This past week, on Friday, we had a very well attended liturgy and I’d like to recall the three areas we covered, for each of them is tied together and each of them is worthy of your attention.
First of all, we celebrated the great Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, a major feast of the Church, and then we had the festive ordination of two great young men, a moment of tremendous joy for our diocese, and lastly, we marked the major liturgical celebration of our “Fortnight for Freedom,” as we prayed for the preservation of religious liberty and freedom, with God’s help.
First, I spoke of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul. Pope Benedict XVI remarked, in his homily for this feast, that the fraternity of Peter and Paul was really something remarkable. It was interesting to see how well our readings for the Feast of Peter and Paul worked, and as we celebrated the Fortnight for Freedom — for both of the first two readings had statements about the freedom of those two great apostles. The First Reading (Acts 12:1-11) spoke of how Peter was freed for his apostolic ministry by the direct intervention of the Lord’s angel, and in the Second Reading (2 Tim. 4:6-8, 17-18) Paul thanks God because he has been given the freedom to “fight the good fight,” and that “the Lord rescued him from the lion’s mouth.”
The Lord kept both of them free to witness to the Gospel, even unto death. Peter and Paul were brothers in the freedom, and in the love, and in the apostolic grace of Jesus Christ; they were bonded together by a spiritual gift, stronger than any other spiritual bonds on this earth, because they were bound to Christ — as in His Person, and filled with the Governing Spirit, and they were bonded to one another.
And on the very night of their ordination, Father Mark and Father David received the ontological seal on their souls, at the deepest level, of Christ the Priest. They now share, through the bishops, in the spiritual bond that Peter and Paul experienced and which was the basis of their fraternity. Peter and Paul were not similar characters, they were not natural “soul-mates,” they even had it out here and there, but the deep bond that Christ Himself created could not be broken by human failing or any human weakness or any human disagreement.
Peter and Paul were bonded to Christ by the Holy Spirit, and bonded to one another. And all those who were priests after them were bonded to one another and to Christ, through the apostles. So what went on with Peter and Paul was the very same thing that went on at our ordinations, right here in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2012 — they entered into the deepest spiritual bond that exists for priests, through their bishop.
Fraternity in the Church
Just as Peter and Paul may have had disagreements, the Lord knows that there are plenty of disagreements in the Church today. But in the end, that spiritual bond that unites all priests, through the sacred seal of Holy Orders, overcomes every obstacle. And we must remember never to push a brother-priest away — that is part of the fraternity, the communion of the priesthood. All priests must remember never to push the bishop away, and the bishop has to remember never to push any priest away.
Sometimes it’s not easy, but all of us priests must overcome whatever tests the depth of our faith in that sacred seal, which makes us to be in the person of Jesus Christ! All of us, especially the newly ordained men, must remember that the seal that binds us to Christ is the most important thing in our lives. It is a new identity; it tells the priest who he is at the deepest level. Knowing Fathers Mark and David, I know that they will be faithful to that beautiful sacramental seal.
On the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul we also thought of our Holy Father, the successor of the Apostle Peter. The Pope is the one who, above all, is given that authority to bind and to loose that Peter himself was given at the end of the Gospel which we read during our celebration (Mt 16:13-19). The Holy Father is the one with whom all bishops and priests exercise our ministry — and never apart from him. “Where Peter is, there is the Church!” It’s not possible to love the Church and not to love the Holy Father, so we must pledge anew our unfailing obedience and our filial love to Pope Benedict XVI, who truly is the loving father of us all, and who deserves nothing less than love from us in return.
Secondly, the feast that we celebrated on Friday was also a feast of Ordination. It was a marvelous thing that those two men were called to the preaching and teaching ministries, both when convenient and when not convenient. It’s a beautiful thing that those men were called to offer, in the person of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of Calvary. As another excellent preacher said recently, “when we enter the sanctuary as priests, we are not coming out on stage, we are walking up to Mount Calvary.” This is the vocation of the priest, and without Calvary, without knowing what it is to offer sacrifice, there simply is no true priesthood.
