Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., delivered the homily at the annual Red Mass sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society, Diocese of Wilmington, on Oct. 1 at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine. The text of the homily is included below.
Today, Oct. 1, on the church calendar is the feast day of Saint Thèrése of Lisieux, affectionately known as The Little Flower. She is a very popular saint. When her relics were brought to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York where I lived so many thousands came to midtown to venerate them that the traffic on Fifth Avenue came to a standstill. So, who is this Saint Thèrése of The Child Jesus who stops traffic and what can she offer this assembly gathered for this Red Mass?
She died in 1897, twenty four years old, having spent almost the last ten years of her short life in a cloistered Carmelite convent. How did she become so famous and beloved? She did not do any great or extraordinary work. She did not go to the foreign missions even though curiously the church has declared her the patroness of missionaries. She did not found a great religious order.
She wrote a journal which was published after her death and is entitled “Story of a Soul” which has been translated in 50 languages. In it she explained her spirituality which is called “The Little Way.” Simply put, The Little Way is doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well. “Remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God.”
Thèrése was given permission at age 15 to enter the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux to follow the vocation of a discalced Carmelite nun. In her short cloistered life, she suffered physically from tuberculous as well as emotionally due to the jealousy of some of the other sisters in the convent. She wrote, “Charity is the most excellent way that leads to God. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, and that it embraced all times and places, in a word, that it was eternal. Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out, O Jesus, my love, my vocation, at last I have found it, to be love.”
Pope Saint John Paul II in 1997 declared her a “Doctor of the Church.” A recognition, usually given to men and women of outstanding scholarship. Saint Thèrése was no scholar but the title Doctor of the Church places her before the church as one who has shed new light on the great mysteries of faith. As you have just heard in the quote I just mentioned, she declared her special vocation – love – she described the profound truth of love as the center and heart of the Church and, herself.
Her “Little Way” makes God very accessible. It is a simple way to holiness and it is to holiness that each of us is called. Her teaching could be summed up as it is not difficult to experience God’s love and mercy. Her doctrine of spiritual childhood expresses a relationship with God that is not childish but one of dependence, trust and wonder. You give yourself to people, to tasks and responsibilities with loving care.
In today’s Gospel Jesus uses a visual image to teach his disciples who were arguing about who is the greatest. He puts a child by his side to upend his disciples notion of greatness. The child is not presented as a symbol of innocence or purity but of lowliness and insignificance which are characteristics of true greatness in his kingdom about which Jesus is instructing his followers.
Saint Thèrése’s “Little Way” illustrates this teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel. “For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” Her “little way” stresses self-giving in matters of ordinary, daily life. It is easy, at least in our imagination, to be drawn to renunciation in grandiose and large matters. The temptation is to under rate the value of little acts of self-forgetting, self-giving, patience and forgiveness. These are the ones closest at hand and perhaps, the most difficult because they are so unsung, unappreciated and unnoticed. Think about in your everyday life what might be some little acts?
Like, keeping a smile and friendly word for those who may be difficult to deal with; taking on less elegant tasks at the work place or in your home; being patient with the elderly, the forgetful, the adolescent; restraining your tongue when you know that you have the right answer on some issue; allowing those who are less informed or less articulate to get a word into a conversation. These are some examples and instances of smaller matters where we make life better for others by patience, forgiveness and generosity. They may be our “little way” a way of self-giving and very much in line with the teaching of Saint Thèrése that the daily little acts bring us close to God.
The first reading for this Mass, the story of Job, the God fearing man losing everything but through it all he remains hopeful in the Lord. Despite his extreme reversal of fortune and severe testing by Satan Job’s response is a numbing profession of faith in the Lord’s sovereignty. “The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job’s valiant profession of faith after what he experienced at the cunning of Satan.
Both Job and Saint Thérèse having experienced life’s difficulties, life’s cruelties and life’s sadnesses kept the faith. There are lessons for you and me to consider in both their stories.
