Gospel of John opens the way for us to see how we should be positioned in this Year of the Great Jubilee 2000. Jesus is meeting the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well near Sychar, a city of Samaria. We learn that Jesus was tired from his journey and that the disciples had gone to buy food. The Lord is shown as alone, weary and fasting. He begins a dialogue with the Samaritan woman, who came to draw water at the well.
He asks her for something to drink. She is astonished and she asks him, "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" Jesus answers, "If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." She asks him how he can manage that: he has no bucket and the cistern is deep. Jesus responds, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Jesus said to her, "Go call your husband and come back." The woman answered, "I do not have a husband." To which Jesus said, "You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true." At this point begins the gospel passage proclaimed at this Mass, "Sir, I can see that you are a prophet…."
To her and, later, to the many she led out of town to listen to him, Jesus began to open up the mysteries of the kingdom of God, teaching them how to worship God "in Spirit and truth." When the disciples returned with the food, St. John reports, they urged him, "Rabbi, eat." Jesus declined and declared to them, "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work." He continued his fast and taught the many Samaritans who came out from the town, their curiosity aroused by the excited woman Jesus had instructed at the well. For two days Jesus taught them and they then said to the woman, "We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the savior of the world."
In this passage from the gospel of John Jesus teaches by example, first of all. The scene opens with him alone, fasting, "tired from the journey." A chance encounter, a request for a favor, a drink of water, leads to a dialogue, a reading of another’s heart and history, and an individual conversion. What must be the power of his personality! Jesus has placed his claim as well upon the hearts and history of this Diocese of Savannah.
In Spanish days, before the English came, Jesuit and then Franciscan missionaries preached the ways of Jesus here. Their success was phenomenal, with many coming to faith and baptism. They established five missions in the last two decades of the 16th century. The friars won many converts and then, precisely because they challenged an Indian prince on the same issue Jesus raised with the woman at the well, reminding him that the follower of Christ must have only one spouse, they were brutally put to death, four of them, joining in martyrdom the Jesuit who had died at the hands of the Indians 40 years earlier. In 1606 Bishop Altamirano of Cuba visited the missions here, confirming the converts in the reestablished missions and ordaining priests to serve them. It is recorded that he confirmed more than a thousand in the region that is now Georgia. Some 20 years later, a missionary wrote home that many Spanish and Indians were coming to church because of the miracles worked through the relics of the martyrs. Those who had died for their faith were now interceding for people who came with needs and faith to seek their prayers.
If the Spanish period saw bloody martyrdom, the colonial period and indeed much of local history since that time has seen another kind of testing for those who followed Jesus in the Catholic Church. The practice of the faith was outlawed in colonial times, and religious freedom came only with the American Revolution. Even then, life for Catholics remained a difficult one, with prejudice and discrimination long a part of the culture. Pioneers came here in the 1780’s and did the best they could to keep their faith alive without church or priest or altar. In the following decades the two first priests came, one taking the others place, to minister to the small French-speaking Catholic community. By 1800 the Congregation of St. John the Baptist was established. Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore authorized the pastor, Father Olivier le Mercier, to exercise his priestly ministry.
Besides the difficulties Catholics encountered in their dealings with others, the new United States brought blessings as well. When Bishop John England became the first Bishop of Charleston, with Georgia assigned as part of the diocese—up to that time the jurisdiction of Baltimore extended to the South—, he established the first Catholic newspaper in the U. S. to refute falsehoods about the faith and to explain its history and message. In addition, he was invited to preach in Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Episcopal churches, speaking with respect for the ministers and their congregations and helping them to see Catholics as truly Christian. In 1826, Bishop England was asked to address the U. S. Congress in Washington, and was given two hours for his task.
Besides the moments of glory, there were times of testing, of facing up to the cross of recurrent prejudice and discrimination, sometimes fierce and unabated, as in the Know Nothing Days, when riots occurred up north and convents were burned. This cross emerged again, in the 1890’s, 1920’s, and 1960’s, when political campaigns fanned the smoldering embers of religious bigotry.
Our world today counts many crosses: Human life is at risk because of war in the Middle East and Africa, where more than two million have died in Sudan alone in the last decade and a half; vulnerable human life is at risk in the womb and even in the moment of birth; weakened human life is at risk through assisted suicide; adult human life is at risk through violence on the streets and through the abuse of drink and other drugs. The list seems endless, and there are other lists to make as well, of social ills, of sins against family and marriage, like the plague of pornography that eats at the core of individuals and of families. There are failures in justice, and the challenges of economic struggle, of consumerism, and of frustration and hopelessness.
Yet, and this was the great message of Pope John Paul’s plea to our hemisphere after the Synod for America, there is a sure source of hope in the living Christ Jesus himself. The faith to which Jesus called the woman at the well is a personal faith in him to which he calls us as well. It is the faith that brings with it a deep joy and a peace that the world can neither give nor take away. This faith leads us, as it led the Samaritan woman in the gospel, to acknowledge sin and failing in our own hearts and lives, and to come to Jesus for the forgiveness and the refreshment of spirit he alone can give.
In a few minutes under the ancient signs of bread and wine Jesus’ suffering, death and rising will be wondrously made present for us. He is prepared to take our distracted prayers into his own powerful prayer, the prayer that is always answered, and to share with us the strength rooted in his cross, in his victory and death. May Jesus grant this Diocese of Savannah and all of us the help of his Holy Spirit to walk faithfully, hopefully, lovingly in the path of the martyrs and the saints, known and unknown, who have walked before us. Amen.