2012 Walk for Life
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 8:1-13 (1962 Missal)
There is IS A FAMOUS painting of Saint Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger. I'm guessing that he sat for the portrait while he was still the Lord Chancellor of England, because he is depicted wearing the Tudor livery, that is, a chain of office, in this case, made of a series of stylized links shaped like the letter S. As I understand it, this particular chain of office is called the collar of esses. In any case, the image is quite well known as it is frequently reproduced. You must have seen it. I only mention it because I want to speak about a thread of ideas related to this evening's Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to this afternoon's Walk for Life that all happen to begin with the letter S and, I think it will be easier to remember what I have to say, if you keep in mind this image of the esses that adorned the figure of a man whom we all know to have died the king's faithful servant, but God's first.
Firstly, I am Fr Francisco Nahoe OFM Conv, that is, a Conventual Franciscan friar. More than a decade ago, I was assigned to this historical Church of Saint Francis, now the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, and it is a great pleasure to return to the city, both to demonstrate publicly in support of Life and to celebrate the sacred mysteries once again in this sanctuary. We are joined here today by my some of my Conventual Franciscan confrères, Friar Tom Czeck OFM Conv, our vocation director, and Friar Thomas Hamilton OFM Conv, and one of our Franciscan postulants, by permanent deacons from the Diocese of Reno, where I am now assigned, and by two brother priests from the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. Fr Matthew McNeely FSSP and Fr Michael Stinson FSSP serve Saint Stephen the First Martyr Parish in Sacramento and I would like to take a moment now to express to them how very grateful I am for the support they have shown me as I learn the ancient forms of the Roman liturgy, for their detailed knowledge of these sacred rites, and for their patience with me insofar as this celebration of Solemn High Mass is concerned. For those of you who are not familiar with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, their particular charism in the Church is to celebrate both the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours according to the traditional forms of the Roman Rite. As a community, they do this not so much to preserve a cultural icon, but rather to provide the Church as a whole with a living and vigorous connection to those liturgical forms that nourished the lives of the saints and preserved the sacred and certain truth of Catholic doctrine throughout the ages. As we shall see, that notion of preserving, indeed, defending the sacred and certain truth of Catholic doctrine will have direct bearing on the substance of this homily.
Now, you haven't forgotten Saint Thomas More and his collar of esses, have you? Let me just lay all my cards on the table right away. By the way, such gaming metaphors come quite readily to those of us who live in Nevada. In any case, I want to talk about the following esses: sanctuary, silence, sanctification and solidarity. And, to make sure that you understand the context of what I have to say, my comments about sanctuary, silence, sanctification and solidarity are really a matter of exploring more fully what is means to sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, that is, what it means to participate in the very Kingdom of Heaven that our Lord preaches so decisively in the Gospels.
Whether or not you participated in the West Coast Walk for Life today, but especially if you did, you are doubtless aware that not everyone in America shares the conviction of Catholics that a human zygote or a human embryo or a human fetus is a human being. Consequently, not everyone recognizes that abortion is, in fact, violence against human life. Nonetheless, it is one thing to affirm this truth in the context of church preaching and quite another thing to announce it in the face of vitriolic and often irrational opposition on the streets.
In order to proclaim the truth fearlessly, with the faith and conviction, for example, of the centurion in tonight's Gospel, we must be deeply rooted in the One who, stretching forth His hand upon us, as once He reached out to the leper, wills that our lives be cleansed and transformed. To be rooted in Him, is, in this sense, to accept sanctuary in Christ, which is a comprehensive state characterized most prominently by total commitment to truth and goodness.
In Gaudium et spes, called the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the conciliar fathers, following the teaching of Saint Paul and the scholastic tradition, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas, affirmed that the moral conscience "is the secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, who voice echoes in his depths." At specific moments, the conscience commands us "do this" or "don't do that." But to speak of conscience, even the individual's conscience, is not by any means to introduce moral subjectivity or ethical ambiguity into the secret core and sanctuary of man. Rather, the Church teaches that "deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God (Catechism 1776)." So, the precept that we find written in that secret core and sanctuary is not one that we will have imposed upon ourselves. It is rather the voice of God speaking clearly, revealing His truth precisely in His goodness. Thus, the formation of a correct Christian conscience, one that functions according to the law of God inscribed in the secret core and sanctuary of man, may be understood as the most fundamental task of the moral life.