The Red Mass is a tradition in the Catholic Church dating back to the 13th century. It officially opened the term of court for most of the European countries. The first recorded Red Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral of Paris in 1245. From there, it spread to most European countries. Around 1310 during the reign of Edward II the tradition began in England with Mass offered at Westminster Abbey. It received its name from the fact that the celebrant was vested in red and the Lord High justices were robed in brilliant scarlet. As it has been from its inception, the prayers and blessings of this Mass are focused on the leadership roles of those who deal with the law and the legal profession praying that God’s guidance and strength be with them. It is celebrated in honor of the Holy Spirit as the source of wisdom, understanding, counsel and fortitude which are the very Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Divine Gifts needed for the dispensing of justice in the courtroom as well as in an attorney’s office.
At this Red Mass we invoke God’s guidance on each of you, on your professional and judicial duties. You who are entrusted with the administration of justice, the interpretation of the law and upholding the common good. We pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit in each of you, We pray especially, for the highest gift, wisdom which is the personification of God’s presence and providence. Wisdom is what we hope to see reflected in our civic leaders, attorneys, counsellors, and others, like, priests, bishops, and all who have leadership roles in society. Wisdom was the gift of the Holy Spirit enjoyed by both Saint Thérèse and Job.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, our Holy Father Francis reminds us and I quote “No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and natural life, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.” And, “All Christians are called to show concern for the building of a better world.” Such teaching drives the voice and work of the bishops of the United States on a variety of issues.
The Holy Father writes, “I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialog aimed at healing the deepest roots — and not simply the appearances – of evils in this world. Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation, and one of the highest forms of charity, in as much as it seeks the common good.” And, “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, and the lives of the poor.”
In The Joy of the Gospel, The Holy Father encourages work on behalf of justice. To work to bring about in this world what hints at the splendor of what awaits us in the world without end.
While we await the glory of what is to come we seek to create here the kingdom of truth, justice, life and peace. We are accountable to build here God’s kingdom of justice, peace, truth and life. While the future belongs to God, the rule of God on earth depends on us.
Allow me to mention three issues of concern for the Church in our country:
• Immigration and Refugees — America is still a beacon of hope for refugees. Now their numbers for entry into our country are being severely limited. We continue to suffer the disastrous effects of a broken immigration system due to no political will to correct it. The disgrace of family separation and the treatment of the DACA young people are shameful. And, just this morning I read about the transfer of 2,000 children to a tent city in south Texas. What has become of us?
• Religious Freedom — for religious entities, there is no real freedom without truth. As members of the legal profession, it is your specific task to help ensure that legislation, government administrations, the judicial process respect and reflect the freedom of religion. No human authority can infringe on it.
• Human Life — Every life is sacred and every life has a purpose in God’s creation. These are truths that are “self-evident.” The founders of our nation believed that the only justification for government is to serve the human person who is created in God’s image; who is endowed with God-given dignity, rights and responsibilities and who is called by God to a transcendent destiny.
Unfortunately, the seemingly never ending abuse scandals caused by some sinful priests and bishops lessen the impact of our teaching in the public forum but it will not stop the bishops from preaching the truth; preaching the Gospel. I do believe it is time for the lay faithful to advance the agenda of the bishops. You may get a better hearing than bishops in this present climate.
My brothers and sisters. Public service is a noble vocation. It takes honesty, courage, prudence and humility and prayer. Applying the Little Way of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux may help you to live that vocation with personal satisfaction. It takes Job like conviction that God is with us despite the present difficulties as we seek to serve the common good.
When our Holy Father, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, he told our Lawmakers “you are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizen in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief arm of politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.”
There is a profound connection between human law and God’s law. It is not that the Catholic Church expects secular lawmakers to make laws based on religious doctrine. Rather, there is a common moral sense written in the hearts of all people and our secular laws are and must be founded upon that.
May the examples of Job and Thérèse strengthen our resolve to do our work with Job like faith in God and with the simplicity of Saint Thérèse becoming holy by doing daily the little things with great care and love.