18 February 2019

Homily - The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - 17 February 2019

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

You have certainly heard by now that Theodore Edgar McCarrick, onetime Archbishop of Washington, D.C. and Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, has been dismissed from the clerical state because he committed the ecclesiastical crimes of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”[1] Without going into detail about what Mr. McCarrick did, I want to speak with you today about what it means to be dismissed from the clerical state; as a matter of great concern for the Church and for individual members of the faithful, it is a most serious matter that deserves our attention, in part, because so much of the media, both secular and Catholic, do not quite get everything correct in their reports.

When a man is ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests, he is configured “to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ's instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet, and king.[2] “[T]his share in Christ's office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders … confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.”[3] By virtue of this indelible mark, the priest receives the sacred power to act in persona Christi capitas, to act in the person of Christ the head, when he celebrates the Eucharist and hears confessions. By virtue of his ordination, every priest stands in the midst of the Church in the place of Christ, who is the Head and Shepherd of the Church.[4]

Regrettably, we know that not every priest is always faithful in carrying out the sacred duties entrusted to him and to which he commits himself at ordination. Priests are not always faithful in small matters and sometimes – fewer times, thanks be to God – they are unfaithful in grave matters. By this we see that the

presence of Christ in the minister is not to be understood as if the [priest] were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, [or] even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the sacraments, so that even the minister's sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church.[5]

The grave infidelity of a few priests – and even Cardinals - is disheartening and lamentable and should serve as a reminder that each of us is daily in need of the Lord’s merciful love and that we must each cooperate with his grace if we are to attain salvation. We must always remember that “the Lord watches over the way of the just, but the way of the wicked vanishes” (Psalm 1:6).

What, then, does it mean to be “laicized”? The Code of Canon Law views a priest in three respects: first, in terms of the Sacrament of Holy Orders he has received; second, in terms of his faculties – his permissions, we might say - to exercise his priestly ministry; and third, in terms of his relationship to a diocesan Bishop.

As we have already seen, once a priest is ordained his ordination cannot be removed or taken away; he is a priest forever because the sacred character, the indelible mark, he received is permanent (cf. Psalm 110:4). However, the faculties a priest receives either from the law itself or from his local Bishop give him permission to exercise his priestly ministry; these faculties can be removed, either wholly or in part, and no priest can function without the approval and support of his Bishop, whose extension he is. This second and third aspect concerns the dismissal from the clerical state.

Dismissal from the clerical state, sometimes called laicization and what the media often calls defrocking, entails

a permanent separation from all ministry: [a dismissed priest] loses all rights and faculties associated with the priesthood and is not authorized to exercise ministry in the name of the Church; he is also dispensed from all obligations arising from his ordination to the priesthood, most notably the obligations of celibacy; and he loses his "incardination," that is, the special bond or attachment to the diocese or religious institute for which he was ordained.[6]

A priest dismissed from the clerical state is still a priest, although he may neither function as such, nor present himself as a priest; he is forbidden to exercise the sacred power entrusted to him at his ordination.

The term “laicization” is not meant as a derogatory statement toward the laity; it is rather a statement of fact. There are two states of life in which all Catholics live; a Catholic is either a cleric or a layman. A man who is dismissed from the clerical state no longer lives as a cleric but as a layman, even though he is still a cleric.[7] There is not a third state in which he can live; for which reason this process is commonly called “laicization.”

What are we to say then about the sacraments a dismissed priest performed? What of the baptisms he administered, the marriages he witnessed, the Masses he celebrated? Are they invalid? Was Christ not present in them? To say so would be to limit the power of God. We know that even through a sinful priest

Christ's gift is not thereby profaned: what flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains dear and reaches the fertile earth.... the spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled.[8]

The power of the sacraments is unaffected by the sinfulness of the priests who celebrated them, which is a cause of hope for us.

Today, then, as the sins of another are so publicly before us, let each of us look upon our own sins and seek the Lord’s mercy through the sacrament of Penance. Let each of us fear the name of the Lord, remembering that “cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). Let us persevere in humility, in faith, hope and love, so that we might each have “hearts that are just and true.”[9] This is, of course, simply another way of saying we need to let the Beatitudes take deep root in our hearts.

The Lord Jesus pronounced the eight Beatitudes after “raising his eyes toward his disciple” (Luke 6:20). Surely, he turns his eyes upon us today, who are also his disciples. Indeed, we might say that

The individual Beatitudes are the fruit of this looking upon the disciples; they describe what might be called the actual condition of Jesus’ disciples: They are poor, hungry, weeping men they are hated and persecuted (cf. Lk 6:2off.). These statements are meant to list practical, but also theological, attributes of the disciples of Jesus – of those who have set out to follow Jesus and have become his family.[10]

As members of his family, as members of his Mystical Body, we are each called to share fully in his life, to be his disciples not simply by name, but also by act.

For this reason,

the Beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship. They become more concrete and real the more completely the disciple dedicates himself to service in the way that is illustrated for us in the life of Saint Paul. What the Beatitudes mean cannot be expressed in purely theoretical terms; it is proclaimed in the life and suffering, and in the mysterious joy, of the disciple who gives himself completely to following the Lord.[11]

Indeed, we know that “the disciple is bound to the mystery of Christ,” a mystery displayed in the Beatitudes as “they call us into communion with him.”[12]

As the world presents to us those who failed to keep the Beatitudes in their hearts, Mother Church is beginning to present to us one who, we think, did keep the Beatitudes in his heart: the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton. The Positio on his life, a document that argues he lived the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, as well as the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance to a heroic degree, has been unanimously approved by the Historical and Theological Commissions of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. His Positio is now with Pope Francis. If he, too, finds that Father Gus imitated the life of Jesus and kept the Beatitudes in his heart to a heroic degree, the Holy Father will name him a Venerable, opening the way to Beatification and Canonization.

Father Gus was born a slave in Missouri, but escaped from slavery when he just a boy, with his mother and two siblings. Growing up in Quincy, he encountered some racism, but also fell in love with the Catholic faith and desired to be a priest. After receiving numerous rejection letters from seminaries and religious orders across the country, he went to Rome to be ordained as a missionary. Once a priest, he was sent back to Quincy where he quietly and patiently endured racist hatred from a brother priest, and from some others. When it became too much to bear, Father Gus went to Chicago, where he died of heatstroke at the age of 43 in 1897. He requested to be buried in Quincy, where his body remains today. Above all, the witness of his faith shows us that “Jesus brings joy into the midst of affliction.”[13] Amen.

[1]Holy See: McCarrick dismissed from the clerical state for abuse,” Vatican News, 16 February 2019. Accessed 16 February 2019.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1581. Cf. canon 290.
[3] Idib., 1582.
[4] Cf. ibid., 1549.
[5] Ibid., 1550.
[6] Gregory Ingels, J.C.D., “Loss of the Clerical State.” Accessed 16 November 2007. Cf. canon 292.
[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1583.
[8] Ibid., 1584.
[9] Collect for the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time, Roman Missal.
[10] Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 71.
[11] Ibid., 73-74.
[12] Ibid., 74.
[13] Ibid., 72.

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