Red Mass Homily - St. Teresa of Avila
Diocese of Manchester
Let me begin by thanking you, Bishop Libasci, and the Lawyers’ Guild for so kindly inviting me to take part in this annual Red Mass and for the honor and privilege of preaching at it. I am very happy to join in prayer with all of you who are involved in the practice of law and the administration of justice – prayer that the Holy Spirit will enlighten, guide, and strengthen you with his gifts of wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
II. Why St. Teresa of Avila’s Life Is Relevant to Us
At first glance, we may think it unusual to celebrate a Red Mass on the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus, or St. Teresa of Avila, as she is better known. After all, what would a 16th century cloistered Carmelite nun have to say to us about the complexities of the law and the administration of justice? What can she say to us in these times when the politics of our nation have become so bitterly divided? When conflicts over our freedoms and our values compete for our nation’s soul?
With an assist from today’s Scripture readings, I will suggest that St. Teresa, masterful in her understanding of how we should relate to God and to one another, has more to say to us in this hour than we may think For law and politics have much to do with the ‘architecture’ of human relationships at all levels of society. They have to do with how society is structured and how it functions. Will our nation be a place where the law merely referees the competing self-interests of individuals and institutions? Or will our nation be a place where, for all our diversity, the law will contribute to the work of forming a cohesive society, with truths and values held in common – such as respect for the dignity of each person? Will our society summon the will to protect the rights and freedoms both of individuals and of those intermediate institutions such as churches, families, and schools, institutions which contribute mightily to the common good and to human flourishing?
Believe it or not, St. Teresa knew something about all of these things. First, she understood intensely, more intensely than we do, that God is calling each person to salvation – and that answering that call involves a transformation of every dimension of our lives: every thought, every word, every decision and project, every relationship. Second, she loved Church universal with all her heart but lived at a time when the Church was badly in need of reform. In wholeheartedly embracing her vocation as a religious, she recognized the value of an “intermediate structure”, standing between the Church and the individual believer, namely, religious life, in the following of Christ and in reforming the Church. It was a way of encountering Christ and the Gospel in a concentrated form, in a setting where it all could truly hit home, for herself and for her sisters. Third, as a result of embracing her vocation as a religious, she lived in close quarters with her fellow Carmelite sisters in a cloistered convent. There, like it or not, she was cheek by jowl with her sisters. Is it any wonder that St. Teresa wrote, “God deliver us from gloomy saints!” She understood that amid its rigorous penitence, a Carmelite community had to be carefully structured and wisely cared for if the community itself and each of its sisters were to flourish. Fourth, she was a leader, and so she was elected to be the superior of the sisters who saw her close-up every day. Once elected, St. Teresa set up reforming the way of the very sisters who elected her, attracted many new vocations, founded new convents, and wrote brilliantly about the interior life. All this she did in the face of considerable resistance and opposition of some of her own sisters and many others who preferred the status quo. And finally, she did all the above with a wisdom & joy that derives from holiness. She was brilliant, practical, and holy – and thus indomitable!
III. The “Architecture” of Human Relations
God does not raise up great saints so that we can put them in a box on a shelf. Whatever the century, culture, or vocation from which they hail, saints are meant to influence us, to shape how we pray, how we think, and how we relate to God and one another in the circle of our family, friends, and colleagues and in society at large. St. Teresa of Avila is certainly no exception.
As was already noted, it was St. Teresa’s lot to live in a Christian culture that was in need of serious reform – reforms that would occur later, in the 16th century, when the Council of Trent was convoked. It is our lot to live in a very secular culture even as we are part of a Church that strives, if only by fits and starts, to return to the very heart of the Gospel – to gaze anew at the Person of Christ with the eyes of faith so that in our world we might see as He sees and love as He loves. In this Year of Faith, we are called to renewed attentiveness to God’s Word so that, embracing its truths, we may be clear-eyed in our love for God and others, including our service to the secular culture of which we are a part.
