Let me begin by thanking you for your kind invitation to take part in the annual Red Mass here in the Diocese of Richmond. This is my first opportunity to visit the Diocese of Richmond since my installation as Archbishop of Baltimore a year and a half ago. As you may know, Richmond is part of the ecclesiastical province of Baltimore and the two dioceses are joined by a long and rich history. When the Archdiocese of Baltimore was created in 1789, it included all of Virginia, and indeed stretched all the way to the Mississippi River. At the time there were few Catholics in Virginia in part because of anti-Catholic laws that hindered Catholics from worshipping freely. By the end of the 18th century that had already begun to change, largely because of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was authored by Thomas Jefferson and enacted in 1786. This law was a prototype of the Free Exercise and Establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. All Americans owe the Commonwealth a debt of gratitude.
In 1820 the Diocese of Richmond was erected by Pope Pius VII and it included the entire State of Virginia and what is today West Virginia. At that time, this vast new diocese faced many challenges and so for nearly 20 years was overseen directly by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Over time, four of your bishops would hail from Baltimore, including James Gibbons, who was Bishop of Richmond from 1872 until 1877. Cardinal Gibbons would go on to serve as the Archbishop of Baltimore for 41 years. Evidently, Richmond was a good training ground for the 9th Archbishop of Baltimore!
And among the many wonderful graces and blessings of this growing Diocese is the Cause for Canonization of Francis J. Parater, a young man who was an Eagle Scout and a seminarian who died in 1920. Lastly, I would like to pay tribute to your own bishop, Bishop DiLorenzo, who has served the Diocese of Richmond with distinction and dedication since 2004.
Red Mass: Invoking the Holy Spirit
We have gathered this afternoon to celebrate the Red Mass. In this Mass we ask for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his seven-fold gifts upon us all, but especially upon those of you who dedicate your professional lives to the practice of law and the administration of justice. It is a moment when the Church recognizes the vital importance of your daily work for human dignity and flourishing as indeed for the common good of society. It is also a moment for us to ask the Holy Spirit to guide our reflection on the living Word of God as it applies to your lives and your professions. Indeed, this Mass is graced opportunity to ask for the special blessings you need as you face the daily challenges you experience, both personally and professionally.
What, then, can we draw from our Scripture readings today? For what, then, shall we ask of the Holy Spirit?
St. Paul to the Romans
Let us begin with St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In this passage, St. Paul uses a phrase you might find a bit jarring: “…you are not under the law but under grace…” (Romans 6:14). Does St. Paul mean to say that followers of Christ are not subject to the law? Does he mean to say that because believers in Christ have received God’s grace they can disregard every form of law, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical?
Let’s first ask, what was St. Paul’s attitude toward governing authorities? To be honest, St. Paul does not deal with that question in this passage. Here he refers to the law of God revealed to the Chosen People and we will return to that point in just a minute. But elsewhere in his Letter to the Romans St. Paul does address what our attitude ought to be toward governing authorities; he writes: “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.” In this passage, from the 13th chapter of Romans, St. Paul goes on to say that if we, as believers, do what is good, we should have nothing to fear from civil authority whereas, if we do evil, then we do indeed have reason to fear. St. Paul even seems to put his stamp approval on paying taxes: “Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due; respect to those whom respect is due; honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7).
This must have been a difficult teaching for the early Christians who were subject to severe persecution by government authorities. Yet, St. Paul and the early Christian writers consistently said that it was the duty of believers to accept, as divinely ordained, the legitimate authority of government to maintain good order in society. Yet, in that same passage from Romans, St. Paul makes clear that governing authorities are not entitled to force believers to act in a way that is immoral or that contravenes their faith. The Christian who lives by the law of love ought to escape all legitimate indictment by the governing authorities. Authorities who persecute believers for living under grace, for following the law of love – act unjustly. Thus begins an endless series on the relationship of church and state!