Nowhere is the necessity of a correctly formed conscience brought more clearly to light than in the ongoing national debate about abortion. Nonetheless, if you will be an effective witness to a well-formed and properly functioning conscience, then you must be more than a mere activist. Activism, even activism in an entirely just cause, will not shield you from anger, or protect you from spitefulness, or immunize you to fear. In short, activism does not keep you from sin. That is why I would enjoin silence upon you.
Don't misunderstand me, what I mean is neither the silence of consent to evil, nor the silence of apathy regarding the good. Instead, I am speaking of the silence that lies at the heart of truly contemplative prayer. In that respect, it comes as genuinely providential that we have the privilege of celebrating Mass tonight in the extraordinary form. The Traditional Latin Mass, precisely by the discipline of the silence, the profound silence, the utter silence that comes at the most sacrosanct moment of the liturgy, reveals to us an essential dimension of contemplative prayer. During the ancient and venerable Roman Canon, when simple gifts of bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the true sacrifice acceptable to the Father, we are brought, not by our own merits, but by God's salvific will, into communion with Him. Silence, at least as it is practiced liturgically, embodies a disposition of radical openness to God's saving gift. Without silence, that is, without the contemplation that leads us into deeper communion with God in Christ, our social activism will invariably founder.
Indeed, I want further to say that activism by itself is as likely to harden the opposition as to convert it. If we want the truth to transform our society then we must be prepared to model in ourselves what it means to live a truly transformed, that is, converted lifestyle. In continuity with Gospel according Matthew, I think we could say that we must therefore be morally as innocent as doves, but spiritually as cunning as serpents (Mt 5:16). Alternatively, we must let our light so shine before men that seeing us, they give thanks to our heavenly Father (Mt 10:6). But that grand evangelical project simply cannot be realized without the grace that flows from the sacramental life of the Church and we must consciously and joyfully cooperate with that grace in order to experience its transformative power at work in our lives and in our communities. Thus, the traditional concerns of the pastoral mission of the Church, that is, of ongoing, daily sanctification through self-denial, prayer and charity turn out to be the foundation upon which meaningful engagement with the problems of society is built. If I am not mistaken, this offers an important insight as to why ordinary parish-based Roman Catholics, who are not normally associated with streetwise social activism, are nevertheless so prominent in the pro-Life movement. The faith that nurtures and sanctifies us, also propels us into this particular kind of social activism.
Finally, in today's Gospel, our Lord expresses His admiration of the faith and the religious sensitivity of the centurion. This Roman soldier is ostensibly an occupier and an oppresser (and how often occupation and oppression go hand in hand). Even so, the centurion manages to express an astonishing and entirely unanticipated solidarity with the religious and social mores of First Century Palestinian Judaism. Indeed, Our Lord declares that the centurion's faith is greater than what He has seen among those whom He would have expected to show signs of the greatest faith: not only the Scribes and the Pharisees, but the circle of His own disciples as well. The point, I suppose, is that neither his foreign culture nor his military commission prevent this Roman centurion from expressing solidarity with Israel. If solidarity were primarily a feature of social conditions, the centurion's disposition of openness to the Lord would not be possible given the vast differences of culture and political commitment that separate him from the historical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But this episode in the Gospel of Matthew shows us that true solidarity depends foremost upon the acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. "O Lord," the centurion says, "I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed." The Roman liturgy repeats these very words precisely at the moment of Holy Communion as an emphatic declaration that solidarity derives from common union with Christ.
If we will acknowledge the authority of the natural law that is revealed in the sanctuary of a well-formed moral conscience; if we will observe the discipline of silence, that is, those practices that draw us into deeper contemplation of the Truth and the Goodness of God; if we will open ourselves more radically to the sanctification that flows from the sacraments, then we will experience the kind of genuine solidarity with others that characterizes the Kingdom of Heaven preached by our Lord, the solidarity that He commends in the centurion. To try to achieve solidarity with one another by purely secular means, that is, by way of political coercion or social reforms, simply does not acknowledge the sovereignty of God, which is the precondition for the authentic transformation of the world.
So, like Saint Thomas More in that portrait by Holbein, we too should adorn ourselves with a collar of esses, these spiritual ornaments of sanctuary, silence, sanctification and solidarity, not as the livery of an earthly king, but as a sign that many have indeed come from the east and the west in order to sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Pax et bonum,
Friar Francisco Nahoe OFM Conv
Rector of Saint Thomas Aquinas Cathedral