In his encyclical entitled, The Light of Faith, Pope Francis describes what a society is like when it behaves as if God did not exist. What that happens, the ‘architecture’ of human relationships begins to crumble. Absent a sense of the presence of a personal God, people relate to one another on basis of utility or fear or a calculus of competing interests but not with any appreciable sense that it is good for us all to be joined in ‘a more perfect union’ in which we seek not only our own interests but indeed the common good, so that every person who wishes to do so, can thrive.
Yet the objections to what I just said ring in our ears, do they not, in a society dedicated to the proposition that Church and State are separate. Can it be that your homilist really believes that a harmonious 16th century convent is a model for a divided, secular American culture in the 21st century? Here I take refuge in today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. It teaches that the existence of God and something of his invisible attributes can be known by the light of human reason, unaided by faith. This can be known by observation of the world which God has created. In another place, St. Paul speaks about ‘the law of God written on the human heart’ – that inner sense of good and evil, right and wrong, that guides us in our relationships with God and with one another (cf. Romans 2:15).
When St. Teresa established a rule, a way of life, for her sisters and helped guide them in the wholehearted observance of that rule, she spoke and acted as a woman of deepest prayer and brilliant faith. But she also spoke to them in a practical, common-sense, sort of way, that appealed to their inner sense of truth, value, virtue, and fair play. By contrast, when our society proceeds as if God does not exist or greatly matter, when it proceeds as if there is no common point of reference and no such thing as enduring truths or values that are applicable to every time, place and culture – then it becomes more and more difficult to reason together, to find common ground, and to build together a truly humane civilization of truth and love.
For when we stifle the evidence of God’s existence, goodness, and love, then we become like the Pharisees whom we met in tonight’s Gospel. Forgetful of God, they tried to hold together both their religion and their society merely on the basis of what today we would call “positive law” – on laws, regulations, and ‘policies’ too numerous to mention, laws which sought to regulate in detail every aspect of human behavior but with little or no recognition of what is truly right and good. Indeed, it is this divorce between the law and reality, between the law and morality – that threatens our fundamental freedoms and weakens our capacity to pursue the common good. Instead, we so often find ourselves merely trying to keep opposing self-interests, competing freedoms, and warring ideologies at bay.
IV. The Light of Faith
St. Teresa instructed her sisters in a practical and reasonable manner but she also knew that faith enabled her sisters to see more clearly what is truly just and reasonable, even in the close quarters of a monastery.
As men and women of faith, involved in law and the administration of justice, I hope that like St. Teresa, you will see your Catholic Faith as “help[ing] us build our societies in such a way that they can journey toward a future of hope” (Lumen Fidei, 51). Faith, after all, does not negate our cancel out reason nor is faith itself irrational. Rather, faith enlightens, elevates, purifies reason so that we may more easily seize hold of those truths and values that are the building blocks of a truly just society.
In the light of faith, the uniqueness and the inviolable dignity of each human being has been perceived, the relationship between moral truth and freedom has been clarified, and the conditions for authentic human development have been put in shaper focus, including respect for human life at all its stages, the central role of the family, and the importance of churches, schools, and other such institutions in our lives. Remove God from society, seek to confine religion within the four walls of a church, silence the voice of religion in the public square, compromise the mission of religious institutions serving human needs, then we create a society very different from the one our Framers imagined. Instead of a society that achieves freedom and harmony amid diversity, we become a culture intolerant of the truths & values capable of holding us together, capable of fostering mutual trust and true civility.
V. The Power of Prayer
Even as St. Teresa faced the immense challenges of reforming her Order, so too you are challenged in your professional life to help shape society in a manner that calls us back to those enduring truths, values, and virtues that reflect, at least imperfectly, God’s love and our nation’s founding ideals. You are called to reflect in your professional life in a spirit of faith and joy those very truths and values known by reason that link what is true and good to what is legal. This is no easier for you to do this than it was for St. Teresa to reform the Carmelites.
To meet this challenge, we must ask St. Teresa for one more thing: her prayers, guidance, and encouragement in building a powerful life of prayer, a personal, authentic, loving relationship with God the Father, through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit – a relationship of love that overflows into all our human relationships, both personal and professional. Then we will be equipped to rebuild the architecture of our culture in ways that are coherent, true, good, and beautiful.
May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us and may God bless and keep us always in His love!