Now we are ready to return to the passage from Romans which we just heard. Here we find St. Paul in the midst of describing the authentic freedom that should be ours as followers of Christ. Because the love of God has poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we not only have nothing to fear from civil law but indeed we are even free from the constraints of ancient law of God revealed to the Chosen People as they journeyed through history. But does freedom from the law give us a license to sin? By no means! St. Paul is telling us that because we live under grace and not under the law we are liberated freely to embrace what is right, true, and good. We are not subject to external constraint because we have been internally freed to choose the moral good. And not only that, thanks to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we have engrained in us the pattern of Christ’s own love, set forth in the Beatitudes, such that we keep the Commandments not out of fear but out of love, and not grudgingly but rather as response of gratitude to the grace we have received.
We may draw two applications for ourselves at this point. First is the importance of religion and morality for the good order of society. In his farewell address, George Washington famously said: “…Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports….” Think of the many social problems we are striving to restrain by the force of law. Think of the many social problems could be averted if more and more people lived not under the law but under grace – that is to say – if they were interiorly freed to choose the good and to choose it generously. It is, I would submit, in the interest of the government and the common good not to establish a state religion but to encourage religion generally, to encourage the moral formation of citizens that so often occurs through religious institutions such as parishes, schools, and indeed our charitable institutions. I would also submit that it is not in the best interests of our society for the government to pressure the very religious institutions that serve common good such as schools, hospitals, and charities, to violate their moral teaching – be it ever so counter-cultural.
And here’s a second reflection arising from St. Paul’s words on grace and freedom. It refers as much to our personal lives as to our professional lives. If you are known to be a serious Catholic, you are bound to be asked questions about the Church, most often, I suspect, about some hot-button issue. At the drop of a hat, we may find ourselves explaining and defending the faith. We should be happy to help people understand better the Church’s teaching and to give it our own personal and friendly endorsement. Yet, as Pope Francis has been telling us and indeed the world, the faith is not merely a series of hot button issues. It is indeed a way of life, a way of love that leads to joy. For once we have fallen in love with God, once we can say that Christ dwells in us through the Holy Spirit, then everything changes, including how we live our daily lives. We may do the same work every day but now with a loving wisdom and integrity that comes not from ourselves or from our good will but rather from pattern of Christ’s Death and Resurrection deep within us, giving us the interior freedom embrace what is coherent, good, true, and beautiful.
The Gospel According to St. Luke
As we draw our reflections to a conclusion, let me turn briefly to the reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke where Jesus urges us to remain vigilant in expectation of his return in glory. As the early Christians looked for the imminent return of the Savior, they took to heart Jesus’ message of preparedness and so should we. It is so easy for us to allow workaday responsibilities to lull us into complacency. It is so easy for us to make compromises, both professional and personal, that render us unprepared to serve the common good & to bear witness to our faith.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty!” we are told, and how true it is that you and I must be keenly aware of those things that threaten religious liberty, including religious freedom – not only outward hate crimes, reprehensible as those are, but also those laws, regulations, and polices which chip away at the fundamental freedoms that belong to us “not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” (J.F.K., Inaugural). Many of the threats to religious freedom are in fact to be found in government rule making, licensure and accreditation, local ordinances & state laws which may appear on the surface to uphold some important value but which erode a fundamental freedom for which many have given their lives.
If such vigilance is necessary in the natural order of things, how much more necessary is it in the things of the Spirit. We cannot allow a divide to occur in our lives between our personal and professional lives – whereby we check our beliefs and values at the door when we go to the office. How easy it is to presume on God’s kindness, to make compromises with sin, to fall back into sin after we have been rescued from it by the love of our Savior. Jesus passes in our midst daily. He is with us now in this Eucharist. So let us ask the Holy Spirit that we be alert – intellectually and spiritually – so that we may encounter the one who has set us free. So much has been given to us, so much is expected. May the Holy Spirit guide us to embrace, cherish, and foster that ‘freedom for which Christ has set us free’ (Gal. 5:1).