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Bishop Koenig homily at Blue Mass: ‘We would not be who we are today were it not for you and your faithful service’

Bishop Koening celebrates the "Blue Mass" for first responders in the Diocese of Wilmington at St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington. Dialog photo/Don Blake

As we gather this morning to give glory and praise to God, I begin by expressing deep, deep gratitude for the service and commitment of the first responders who are gathered here today as well as those who, while not physically present, we hold in prayer. It is sometimes said that New York City is a city that never sleeps. Whether that is true or not, what is without a doubt true, is the tremendous 24/7 vigilance and response that you provide as members of the police, fire, rescue and safety departments of the City of Wilmington and our state. Your professionalism, courage and expertise allow us to sleep at night. On behalf of all us, I again express thanks. We would not be who we are today were it not for you and your faithful service.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the human face of our loving God, is at the Last Supper with his disciples. He tells them that just as his heavenly Father loves him, so too does he love them. The depth of his love will be seen, he tells them, by the greatest sign of one’s love—one’s willingness to lay down one’s life for another person. Jesus’ message then shifts from talking about himself to what he is calling his disciples to do.  He tells them that they are ultimately called to go forth and, strengthened by his love, bear fruit.  In today’s first reading from the Letter of St. James, these fruits are described as pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant and full of mercy.  For the next few moments, I invite us to reflect on a person whose life bore fruit and how his life might apply to ourselves.

This person lived long ago.  We do not know his name. He is identified in the Gospel of Luke by his profession — he is the Centurian.  He is, in other words, a Roman soldier who is in charge of 100 other soldiers — hence the origin of his title.  He has sent a request to Jesus to heal his servant who is “ill and close to death.”  While this soldier is not a Jew, he has been very kind to the Jewish people of the area and even built them a synagogue.  The Jews tell Jesus of this man’s goodness and how he is worthy of having his servant healed.  Jesus decides to act and word goes out that Jesus is making his way to the centurian’s home where he will cure the servant. Before getting too far, however, the centurian again sends a messenger to Jesus.  The message this time is that he does not deserve to have Jesus enter under his roof, but if Jesus only sends the word, his servant will be healed.  Jesus, we are told, is “amazed” at this man’s faith and says that he has not encountered faith like this anywhere in Israel.  It is, to put it mildly, quite a compliment. And when the centurian’s messengers return, they find the servant has indeed been healed.

The centurian’s concern and compassion for his servant and his kindness towards the Jewish people are exemplary.  His greatest attribute, however, are not these qualities but is what Jesus points to — his faith.  Let’s take a moment to look at what is at the heart of this faith and how the centurian’s faith is different from the faith of others with whom Jesus interacts.  This difference can be seen by looking at how people viewed the centurian’s request for the healing of his servant and how the centurian himself viewed the request. Did you notice that the Jewish people say that this man is worthy of Jesus curing his servant. In other words, the centurian has done something that merits or has earned repayment. Whereas the centurian does not even think he deserves to have Jesus enter into his home no less cure his servant.

Bishop Koenig distributes communion to members of the military, state, county, and local law enforcement along with emergency workers during the annual Blue Mass at St. Elizabeth Church, Friday, October 1, 2021. Dialog photo/Don Blake

In other words, the centurian knows that, while he is a man of responsibility, authority and power and while he has acted with kindness towards others, he is also a person who needs help beyond his own merit and his own abilities.  He knows that there is a higher power than himself and he looks to that higher power in the person of Jesus Christ.  He needs Jesus’ help and it is to Jesus that he goes.  And that, my dear brothers and sisters, distinguishes his faith from everyone else’s.  He is trusting in a power far beyond his own abilities and merits.

We now look at ourselves.  In gathering today, we are mindful of how we too look to God for divine assistance.  We are especially conscious of how, despite thorough training and our best efforts, there are moments and situations that go beyond human capabilities.  And we, like the centurian, turn today to our loving God in gratitude for past and in supplication for future divine intervention.

Let us also draw a second lesson from the story of the centurian.  Let us see, in his willingness to send messengers to Jesus and enlist the help of other people, another aspect of his faith.  I can only begin to imagine how certain situations you face take an emotional toll on you.  These situations are only compounded by the daily stress you experience in your professions.  It is in this context that I again invite us to look to the centurian and his willingness to seek the help of others.  Our prayer today is that when the “job” starts to affect your personal and professional lives that you and all first responders have the faith, courage and strength of the centurian to ask for help.  As first responders there are undoubtedly times in which you have been “an angel” sent by God to help a person in need.  That same God sends “angels” to you at times of need.  Perhaps that angel may be the chaplain or a professional trained in a certain field of human science.  When the need arises, welcome the angel into your life.

As I finish this homily, please know that I speak on behalf of all of the Diocese of Wilmington in expressing gratitude for the service that you and all first responders render day-in and day-out to our communities.  It is our prayer that you, and indeed all of us, be strengthened by the love of God whose only son lays down his life for us.  May we look to God’s love as a wellspring from which we can draw strength.  May God bless you and keep you!