Cardinal O’Brien Celebrates Red Mass in Wheeling

The following is the homily given by Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, at the Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling Jan. 25




Colleen Rowan Photo

Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien celebrates the Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling Jan. 25. 

The concern we just heard that prompts Paul to write to the Corinthian Church in 1st century Greece is the same concern that has preoccupied virtually every pastor since, to the present.  The word he uses in describing his deep worry is skizmata—rifts, rents, schisms, that threaten the unity of the Church in Corinth.

Personal Loyalties—loyalties to Paul, or Apollos, or Peter—understandable and admirable they were —have broken out in Corinth into serious, damaging factions, with accusations and name calling unworthy of brethren intimately bonded by the Spirit, in Christ.

Does not the same word skizmata aptly describe many situations in a deeply divided world today?  Competing cultural, national, economic rivalries too often culminating if not in car bombs, then in the millions of innocents, families and individuals homeless and penniless, with so many increasingly held captive in prisons and dehumanizing refugee camps in many parts of the world. And who would deny seriously radical, if less violent skizmatas in our own land these days!  Skizmata: not differences, but as walls of separation.

The question of Pope Francis in this month’s World Day of Peace message springs to mind: Can the men and women of this world ever fully respond to the longing for fraternity placed within them by God the Father?  Will they ever manage by their power alone to overcome indifference, egoism and hatred and to accept the legitimate differences typical of brothers and sisters?

The only response offering any hope to this urgent and quite universal question was presented us—all of us—by Jesus himself (Mt. 23:8-4):  For you have only one Father, who is God and you are all brothers and sisters.

There is no way around it, friends:  the only sure answer to malignant, often deadly divisions in the human family can be found in one word, one Name, a Name impossible to avoid regardless of how hard our increasingly secularized culture seeks to intimidate us into doing so. To reject the notion of a living God, biblically described as a Father to us brothers and sisters virtually guarantees continued and more profound skismas in our nation’s, institutions and populations.

In the midst of the last century the renowned French diplomat Paul Claudel claimed, “Who no longer believes in God no longer believes in anything.”  This might be a radically unwelcomed claim for some tastes today, until we recall that Claudel was looking back upon two world wars sprung from the seed of atheist ideologies, ideologies which in the name of human autonomy and scientific progress inspired the murder of tens of millions of innocent people.


An impressive and richly deserved monument was not long ago dedicated on the Washington Mall to the Reverend Martin Luther King, a theologian of some substance who, in fact, often quoted generously from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Surrounding his imposing statue there are 14 quotes taken from Dr. King’s speeches and sermons.  Whoever selected those quotes must have struggled mightily to avoid completely any mention of God.  Imagine:  Martin Luther King deprived of God!  Martin Luther King—a virtual atheist?

Just across that Tidal Basin on the Washington Mall we find the Memorial to Thomas Jefferson with sculptured words boldly proclaiming “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty…. and, …can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are a gift of God?”

Our earlier American icons did not evade the reality and necessity of involving God’s influence in the life of our Nation—they insisted upon it!

One of the most famous and quoted Presidential addresses of all time, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, was delivered 41 days before he died and soon after the conclusion of the Civil War.  Among its 101 words, God is mentioned 14 times, the Bible is quoted four times and prayer is invoked another three.  And neither the intellectual set, nor the press potentates of those days seemed to have had any problem with that whatsoever!

Indeed our Founding Fathers left no doubt about their belief in God and in their conviction that God’s role in America’s daily life is realized through the religious belief of a moral citizenry.

George Washington very often spoke of God whom he referred to as God the Divine Author of Life, the All Powerful and Divine Provider, the Dispenser of Every Good and All Wise Creator who guided the events in America’s emerging identity.

George Washington’s Farewell address insisted religion and morality to be “indispensable supports of our political prosperity:  reason and experience both, forbid us to expect that national morality can be retained without religion.”

Again, John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people:  It is wholly inadequate to the government of others.”

The late Justice William O. Douglas, no religious extremist, surely, in 1952: “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”  That was 62 years ago.  Would it be well accepted today?  And with what implications?

Nor should today’s unfortunate reality of sectional religious extremism justify the near-phobic repudiation, in some American quarters, of the importance of religion in fostering the ongoing pursuit of the common good.

The recently retired Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sachs states the case for the vast majority of religions and religious people:  Religion is “part of the ecology of freedom because it supports families, communities, charities, voluntary associations, active citizenship and concern for the common good.  It is a key contributor to civil society which is what holds us together without the coercive power of law.  Without it we would depend totally on the state” and veer toward a totalitarian democracy.

Far from being a permissible private eccentricity consigned to remote sanctuaries, religion is a primary mediating presence in society, a buffer between a potentially monopolizing state and the lives of individual citizens and associations.  Through networks of educational institutions and organized charities that are inseparable from most religions’ core beliefs, religion’s full participation in the life of a democracy should be appreciated and encouraged rather than being dismissed as an optional, unnecessarily incidental, and alien intrusion—tolerated, but privately only.

Thus, alarms should rightly sound as they did in a recent case before the Supreme Court contended that churches have no more right in choosing its ministers according to the tenets of their faith than do labor unions or social clubs in choosing their leadership.  A unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court decisively rejected this coercive intrusion on our government’s part.

Not only should religious adherents be protected and encouraged in the full spectrum of their religiously inspired activities, but our freedom publically to express our religious convictions (a treasured American tradition) must never be placed in jeopardy.

In the summer of 2012 the CEO of a national fast food company publicly stated his support for biblical marriage.  In a flash, the mayors of Boston and Chicago thereupon declared these franchisers unwelcome in their cities.  And just days ago, the governor of New York proclaimed that those who are opposed to abortion and same sex marriage have no right to live in New York State.  Hyperbole?  Hopefully.  But possibly a sad and ominous barometer of religious intolerance in a number of our highly-placed political leaders of the day?

A former head of the Federal Elections Committee noted this recent tendency of saying, “not only do I disagree with you but I resent and am offended by your message and you shouldn’t be allowed to say it.”  Rather than open and civil political argument, far easier to have one’s way by labeling those with opposing views as hate groups subject to legal action.

The Great Seal of the United States depicts an eagle, holding in its beak a ribbon on which we read the Latin words (probably borrowed by St. Augustine) E pluribus unum, (Out of many, one).  In our vast beloved land, providentially expanding in scientific, intellectual and economic development, this goal of fully realized unity might sometimes appear an elusive dream.  But a dream never without hope to the extent that all of us and particularly in public institutions heed the words of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural, that our rights “came not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God”.

Through the brief centuries of this Nation’s existence our noble legal traditions have unapologetically recognized this principle of divine presence and transcendence as the origin and foundation in support of human dignity and freedom.

On his return to England after a lengthy visit to this Country some 90 years ago, G.K. Chesterton published, “What I Saw in America.” The brilliant sage called us “a nation with a soul of a church… the only one founded on a creed.” The equality that is the chief mark of our Declaration of Independence and the rights it proclaims are explicitly said to be founded in the laws of nature and of God.  (This, by the way one of four mentions of God in our Declaration of Independence.)

A truth as essential and relevant today as it was at our Founding. A truth that draws us here, whatever our religious persuasion, calling on God for the personal spirit of wisdom and courage, gifts that graced our beginning and, please God, will grace your deliberations in the months to come.