Let me begin by saying how happy I am to be here with all of you today. For many years, when I was a student at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg and later a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, I used to drive along the roads of Garrett/Allegany County on my way home to visit my parents who still live in Southern Indiana. I was always struck with the beauty of the countryside, especially in the fall, but never dreamed I would have the opportunity to serve the Church in this area. So, while I have much to learn, I already feel at home and I want to thank you for the warm welcome I have received since I began my service as Archbishop of Baltimore just over five months ago.
We have gathered together on World Mission Sunday during the Year of Faith and on a weekend when our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has canonized two American saints: Kateri Tekawitha and Marianne Cope. St. Kateri is probably better known to us, St. Marianne, probably less so but both of these new saints exemplify for us what it means to live the Year of Faith, what it means to be missionaries, and what it means to be servants of the Lord and of one another. Allow me to explain further.
II. Kateri Tekawitha
St. Kateri Tekawitha was a member of the Mohawk tribe who was born in the mid-17th century in what is today upstate New York. Members of the Mohawk tribe, including Kateri’s family, contracted smallpox which was introduced by the Europeans who were fighting to control that area. Kateri survived but her eyesight was impaired and her face was scarred but by the time she died the scars were gone and her face was radiant.
Kateri became a Catholic at the age of twenty, a decision which greatly displeased her uncle, the chief of the village. At the same time, she dedicated herself to a life of virginity and to a life of intense penance and prayer. Kateri did this not to win approval but rather because she had fallen in love with Christ, the suffering servant, who laid down his life to save us, and in the light of his redeeming love she embraced the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Church’s teaching.
After refusing to marry the Mohawk tribesman who had been chosen for her, Kateri had to leave her native village. She traveled by foot and canoe over 200 miles to a Jesuit-run missionary village near Montreal. She died when she was only twenty-four years of age and remains for people of all ages but especially for the young a shining example of heroic faith. Indeed, Blessed John Paul II named her Patroness of the World Youth Days which have drawn young people from around the world to Christ and to the Church.
When we see the sacrifices she made in order to be a believing Catholic, how can any of us, myself included, take the faith for granted? How can we not respond to the Year of Faith in which the Pope Benedict calls us to be renewed in our faith, to stand with Jesus so as to live with him, and to believe with such loving hearts that we become credible witnesses to the truth and love that are at the heart of the Gospel.
III. St. Marianne Cope
As I mentioned earlier, St. Marianne Cope is also being canonized this weekend. Born in Germany in 1838, she came with her family to the United States who settled in upstate New York, in the town of Utica. After the death of her father, Peter, she responded to a religious vocation and became a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, New York. This order was associated with works of health care. Sr. Marianne administered two large hospitals in Central New York and founded what eventually became known as the Geneva Medical College. She believed in providing healthcare for all, especially the poor and the needy, and indeed saw herself as a servant of those who were in need.
In 1883, when she was General Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, she received an appeal from the King in Hawaii for her sisters to come the islands to work with those suffering from leprosy. She could easily have assigned some of her sisters to go on that mission but Sr. Marianne decided to go there herself and dedicated the remainder of her life to serving those suffering from that dread disease. Here is how she answered the King’s appeal: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the poor islanders … I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight … to minister to the abandoned lepers … ”
Sr. Marianne Cope faithfully served those who were abandoned, affirming their dignity, alleviating their suffering, and opening their hearts to the truth and love of God revealed by Christ and communicated by the Holy Spirit in Scripture, the Church’s teaching, and the sacramental life of the Church.
Do we not see in her words and her actions the fulfillment of the Gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples who were vying for places of importance: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be serve but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many.” With her own Franciscan sisters and later with the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, she practiced “a charity that evangelizes”. Charity such as Sr. Marianne Cope practices reveals the Person of Christ, the Son of God who became one of us so as to bear our weakness and infirmity. Sr. Marianne Cope helped so many whose were seen as outcasts ‘confidently to approach the throne of grace and to receive help in time of trouble.’
In his message for World Mission Sunday, Pope Benedict calls on us all not only to offer financial support for the Church’s world-wide missionary effects; he also calls us to put ourselves at the service of the Gospel, to open our hearts afresh to Christ and to the teaching of the Church so that we may bear credible witness to the Lord’s truth and love, among our family members, co-workers, and friends, and in our culture at large.
“Preaching the Gospel,” he writes, “is the call of God’s children to freedom, to the construction of an ever more just…society, & to our preparation for eternal life. Whoever participates in Christ’s mission must face tribulation, conflict, & suffering, because they will come up against the resistance & the powers of this world … Evangelization needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that the conversion of the world is not brought about by us, but given to us … ” Let me add it is given to us in a most powerful way in and through the Eucharist in which we truly encounter and receive Christ who is the Savior of all because he is the servant of all.
Through the prayers of St. Kateri Tekawitha, St. Marianne Cope, and all the saints, may we place our lives at the service of the Gospel and thus at the service of others, such that we may help many to find the way their way to Christ, to the joy of being surprised by the Gospel. May God bless us and keep us in his love!
“For the Son of Man did not come to be serve but to serve,to give his life as a ransom for many.”