On the back wall of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a very large relief which depicts in marble the universal call to holiness. At the top center is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the sanctifier, and slightly off center with her hands extended in maternal love is the Blessed Virgin Mary whose name we invoke daily. Within the reach of the Virgin Mary and the Spirit’s rays of glorious love are the images of men and women of every state of life in the Church – lay men and women, married couples, religious, priests, and even bishops, images representing every age and culture touched the light of the Gospel. If you look closely you can see the image of Bl. John Paul II & Bl. Mother Teresa, and, somewhere hidden in that relief is the image of Cardinal James Hickey. It was his idea to depict this vision of the universal call to holiness. He wanted all who celebrate and take part in Mass at the Shrine to be reminded that the dismissal at the end of the liturgy is not about rushing to the parking lot but rather about going out into the world as men and women of holiness, living witnesses to the Gospel of life and salvation. And he wanted to stress Mary’s role in leading us all to that holiness.
I think we can bring this a little closer to home. We are blessed with the nation’s oldest Cathedral, the Basilica, named for Mary under the title of her Assumption and the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Only in eternity will we know the sum total of what God’s grace has accomplished through the years in and through the priests and faithful of the Archdiocese. Yet, deep down, I can’t help but think that all that has been accomplished – all the sacrifices and all the good fruits which have flowed from them – are due in large measure to the fact that Mary is our patroness. We as a presbyterate, and our entire Archdiocesan family of faith enjoy the intercession and protection of Our Lady, assumed into heaven, Mary our Queen, who prays with us and for us before God’s throne in heaven.
Today we call upon the holy name of Mary asking our patroness to strengthen us in living out our vocation, to strengthen the unity of our presbyterate with its bonds of faith, teaching, sacramental life, collaboration, and fraternal charity so that our lives, our ministry, our shared priesthood might be at the service of the universal call to holiness, the vocation to love as God loves, which every member of the Church receives at baptism.
II. In the World But Not Of the World
The scriptures for today lead us in that direction. While at first blush we may not notice Mary’s image in the Scripture readings that have just been proclaimed, I think we can find her if we take a second look and allow the Word to speak to our hearts individually and collectively.
In the reading from First Corinithians, St. Paul addresses those consecrated to the Lord through virginity and those who are married and those who are thinking about their future. He asks them to view their lives not just in the limited light of the present moment but rather from the wide vista of eternity … under the light of the One who is “the dawn from on high”. Speaking to the unruly Corinthians as well as to us, St. Paul powerfully says “the world in its present form is passing away.” Thus, as we read in St. John’s Gospel, we are to be in the world but not of the world.
Mary lived her whole life overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Free of sin, she, more than any other, was free to embrace not her own limited perspective but rather the truth of the Word. “Let it be done to me according to your Word,” she could say without reservation. And in the light and power of the Word, Mary lived her life not according to her plans or preferences – recall her question to the angel—“how can this be …?” – Rather many lived according to the great overarching design of God’s will to save us, ‘the mystery, the plan that God the Father was pleased to decree in Christ.’ She was called to all the forms of life. St. Paul mentions today: virginity, marriage, and motherhood, to be the Mother of God. None of this was easy or convenient for Mary – but rather it was fraught with misunderstanding, the sword of sorrow, and at length it brought her to stand beneath the Cross with the beloved disciple. “Let it be she,” she could say because she lived in this passing world with her heart set on the world to come.
III. A Forecast of the Kingdom
Years ago, I read a work by Louis Bouyer on Mary. He made the observation that Mary “presaged” the Kingdom of the Beatitudes, she had begun to live the Beatitudes even before Jesus preached them. Thus do we find Mary in today’s Gospel. In her total consecration to God and to God’s plan of salvation, Mary reflected so clearly the teaching of her Son and shone with a holiness, a gentleness, and a beauty that make us want to turn to her, to call upon her hane, for we too seek the holiness & joy that comes from embracing the truth.
As has been said in the course of our gathering, we are called to the priesthood not for our own happiness but rather to foster holiness in the lives of those we serve, to lead them to the sources of holiness, Word and Sacraments, so that they and we can say with Mary, “the Lord has done great things for us!” Without in any way denying the goodness of what God has created, we, like Mary, are called to live in this passing world with our hearts set on the world to come. That we are in the world but not of the world is borne out by a style of life rooted in the Beatitudes: celibacy for the Kingdom, simplicity of life, love for the poor, a faith-filled obedience that embraces the truth even when it is difficult or costly. We bring to the people we serve and the culture in which we live the light of a Gospel which is not always easy for people to hear but which is filled with love, beauty, truth, and saving power.
We invoke the holy name of Mary every time we offer Mass for she is always present to us spiritually whenever the Eucharist is celebrated. Today we have the joy of doing so collectively and reflectively, asking that she encourage us by her example and help us by her prayers – so that as individual priests and as a prebyterate, we may be interiorly transformed after the pattern of the Beatitudes, … that we may be a team of priests who are witnesses to hope in a world that is passing away. Thus may we share a renewed commitment to the mission of evangelization that will bring about in us and in those we serve a rich harvest of holiness.