It was in the context of the “Fortnight for Freedom,” that Fathers David and Mark were ordained, and that night they came forward and made a very, very important promise before God’s people to the Lord. These two men came before me (unworthy though I am to be a successor of the Apostles) and pledged their promise of obedience and respect to me and my successors. To witness that promise of obedience was the best possible way to celebrate the “Fortnight for Freedom” in prayer, because what these new priests were doing was performing an act of true freedom in Christ.
That true freedom is not the freedom to do whatever I feel like, it’s the freedom that pulls the whole person together, so that body and soul are not simply at odds with each other. At their ordination, the Lord gave the grace to David and Mark, to pull themselves together as integral wholes and then to say, “Here I am, Lord. I am completely myself, body and soul, and I am completely yours!”
Father David and Father Mark received grace from the Lord to allow themselves freely to choose to belong to God completely. When they chose to say “yes” to the Lord, they realize that they said a million, “no’s,” but still they chose to belong completely to God. It is precisely this type of choice that religious freedom in our country is to make possible. Religious freedom, at the level of the state, is to create the environment so that those to whom the Lord gives the grace may freely give themselves totally to God. And so it was a wonder to behold the exercise of that freedom as we prayed for freedom for all men and women of faith.
Death to self
After the promise of obedience, we as a congregation sang the Litany of the Saints, and David and Mark lay prostrate on the floor, as if dead, as a sign that they were dead to the old “self,” dead to the kind of freedom that our culture worships — freedom do whatever I feel like at any moment. David and Mark made an act of dying to unbridled license, and in that they gained full life in Jesus Christ. With their act, they said to Christ, “I am completely yours,” and from there they rose and came forward for the laying on of hands. There the bishop laid hands upon them in complete silence, saying nothing, because Christ was saying, in a most personal way that only the two of them individually could understand, that “you are completely mine!” Father David and Father Mark offered themselves completely to the Lord, and in the laying on of hands in silence, they could hear Him saying, as only He could say it to them, and in a way that they’ll be learning to hear from now until the end of time, “you are completely mine.” Then, in the likeness of Jesus, that good and brave shepherd, they became brave.
We need our priests to be brave because the world is not the friendliest place to Catholics, or to priests, or to bishops these days. And with that wonderful exchange, where the priest says to Jesus, “I am completely yours,” and in which the Lord responds, “you are completely mine,” they are made into the person of Jesus Christ, and the bravery of the good shepherd is theirs. That unity remains through communion with their bishop and with the Holy Father.
In the ordination prayer for the new priests, we heard over and over again, the phrase, “together with the bishop”; we, the priests and the bishop cannot think about ourselves apart from one another anymore. In the communion with one another and with Him, we find the bravery to do the mission on which we have been sent. The two essential dimensions of priesthood, Pope Benedict has said, are communion and mission.
Responsibility to defend freedom
Examining a major part of that mission today takes me to the third point — the Fortnight for Freedom. The night of the ordinations Father Mark and Father David received the responsibility that every priest has, not only during the “Fortnight for Freedom,” but every day, to teach about how religious freedom is our most basic and most precious freedom. We have the responsibility and a special urgency to speak out in light of what happened in recent days in the Supreme Court.
It interested me very much that Chief Justice Roberts said in the Supreme Court’s ruling, that, “Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”
It is not the job of the court, he said, to be the quick fix for bad outcomes of what our elected leaders do. The solution to bad outcomes of what our elected leaders do is to change the elected leaders, he said. The Chief Justice is reminding the American people that they must take the responsibility for avoiding the bad outcomes that they want to avoid, themselves. The question for each of us, is “are we ready to accept our responsibilities as the United States electorate?”
Our present work as the Church in the United States, and what our newly ordained priests must do in a hurry is to start catechizing about how every person should seek to experience the freedom that Fathers David and Mark experienced in making their sacred promises.
The climate of religious freedom in our country should be such as to allow every person of good will to pull herself or himself together, and act with the freedom with which our priests acted at their ordination. The Lord, in a particular way at this time in history, is saying to all priests and to our newly ordained, “get out there, and work hard, and then pray hard, so that yours will continue to be the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Praised be Jesus Christ!