Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Mass for the Blessing of Elected Officials of State Government

January 16, 2023
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Austin, TX

1 Kings 3:4-13
Psalm 127
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 5:1-12

“Give your servant, therefore, a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil. For who is able to give judgment for this vast people of yours?” This is the prayer that King Solomon prayed to God when in a dream God prompted him to realize the immense and overwhelming responsibility that the Lord had entrusted to him in succeeding his father, David, as King of God’s Chosen People. It is a prayer of humble self-awareness on the part of Solomon and of humility and honesty before the Lord. In praying it, Solomon acknowledges that he needs God.

“Give your servant, therefore, a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil. For who is able to give judgment for this vast people of yours?” I suspect that this same prayer, or words to this effect, has been offered by so many of you who have been selected for the important and necessary offices of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of government in accord with the just rule of law in service to the common good of the people of the State of Texas. At first consideration it seems satisfactory to imitate Solomon in praying this prayer that is so pleasing to God.

Yet, a closer reading of Scripture shows us that things do not end well for Solomon. Solomon cautiously hedges his bets when it comes to having faith in the Lord. He fears and envies those who worship the false gods because, despite his plaintive prayer to God, Solomon covets ill-gotten wealth; he envies the elite and powerful, he pines for pleasure, he is driven to impose his will, he craves impurity, he is vain and seeks fame, and he is egotistical. Solomon was threatened and seduced by the power of those who worshipped false idols, instead of trusting the true God who has promised him wisdom and a discerning heart and even more. Solomon instead forges and then worships his own false idols — the idols that seduce and extort — who promise freedom but who enslave and dominate with the passions.

Idols must always disappoint because they are lifeless in themselves. They are made by human hands but are given the presumption of being supernatural. Powerless in themselves, they can exercise a terrible power because of the evil one who lies behind and manipulates idols to bribe and seduce us before setting us against one another, against ourselves, and most especially against God.

We would be naïve if we suggested that idolatry is a thing of the past, confined to the pages of ancient literature, or to the superstitions of unenlightened cultures. There is ample evidence of the temptation to create and manipulate agendas as false idols for today. Race, Money, Gender Ideology, Abortion Rights, Guns, Drugs, Unbridled Self Interests, Vaccines, the Integrity of the Border, Crime, Taxation, even Government itself can all become false idols if we set out to use them for our own political advancement and if we exclude worship of the true God, whose image and likeness is almost sacramentally present in the human dignity of our neighbor.

This consideration is very discouraging when we recognize our own vulnerability to these temptations that beguiled and brought Solomon to his own demise. Yet, the Gospel proclaims to us that we have a greater than Solomon among us: Jesus. It is Jesus Christ in Whom we have been baptized and from Whom we have received the grace of the Holy Spirit to live as His Catholic Church by the Beatitudes of the New Law that we have heard proclaimed in today’s Gospel. It is grace that transforms what we fear will bring us unhappiness into the path towards eternal happiness.

As the late Dominican priest and theologian Father Servais Pinckaers observed, “To satisfy our appetite for riches, the beatitudes suggest poverty. In place of our aggressiveness, they would have us be meek. They would slake our thirst for pleasure with patience and love of justice, and turn our hard-heartedness into mercy, our inclination to evil into purity of heart and our touchiness to a peaceful spirit, while our vanity would be transformed into a carefree acceptance of insults and calumny. The Beatitudes seem to delight in promising us happiness in all that we loathe and fear.”

Yet, the grace of the Beatitudes is not really about an interior disposition to ignore the needs and obligations of this world for the sake of some heaven far and away from the here and the now. The grace of the Beatitudes is not strictly a matter of private preference but of the integral relationship between communal justice and personal charity that unite us with God and other human beings. As we read earlier from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

For us to fulfill our responsibilities of justice before God for our neighbors we must live in accord with the authentic rule of law. We are called to design and to administer our laws with due process within a structure that is anchored in human nature and renewed in the truth that gives each person what they are duly entitled.

Yet, our Catholic faith informs us that this justice is absolutely essential but incomplete unless tempered by mercy within the wider obligations of charity and directed especially to the weakest and most vulnerable in our community, those who are most prone to the dominance of the powerful and elite. These include but are not limited to the unborn, the terminally ill, the victims of crime, victims of trafficking, victims of domestic violence, victims of sexual abuse, the drug addict, single mothers, the unemployed, those discriminated unjustly because of race, religion, or biological sex, the migrant and the refugee, the prisoner convicted without just representation, first responders who place themselves in harm’s way for our safety, those without access to quality education or basic health care, and those deprived of the practice of religious liberty.

The responsibilities of charity are not fostered if the rule of law is abandoned in practice or in theory and replaced by a narrative that only incites our passions and fears and places willfulness in front of right reason. Yet, the narratives of the vulnerable need to be heard by us if laws should be rightly enacted and enforced for the sake of justice for all. As Catholics called and entrusted with public service and civic leadership, we must acknowledge that the polarization that oppresses us today is not simply caused by rhetoric, or partisan politics, or the narcissism of social media, or even the excessive influence of wealthy political benefactors; it is ultimately caused by the sin of idolatry and its resultant spiritual alienation from God.

As the late Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “On the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice. On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving. The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy, and communion. Charity always manifests God’s love in human relationships as well, it gives theological and salvific value to all commitment for justice in the world.”

While you have been elected by your constituents, your faith should tell you that you have been called to this humble service by God and are accountable to His judgment — the judgment of Him who can neither deceive nor be deceived. The gift of your Catholic faith is not a private matter to be hidden under a bushel basket any more than it is to be exploited as a mascot for your own opinions or as a talisman for your political careers.

Your faith which engenders hope must hold pride of place in your practice of ethics so that it will become the source of your good and just works. The cornerstone of your faith is the humility that you know that you have received everything from God and that you confidently entrust yourself to the power of God who is greater than you, as contrasted with the secret pride of those who think that they can discharge their duties of office exclusively by their own willpower. This requires daily prayer, regular and contrite recourse to the Sacrament of Penance, and attendance and active participation at Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation.

We ask the Lord’s blessing upon each and all of you, for He has asked you to govern and to serve a people so vast that they seem to be beyond numbering and prone to disorder. We ask Him to protect you from the temptation to idolatry. We ask His wisdom for you to trust Him that you might receive a listening heart to distinguish between good and evil — the gift only He can give. We ask for His protection upon your families from all enemies who would do you harm. We ask the Lord for these gifts as we approach the altar of perfect sacrifice with humility to receive and be transformed by His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity.

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