By Father Joseph W. McQuaide IV
Diocese of Wilmington
Since I started my studies in canon law several years ago and now as the judicial vicar, or chief judge at the diocesan tribunal, it is my privilege to join with you, my fellow Saint Thomas More Society members, each year for the Red Mass. And when Bishop Koenig asked that I serve as the homilist for this year, I began by doing some research on what we are doing this afternoon. Allow me to share some of that with you:
The Red Mass
“Red Masses” date back to the thirteenth century when they officially opened the term of the court in many European countries. The first recorded Red Mass was celebrated in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in 1245, and from there it spread. Around 1310, during the reign of Edward II, the tradition began in England with the Mass offered at Westminster Abbey. In the United States, the first Red Mass was celebrated in Detroit in 1877. And here in Wilmington, our annual Red Mass began in 1988.
It is celebrated annually to mark the opening of the judicial year for all members of the legal profession—the bench and the bar, judges, lawyers, law school professors and students, both from the civil and ecclesiastical courts. The Red Mass is called “red” not so much because of the scarlet robes worn by royal judges of centuries past, but because of the red vestments worn by the bishop and priests as this is first and foremost a Mass of the Holy Spirit. The red vestments are meant to remind us of the tongues of fire in the Upper Room at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the early church, enlivening them to go out and fulfill the mission entrusted to them by the Lord.
It is as if each of us are gathered here this October afternoon, not at Saint Joseph on the Brandywine, but in the Upper Room at Jerusalem, centuries ago. Again, at the start of this judicial year, we await the descent of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who descended as tongues of fire upon Our Lady, the apostles, and the Lord’s first disciples in that room at Jerusalem on Pentecost.
Stir Into Flame
That image of fire is present in our Second Reading today (2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14) as Saint Paul tells Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” This refers to Paul laying hands on Timothy to ordain him as bishop of Ephesus, at that time the capital of the Roman province of Asia and a city second in size and importance only to Rome. The central act of the ordination ceremony, then as now—whether a deacon, a priest, or a bishop—involves the imposition of the bishop’s hands on the head of the man to be ordained. The fire that Saint Paul spoke about is the gift of the Holy Spirit that Timothy received, which he is meant to stir into flame, meaning to take care of that gift and protect it so the flame won’t die out, but will grow.
Now, most of us here have received the imposition of hands — not through ordination as those of us in the sanctuary have, but in the other sacraments. At confirmation, the bishop extends his hands over those to be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit before they are anointed with the sacred chrism. Many have received the imposition of hands in confession. After confessing one’s sins, the priest extends his hands in a prayer of absolution. Similarly in the anointing of sick and in the marriage ritual, the priest extends or imposes his hands. And when the bishop gives us a solemn blessing at the end of Mass, he extends his hands over us then as well. So, Saint Paul’s words to Timothy can easily be addressed to us today as we invoke the Holy Spirit and ask for his assistance: ‘Stir into flame the gift of God that you have received by the imposition of hands;’ it is for this gift of the Holy Spirit that we pray at this Red Mass.
Increase Our Faith
Like the apostles in our Gospel (Luke 17:5–10) today, we turn to the Lord and ask that he increase our faith. I think that it is worth mentioning that Saint Luke specifies that it was the apostles as a group, rather than any one apostle, that approached the Lord with that request. There is surely strength in numbers. When we put our heads together, when we support each other in doing what’s right, when we pool our strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses, we can—by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit—do amazing things. This is all the more reason for us to gather together each year to ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles did the right thing this time, and that isn’t something that they do all that often. They had been traveling with Jesus for more than a year at this point: living with him, hearing him preach, watching him perform miracles and change people’s lives. They had been his disciples long enough to start realizing that they weren’t very good disciples at all: They still didn’t understand many things that Jesus said; they still couldn’t help people as much as Jesus did. It would have been tempting for them, at that point, to get discouraged and give up.
But instead, they go up to Jesus one afternoon, and they ask for his help. They ask him to increase their faith. Jesus’ answer is mysterious. He looks at them and smiles. He must have been glad that they had asked for help instead of abandoning the mission. Then he tells them that they don’t need more faith, they just need to use the faith they already have. He explains that a tiny little bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed—which is about as small as something can be without getting microscopic—is enough to do marvelous things.
We are all like the apostles. We know in our hearts that we are capable of doing much more, that we were made for greater things. But we don’t realize that God has already given us everything we need to achieve them. He has already planted the seed of faith in our souls; he’s already given us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now it’s up to us to exercise it, to stir it into flame. If we do, it will grow. And the more it grows, the more room God will have to do truly wonderful things in us and through us.
