Red Mass Homily
Diocese of Springfield
October 14, 2013
Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
It is a high honor and distinct privilege for me to offer the homily at this second annual Red Mass in the Diocese of Springfield. I especially thank your bishop, and my good friend, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, for inviting me for this great occasion.
Originating centuries ago in Rome, Paris and London, the Red Mass has a rich tradition of invoking God’s blessing on judges, lawyers, professors of law, governmental officials and all people involved in the administration of justice. This tradition continues annually and increasingly in many dioceses around our Nation. I applaud you for beginning this tradition here in your diocese.
In one month’s time, we will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address. It was given by President Lincoln on the occasion of the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg a few months after that decisive battle there, with over 50,000 Federal and Confederate soldiers dead, wounded missing or captured, a battle that preserved our Union and the freedoms we continue to cherish. There could be no better place in our Nation to remember the words given there than in this land of Lincoln and at this second annual Red Mass in Springfield, Illinois, where Mr. Lincoln lived for a quarter century.
In that most brief yet highly memorable and celebrated speech, President Lincoln reminded us that “our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And in paying tribute to those who died in the battle, he expressed the hope: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
We continue to ponder the foundational principles of this great Nation-- principles mentioned on that auspicious day in President Lincoln’s address. I speak today, as he did 150 years ago, of liberty, equality and a government of the people, by and for the people. And he spoke 87 years after the Declaration of Independence laid the foundation for the kind of country we were destined to become, a Nation based on certain “self-evident” “truths.” These are the same “truths” President Lincoln had to have had in his mind at Gettysburg and that we reflect on at this Red Mass.
And we do this as we call upon the Holy Spirit to enlighten us, to enlighten in a special way each of you who serves the cause of justice and works for the common good. Yes, we call again and again for that “new spirit” to be placed within us, the same spirit prophesized by that great Jewish prophet Ezekiel in our first reading where he promised that the Lord God would give us “a new heart and place a new spirit within” us. It is the same Holy Spirit who came upon the Church on Pentecost “like a strong driving wind which was heard all through the house where the [apostles] were seated.”
The Holy Spirit is referred to in today’s gospel as “the Spirit of truth.” With the yearning for the “Spirit of truth,” then, we hear today at Springfield the moving words of our 237 year old Declaration of Independence unanimously passed on July 4, 1776. We continue to aspire to be “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
That foundational document of our democracy speaks of the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" and "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Included in these "truths," the document--protected and enshrined under secure green glass in the National Archives-- speaks of "rights," "certain unalienable rights" endowed to each of us by our Creator: "that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
These are memorable words. These “truths” helped bring our great democratic experiment into existence and have sustained us as a Nation. And we know from that fifth century father of the church, Ambroiaster, that “anything true by no matter whom said is from the Holy Spirit.” So we call upon the Holy Spirit to help us deepen our understanding of these “truths” referred to in our Declaration of Independence, “truths” which had to have inspired those courageous soldiers at Gettysburg 150 years ago who preserved our union.
In our land today, however, there are some who regrettably interpret these "truths," truths whose origin is the Holy Spirit, in varying ways—almost and sometimes with the effect of denying them. At a minimum, they are not seen by all as self-evident--these truths which from the beginning of our national experiment helped define us as Americans--these truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--once the basis of a clearer American consensus.
Liberty, for example, cannot for long exist without truth, especially the transcendent truth of the human person. Nor is pursuit of happiness for any one of us furthered if the life of each of us--including the weakest in our midst-- is not protected. I speak of life from the womb until natural death and every aspect of life in between.
As our late Holy Father Blessed (soon to be Saint) John Paul II stated in his 10th encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor , (the “Splendor of Truth”), “the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate--no individual, group, class, nation or state" (V.S. 99).
Or as the late Father Richard John Neuhaus has eloquently written:
"When truth itself is democratized--when truth is no more than the will of each individual or a majority of individuals—democracy, deprived of the claim to truth, stands naked to its enemies. Thus does freedom, when it is not 'ordered to truth' undo freedom" (Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1993).
Our Catholic tradition is a tradition of natural law, revealed by God, but accessible to unaided reason. Our perennial challenge, a challenge for this Red Mass, is to help this Nation see again more clearly, according to reason if not from revelation, that certain unalienable rights do exist--the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are immutable and universal, not “values” created by the passing electoral plebiscite of any particular moment in time and history.
These “unalienable rights” include most importantly the freedom of religion, religious liberty, a certain cherished liberty at risk in some quarters today. The right to exercise our faith and follow our conscience in all aspects of our lives, privately and publicly, and not just in our places of worship, are viewed with hostility by some in our society today and have experienced a steady erosion.
We view religious liberty as an unalienable right, one given to us by God and the natural law. It is forever enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” truths upon which this Nation was born 237 years ago, are not man made or changeable but truths endowed by our Creator. They are the truths that have sustained our country and will help this wonderful Nation continue to grow as our forebears envisioned -- if only we do not grow weak, if we, especially as Catholics, continue to speak, and not give up hope, when the life of the weakest among us is imperiled, when our religious liberty, ever so subtly is threatened and when our happiness and its pursuit, especially the happiness to live lives of faith is made more difficult or impossible to embrace because of any and all efforts which impinge that pursuit.
At this solemn Red Mass, we rededicate ourselves to insuring that our freedoms and liberty are never taken for granted. Only through constant study and vigilance will the vision of our forebears remain a reality today and in the years to follow. And in the words of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, we are reminded that “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they (the soldiers at Gettsysburg) who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
As we have called upon “the spirit of truth” today to enlighten us in the truth, those self-evident truths upon which our country has been formed, we pray now as we return to the altar of this holy Mass that that same Holy Spirit will transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Strengthened with this gift from heaven, then, we go forth to love and serve the Lord and each other, and so guided, serve our Nation that we might be instruments of renewal in the service of justice and the common good.
And I conclude in the words of our Holy Father Pope Francis, appropriate words for this Mass of the Holy Spirit: “Let us renew our trust in the Holy Spirit every day. The trust that He enacts in us, He is in us, He gives us courage, confidence and peace! Let us be guided by Him, men and women of prayer, witnessing the Gospel with courage, becoming instruments in our world of God’s unity and communion (May 22, 2013).