Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Respect Life Mass

January 23, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 49:1-6
Psalm 139: 1-3, 12-15
Colossians 1:12-20
Matthew 18:1-5, 10, 12-14

The prophet Isaiah speaks today in our first reading, “Listen, distant peoples. Before birth, the Lord called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The prophet further adds, “For now the Lord has spoken who formed me as His servant from the womb, that Jacob may be brought back to Him and Israel gathered to Him.” There are three points for our reflection and prayer on this occasion: the naming of a person, the call of the person’s name by God, and the answer of the call to return to God.

Many years ago, when I was a college seminarian in a parish in the African American community of Chicago, I remember learning an expression that conveys the message for one to show disrespect to another. A fourth grader taught me this expression when I overheard her use it in an argument on a playground with another girl. The first young lady said to the second, “Don’t call me out of my name!” It is an expression that is very rich in meaning. To have a name is to have belonging to a family. Our parents gave us our names before we were born, or shortly after we were born. The names given by fathers and mothers to their children are intended to be the result of prayerful discernment and conversation between them of the hopes that they share for their son or daughter soon to be born. In so doing, fathers and mothers are instruments of God in calling a child into being and into belonging to Him and to their parents and family. 

To have a name is to have belonging in the communion of the Church. When we were baptized, the priest or deacon speaks our name on Christ’s behalf after our parents and godparents told them our name. To have a name means to be a person and to have that personhood acknowledged and respected and even loved by others. When we ask someone to call us by our name, we are inviting this person towards a relationship of trust that has closer proximity than the relationship structured by appropriate titles — titles that structure a relationship with its own appropriate intimacy and friendship.

In a sense, the first assault on the gift of human life at every stage of development is to remove someone from the light of belonging by removing his or her name, thereby thrusting them into the darkness of anonymity. To be nameless is to have identity and belonging stripped and to be pushed out of the light of belonging as a person into the darkness of possession as an object to be disposed. The prophet proclaims, “Listen, distant peoples. Before birth, the Lord called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.”

The Lord calls every person by his or her name. The Lord calls each of us even in the darkness of our distance from Him as individuals and as a society within the culture of death. He speaks closely with us in our distance and He shows us His path of light in our darkness. Jesus called each of His Apostles by name. He did so after a night spent in prayer alone with God on a mountain in the darkness of the night.  He called each of them by name to follow Him out of that darkness as His servants of the light. 

The Lord manifested His power and His light when He silenced the demons who possessed the demoniac when they reacted out of rage and fear at His presence and He forbade them to speak His name for Christ cannot be possessed; He belongs to the Father and He comes to save us from the darkness and to offer us belonging to Him in unconditional love. “For now the Lord has spoken who formed me as His servant from the womb, that Jacob may be brought back to Him and Israel gathered to Him.”

Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus when He appeared to her after the Resurrection until He called her out of the darkness into the light of His Kingdom by speaking her name, “Mary.” It is after Jesus calls her into her name that she sees clearly in His light and is freed from the darkness of the tomb, the darkness of sin, and the darkness of death.

The Lord speaks our name and calls us through Jesus to return to Him away from sin and darkness and death. He gives us the grace of the willingness to speak of the darkness and sin in our own lives and in that of society. Just as Mary Magdalene could not see the light of the Kingdom on her own power and required the grace of the Lord given in the speaking of her name and calling her out of darkness to witness to the light, we too must listen for the Lord’s call of our name and receive the grace to speak of the darkness and sin of our own lives and our life as society and a nation and receive the light and mission of God’s mercy and redemption.

As Pope Francis spoke recently, “The culture of indifference accompanies the throwaway culture: things that do not affect me, do not interest me; and Catholics must counter such attitudes.” The darkness of the culture of death hinges upon the namelessness imposed upon others through indifference. It is indifference to other human beings that oils the machinery of the culture of death. Indifference is even more toxic than hatred or anger. The reliance upon capital punishment is one such weapon of indifference against the dignity of each human being whose name has been spoken by God and called into light and out of darkness by Christ. We periodically hear the names of murderers who are sentenced to death and who are executed. Yet, we too frequently know them out of morbid curiosity and notoriety. Do we know the names of their victims and the families of their victims? Does the use of the death penalty lead us to minister to and belong more closely with those whose family members have been ripped from them through the callous disregard for human life perpetrated against them? Or does it too easily justify our own indifference to their nameless plight in exchange for the passion of mechanistic revenge?

The Lord knows their names. From their mother’s wombs He gave them their names.  The Lord knows the names of the millions of persons killed by abortion. The Lord gave them their names too. The Lord knows the names of those who have been euthanized passively and actively in the sacrilege of misnamed mercy. The Lord gave them their names too. The Lord knows the names of those who have been executed and those whom they murdered and the names of their families to which each belong. He gave them their names too. The Lord knows our names and He speaks them. To hear the call of our name by the Lord is to become like little children: “Unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”

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