Introduction: The Work of Catholic Charities
It is a joy for me to welcome you to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for the annual Red Mass of the St. Thomas More Society. I am also delighted that later this evening, the St. Thomas More Society will honor Bill McCarthy the Executive Director of Catholic Charities, a leader both in the Church and in the wider community and a good friend to all of us. Bill and Maria, I greet you most warmly.
Bill McCarthy and his team work hard every day to create a society that is not only just but also compassionate. This evening’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah describes what Catholic Charities attempts to do every day under Bill’s leadership: to make the desert of poverty and hopelessness bloom into an orchard where human beings lead peaceful and productive lives. Every day Catholic Charities affirms the dignity of the human person, the cornerstone principle of the Church’s social teachings. It strives to do this in 81 programs in Baltimore and throughout the Archdiocese. We readily think of Our Daily Bread but we should also think about shelters, low income housing, employment services, case management, addition programs, immigration services and much, much more.
The Legal Profession
All of us are gathered here this evening because we too want to help form a society that is just and compassionate. Many if not most of you are involved in the practice of law and in the administration of justice. Your service as a paralegal, a lawyer, or a judge often brings you face to face not only with human frailty but also with the capacity of human beings to be utterly inhumane. Frequently your profession encounters the all-too-prevalent human tendency to turn orchards into deserts of hatred, destruction, and death.
You rightly seek to adjudicate claims and to respond to crime in a manner that does justice both for the individual and for the community. Your daily work is carried out at the intersection of the rights of individuals and service to the common good of society. In many instances it takes the Wisdom of Solomon to protect both values; but we recognize, do we not, that human beings flourish in just societies and that just societies recognize the dignity of human beings, including and, may I say especially, the poorest and most vulnerable among us. This evening, I thank you for your service to the law, to justice, and the common good; I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to bless you day by day.
The Desire of All for a Just and Peaceful Society
Deep down many if not most of our fellow citizens also seek a society that is just, peaceful, and compassionate, if you will, “a civilization of love”. Last April we watched with dismay as Baltimore erupted in violence and laid bare for all the world to see the systemic problems that have plagued many of our neighborhoods and communities for decades. Really, it is a tale of two Baltimores: half of our zip codes are doing fairly well or even very well; the other half are doing poorly, and in some places, third-world conditions prevail. In other parts of Maryland there is also poverty and a lack of opportunity; in Allegany County, for example, we find Appalachian-style poverty. And we know that these problems, which are close to home, are writ large even in this country that has been so abundantly blessed by God. And to tell you the truth, every time an election cycle comes around, I hope and pray that somehow the sturm und drang of campaigning has something to do, not with the pursuit of jaded self-interest, but rather with the affirmation of human dignity & the search for the common good.
When he visited the United States last month, Pope Francis spoke to us with great affection about the many ways in which God has blessed our country. But even as interacted with crowds and individuals in such an endearing way, he also spoke perceptively of our struggles to live up to our founding ideals and of our ongoing dream for a society that is just, peaceful, and free. On numerous occasions, he spoke about the blessing of religious liberty and urged us not to allow this gift to slip away from us. In the same breath, he called us to protect the lives of the most vulnerable, especially the unborn and the frail elderly. He urged us to protect the environment and to engage in sustainable development because planet earth is, after all, the common home of humanity – where everyone, including earth’s poorest—must have access to the spiritual and material goods necessary for human flourishing. When he visited the Curran-Fromhold prison in Philadelphia, Pope Francis reminded us that all people need forgiveness and cleansing and urged inmates to see incarceration as a time of getting back on the right road. We all enjoyed watching the Holy Father interact with students and parents when he visited Our Lady Holy Angels School in East Harlem – but this was not just a photo-op – he was reminding us of the role which inner-city Catholic schools play in offering educational opportunities to underprivileged families. And the root purpose of his trip was the affirmation of the importance of family life as places of faith, security, and love— so important for both Church, society, and, above all, for our children.
Personal Qualities of Mind and Heart
What does all this mean for us? In 1516 St. Thomas More published a fictional work called Utopia. When you get down to its roots, the word “utopia” means “a good place” – so Thomas More set about telling us what an ideal “good place” would be like in contrast to the problems and injustice of his day. We may or may not want to live on Thomas More’s fictional island but all of us would like to contribute actively to creating a better world in our times.
It is not for me to recommend specific legal or political strategies for doing so, but it is my role to call attention to those personal qualities of mind and heart that St. Paul and Jesus point out in today’s Scripture readings, qualities we need if we would engage in the ongoing work of constructing a just and compassionate social order. In the Gospel Jesus tells us to get beyond the standard of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and to respond to claims made against us with stunning generosity. His words truly did stun the audience that originally heard him; they thought of his words as ‘tort reform on steroids.’ St. Paul gives us a list of virtues that we must attain if we truly would be Jesus’ disciples, as individuals and as communities of faith. They include: ‘heartfelt compassion, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness,’ qualities of mind and heart that are pulled together and summed up by love, which St. Paul calls “the bond of perfection”. It is by love that we become perfect, like our heavenly Father. St. Paul goes one step further: we need to let Christ’s peace reign in our hearts. In other words, the Kingdom for whose coming we pray in the Our Father must find a home in us, in our hearts, in our homes, in our churches, as also in our professions and places of work.
In a society that often seems to be pulling away from its religious roots and sometimes putting people of faith in the crosshairs, our first and most important response is to become men and women, followers of Christ whose lives are unimaginably purposeful, men and women who respond every day to Christ’s call to conversion, the method by which Christ conquers the human heart and equips it with the capacity to build a just and peaceful civilization. In short, we are called by the distinctiveness of our lives to testify that the fullness of life can only be attained by opening our hearts to Christ and allowing his peace to reign in us and through us.
May God bless us and keep us always in his love.