I was privileged to be here with these great men of faith whom I call my brothers and sons. Their joy rekindled in me the joy I first felt when I first saw Peter in Pope Paul VI almost forty years ago. To see the Vicar of Christ and to be touched by his plain preaching is to be touched by the Lord Jesus who ever chose the last place and continues to teach us how to love.
At Mass this morning, I began by recalling the word spoken by the Holy Father to the Bishops yesterday afternoon.
The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind. May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace. Wherever the name of Jesus is spoken, may the Pope’s voice also be heard to affirm that: “He is the Savior”! From your great coastal cities to the plains of the Midwest, from the deep South to the far reaches of the West, wherever your people gather in the Eucharistic assembly, may the Pope be not simply a name but a felt presence, sustaining the fervent plea of the Bride: “Come, Lord!”
Whenever a hand reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ, to dry a tear or bring comfort to the lonely, to show the way to one who is lost or to console a broken heart, to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth, to forgive or to offer a new start in God… know that the Pope is at your side and supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.
Then I preached this homily.
We are not the first representatives of the Church in New England to set forth in this, the mother of all American Cathedrals. For during the 195 years this building has witnessed the presence of the Church in these United States, many have made the long journey from Boston to Baltimore in witness to the unity of the Church in this country.
The first was the first Bishop of Boston, consecrated a Bishop at Saint Peter’s Pro-Cathedral, just down the street from here and four years after they broke ground for the building in which we now stand. He was ordained by the imposition of the hands of Bishop John Carroll, the first Bishop of in our country. That is why the name of Bishop Cheverus is engraved in the bronze plaque at the back of the Church as one of the first Bishops ordained in this sacred space.
Bishop Cheverus was to return to Baltimore eleven years later, to take part in the consecration of this Cathedral, just two years before he would step down from the See of Boston to return to his native France
And from that day to this, be it in Baltimore or Boston, one of the defining tensions of being Catholic in America has been the tension of the two realities: to be Catholic and to be American, that is, the relationship between the culture of the Roman Church and the ever-evolving culture of what it means to be an American. Indeed, that marvelous tension, for God and country, is exemplified in this glorious structure, built by Henry Latrobe in the same Federalist style as the U.S. Capitol, but thoroughly Catholic in all its details.
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It is also reflected in the prayer written by the first American Bishop for the inauguration of the first American President, General George Washington, in 1791. You have a copy of the prayer before you this morning.
It begins by addressing God by three titles: God of might, of wisdom and of justice.
God of might. Not the might of aircraft carriers, drones or even nuclear bombs, but the might “that made the mountains rise, that spread the flowing seas abroad, and built the lofty skies.” That familiar lyric was written by Isaac Watts in 1715 and was very popularly sung to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ new arrangement at the time this Cathedral was dedicated. It reminds us that God puts a smidgen of his omnipotence in our hands in order that we might learn to use even power to do his will.
This is a task which has grown all the harder as we have become a superpower, as the first Catholic President reflected in 1960. “The world is very different now,” from the first days of the republic, for “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
What are our responsibilities in the face of a genocide half-way across the world? How do potential civilian casualties change how we fly a drone? What about nuclear bombs, or non-combatant internment camps or our economic interest versus the needs of less powerful nations?
God of might and of wisdom. He who is wisdom, shares that faculty in some small measure with us, that in seeking it we might act in love and in truth. He is the truth, he is all wisdom, not us. Or in the words of Chief Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes on his 90th birthday to an inquiring journalist: “Young man, the secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered that I was not God.”
Abraham Lincoln understood the wisdom of God, as well, as in a letter written in the course of the Civil War where he described our nation’s task as simply to “work earnestly in the best light [God] gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends he ordains.”
And so do all those elected folks down the street from here seek wisdom every day, debating whether we so cherish our hard won liberty so all men might become libertines or that all men and women might grow to full maturity in the truth? Struggling not to decide great matters based on the accumulated personal gain of our citizenry as on what’s the right thing to do. Trying to discover the not so secret truth that the way we treat the homeless man three blocks from this basilica is the only true test of who we really are as a people and a country.
And then Bishop Carroll addresses God as justice, as the judge who will return to adjudicate the world at the end of time. Now you would think for a nation of laws, where the Judiciary speaks the final word (ask Al Gore about that one), that this would be the easy. But it is not.
For human justice is but a shadow of the judgements of a just God and “like all other mortal contrivances,” Oliver Wendall Holmes once wrote,” the courts “have to take some chances, and in the great majority of instances, no doubt, justice will be done.” But human Justice, and even our Supreme Court, is not infallible.
That’s why we’ll be back here when it snows in January, to beg our justices to value the life of every unborn child. That’s why we cringe when the definition of marriage is changed in the name of justice.
But human justice will never be perfect and no law will ever really make men good. For Christ alone is the way, the truth and the life and everyone else who puts on a black robe or even a funny wig is merely trying to look like Jesus, who is the only real judge of the world made through him.
So here we are, in the Cathedral built at the beginning of this great American experiment. An experiment which has seen its noble days, when God’s truth has, indeed, marched on. But it has also seen days of selfishness and shame.
And in the end, all we, the sons of this great land can do is ask God to help us to love with the power he puts in our hands, to give us the grace to discern his wisdom and the humility to judge others as he would judge us.
That request, at the risk of being schmaltzy, has in our own time been most popularly embraced by a song sung throughout the great wars of the last century. Allow me to conclude by quoting its opening lines as originally written by Irving Berlin almost a hundred years ago:
God bless America.
Land that I love.
Stand beside her and guide her