Friday, July 29, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
The following are excerpts from Bishop Zubik’s July 4 homily for the closing Mass of the Fortnight for Freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
You all must know what a daunting task this has got to be, to be able to speak a word that comes clearly from the Holy Spirit. And I know that you will pray me on in that effort. It’s a daunting task even more so because this is the second time this year I’ve been invited to preach from this great pulpit. I was honored to be asked by His Eminence (Cardinal Donald Wuerl) to preach the closing Mass of the Vigil for Life on Jan. 22. And what I did that particular morning was to take everybody back to my fifth-grade classroom. And I shared with them an important lesson that I learned from Sister Mary Richard, who was my teacher then. It was a lesson about learning the 30 prepositions and to make sure that we knew how to use them. I remembered that lesson, and I charged the people who were gathered together that morning to take a look at how we are connectors, how we need to be prepositions for life.
Well, today I’d like to stay within that same motif of literary genres, if I can. This is something that any of you who are “baby boomers” will be forced to admit. There are lots of ways that people describe us as “baby boomers.” There are lots of reasons why people blame us for the world being the way that it is. But I’d like to suggest that one of the titles that we have as “baby boomers” is that we, in fact, were the cheerleaders for term papers.
You know, no other generation before us, and every generation after us has learned how to write term papers. And one of the most important lessons that we learned in writing term papers is how to back up our statements with footnotes.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve got to tell you honestly that part of the problem for me was the fact that every professor that I had in college decided on a different footnote format. They couldn’t get their act together and agree about where to place the period, or where to put a semicolon, or where to put the colon. And sometimes, I have to say, I got some points taken off because I did not have things in exactly the order which that professor wanted. I have to make a confession: that I was foolish enough after finishing my college degree and my studies that I decided to protest footnotes! I chose not to pay a whole lot of attention to them or to take them seriously. But it didn’t take me very long to realize what a terrible mistake I was making. In a very important way, footnotes help to embellish the truth of whatever is being conveyed.
Footnotes strengthen the message that is being put forth. I would like to suggest on this Fourth of July celebration as we mark the end of our Fortnight for Freedom of 2016, that we take a look at how you and I are called to be footnotes — and footnotes to the truth that is none other than Jesus Christ himself.
We heard it with our own ears just a few minutes ago. One of those powerful charges that Jesus himself gave to the apostles at the Last Supper. He speaks about giving them freedom. He speaks about giving them that internal peace, which nobody else can give and nobody else can take away. It is a peace, it is a freedom that comes from God himself.
And clearly, as Jesus Christ gave that charge to the apostles at the Last Supper, the minds of those early apostles had to go back to what they learned about creation — how God made everything in the world, everything about it, and most especially the human person to be the apple of his eye. They had to realize that as Jesus was giving them the charge to go forth, he was really calling them in a very particular way to be a footnote to himself. And to his messianic, salvific mission on this earth.
Be a living sign
But you know, my sisters and brothers, when you and I start to take a look at that notion of a footnote, and it takes the form of a human person, another word comes into play: witness. To be a witness. To stand up for. To be a living sign of. To be a proponent for. No wonder in this year of our Fortnight for Freedom celebration, our theme has been “The Witness for Religious Freedom.” And as you and I heard that powerful message from St. Paul given to the Christian community at Colossae, isn’t that what Paul was trying to evoke from those readers of his letter? That they could realize the same thing that was spoken to the apostles at the Last Supper. Jesus was choosing them, giving them a peace that nobody else could give and nobody else could take away. He was giving them the freedom to equally and together stand up for the ultimate truth, who is Jesus Christ himself.
You know it’s rather interesting as we take a look at that transition from being a footnote to being a witness, our minds have to remember our sisters and brothers who are so adept at the Greek language. Because you know that the definition of a “witness” in the Greek language is martyrion. And from that comes a most sacred title for all of us in the church: to be a martyr. To have the guts to stand up for. To be a visible sign of the truth that is in fact Jesus Christ.
And so, think about our ancestors in the faith who teach us what it means to be a footnote, what it means to be a witness, what it means to be a martyr.
Think about John the Baptist and how he literally lost his head because he refused to cave in to political powers.
Think about Peter and Paul, those bookends of our Christian faith, and for all that they did to advance the mission and the message of Jesus Christ.
Think, if you will, in a very special way, about these two men whose relics we have the privilege of venerating here today in this shrine. Thomas More. John Fisher. Leaders of 16th-century England who would not yield supremacy of power over faith to the king. They stood as footnotes, as witnesses, as martyrs.
Think about Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint, who in the 17th century for the people of Canada and the northern part of our country did the same thing. She was, in fact, a footnote, a witness, a martyr for the faith.
Think about those 16 French Carmelite nuns who, during the 18th century and the French Revolution, lost their lives because they would not give up on Jesus Christ. They were footnotes. They were witnesses. They were martyrs.
And think about the people who, in fact, have grounded our vision of being loyal to Jesus Christ over the course of the last 100 years.
Think about Blessed Miguel Pro, the Jesuit priest in Mexico who died in 1927 because he would not back off on speaking the truth of Jesus Christ.
Think about St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who both would not back off from Jesus Christ during the time of the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s.
Think about Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who lost his life in 1980 because he would not back off on Jesus Christ.
Think about those 21 Coptic Christian martyrs who were beheaded in February of last year on a seashore in Libya because they would not back off from the truth that is Jesus Christ.
And think about all of those people in our midst today who are powerful footnotes, witnesses, martyrs to the faith, especially beginning with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who in our own country are carrying the important banner that WE WILL NOT BACK OFF FROM THE TRUTH THAT IS, IN FACT, JESUS CHRIST.
Today, we come to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the independence of our country. And one of the things that we cannot forget, that we must not forget, is that one of the foundations of this country is our belief in the very existence of God. The forefathers of our own country knew that to be true. That’s why they established the First Amendment to the Constitution that gives us a religious freedom that enables us to do what we’re doing at this moment. To come together and to worship our God as the source of our strength.
But we also know, despite the fact that many people will dispute the fact, we also know that the forefathers of our country also said that religious freedom extends beyond our worship, giving us the freedom to live our faith when we walk outside the doors of our churches, our synagogues and our mosques.
For that reason, as today we mark this great, great celebration of our country, we in the words of Thomas More himself may say: “I may die the king’s servant, but I am God’s first.”
So, it is within the context of what we do here around the Lord’s table — the table of his word and the table of the Eucharist — that we beg God for the grace, for the strength, for the determination, for the guts to be footnotes, to be witnesses, to be martyrs for the cause of Jesus Christ.
Pray God, my sisters and brothers, and praise God, my sisters and brothers, that we may each and all of us build on our ancestors in the faith and our ancestors in our country to be witnesses to religious freedom. And as we do so, may I suggest that we do three things.
First, that we may continue to pray for the preservation of religious freedom.
Second of all, that we may act and exercise our rights as citizens of our country to speak up, especially to our leaders, about the preservation of that freedom.
Third of all, that we may live that religious freedom, never be embarrassed by it, always seek dependence on God and his grace.
And with those three charges, not unlike what Jesus charged those early apostles with at the Last Supper, may we do what our faith demands of us — be witnesses for religious freedom.