The prophet Habakkuk, whom we heard in the First Reading (1:2–3; 2:2–4), stresses the power of faith, but he gives us a clearer idea of what exactly faith is. Habakkuk lived in the 6th century BC, when Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians and the majority of Jews had been deported into exile. The entire country was effectively destroyed. Habakkuk is in the middle of it all, he sees the devastated city and countryside, burned and barren, strewn with corpses. He feels the pinch of poverty and sees the destruction.
And he does the most natural thing in the world: he complains to God about it: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen!” This teaches us an important lesson: a strong faith doesn’t mean we won’t suffer and be confused in life. A strong faith doesn’t take away our crosses, but a strong faith does show us where to turn when those crosses come: to God, our all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving Father.
God answers Habakkuk’s prayer. He promises that he will act, that he will restore Israel’s fortunes. But, he doesn’t give all the details. In fact, he even seems to imply that it may take longer than Habakkuk would like: “If it delays,” God says, “wait for it.”
Here God shows that he is not aloof from our sufferings. He is watching over us, no matter what. He promises that if we continue to have faith in him, in spite of suffering and hardship, we “shall live”. Faith isn’t a problem-free philosophy—that’s superficial and naïve. Faith is the power to persevere through difficulties, the power that comes from knowing that our father is in charge and that he cares for us.
Faith in Action
But sometimes we neglect to stir our faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit into flame because we have the wrong idea of what it really is. Faith involves believing in Christ and his goodness. But it’s a kind of belief that also requires action. The word “faith” is derived from the Latin word fides. This is the same word at the root of the Latin motto used by the United States Marines Corps: Semper Fidelis, always faithful.
Faith always implies being faithful. It implies a commitment to another person, a trusting commitment. And that means sticking by that person’s side. For us, that person is Christ. So, to have faith in Christ means to follow Christ. The Marines, who are always faithful, are the first to fight. For us with faith, we should stir that gift into flame and readily put that faith into action.
To better understand this, picture a man on a sinking ship. He may believe in a life-preserver. He may remember cases of people being saved because they were wearing a life-preserver when their ship went down. He may even be a physicist and understand the laws of hydro-dynamics that make the life-preserver work. He may understand perfectly how the Velcro straps function and where to attach them. But if this man doesn’t actually put on the life-preserver and strap himself in, his faith is absolutely useless.
If we want to move mountains and to experience God’s power doing wonders in our lives, in a world that sadly all too often resembles Habakkuk’s, we have to put what we believe into practice, more and more, day after day, we have to be semper fi, always faithful.
This Friday, we will celebrate the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The origin of this liturgical celebration provides a powerful example of how we can exercise our faith.
In 1571 Christian Europe was divided; the Protestant Reformation had just blasted the unity of Christendom apart, and even the remaining Catholic kingdoms were fighting among each other with an eye to political advancement. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire was growing and spreading west all over the Mediterranean and its surrounding lands. It was one of the many times when the Muslims were trying to conquer Europe. And this time, their superior forces seemed on the verge of really doing so, especially since the Christians were at each other’s throats.
Luckily, the pope at the time, Pius V, was a saint, a true man of faith. He formed the Holy League, managing to unite the Spanish Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, and the Order of Saint John. These Catholic territories had the biggest navies, and Pius V convinced them to organize a defense of Europe. The sea battle took place on October 7, 1571, at the Gulf of Lepanto, near Greece.
On that day, the pope had instructed all the Catholics throughout Europe to pray the rosary for victory. Processions and vigils were held everywhere, and church bells echoed across the continent, as entire countries seemed to hold their breath. The Christian forces had never before defeated the Muslim navies in a sea battle. But they did that day. Pope Saint Pius V attributed the victory to the prayers of Christians and established the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary—originally called Our Lady of Victory—in gratitude to God.
All of us have some Lepanto-like situations in our lives. Times when we are out-numbered, out-gunned, out-witted. Situations where things have never gone our way and seem like they never will: relatives who have abandoned the Church, obstacles that seem insurmountable, loved ones who are suffering.
Our faith — even if it’s as small as a mustard seed — can give us victory if we put it into action by marshalling our forces and backing them up with heartfelt prayer. It may take longer than we would like, like it did for Habakkuk, but “If it delays,” God says, “wait for it.” For you and me in the meantime at the start of this legal year, we turn to the Lord and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit and resolve to stir it into flame, staying ever faithful, staying semper fi.