Today’s readings are quite sobering. And given current events in our world, they are also quite apropos. Today, as we witness the continuing violence in the Middle East, we make our own the cry of the prophet Jeremiah: “We wait for peace, to no avail; for a time of healing, but terror comes instead”. In the words of David, we pray: “For the glory of your name, O Lord, deliver us.
“We are condemned to live in ‘interesting times’”, goes the old Chinese proverb. But, all times and all ages have been interesting – and each successive generation since the time of the Apostles has had to face its own unique challenges of living the faith coherently in a world that always has always seemed to be a “field of weeds”.
In the face of challenges of our own age, an age in which men have either tried to exile God or manipulate him to serve ideologies of hatred, we would do well to remember those words that were the theme of the pontificate of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II: “Be not afraid”. Of course, these words come from the Scripture – in fact, one student of the Bible said that God or one of his angelic messengers speaks these words, “Be not afraid”, some 365 times in the Holy Scriptures, a verse for everyday of the year. Of course, Pope Benedict XVI has also begun his pontificate echoing these same words and, as seen in his recent visit to Poland, to this theme of John Paul II’s pontificate, he offers an additional Scriptural citation, that may well prove to be the theme of his own still young pontificate: Be strong in faith.
The Knights of Columbus, as a fraternal organization of Catholic men, has fostered since the time of its founding by Father Michael McGivney among its members an adult Catholic faith – a faith that is unafraid and strong. And this faith has helped the Knights in this country – but also in the Philippines and in Mexico and in the other countries into which the Knights have expanded – to face with courage, and with humble strength, the enemies of the gospel that have always challenged the Church.
For this reason, John Paul II’s, “Be Not Afraid”, and Benedict XVI’s, “Be Strong in Faith” must guide the Knights of Columbus in all that you do as you seek to live out, with the support of your brother knights, your baptismal call to holiness. We remember the words of Jesus: if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you. These words proved true in the lives of your brother Knights – and priests – of Mexico, canonized just a few years ago by Pope John Paul II. What a blessing for us here in Orlando during these days to be able to venerate their relics. Now, while it might be true that our own faith journey will not be marked by such dramatic persecutions as with these martyrs of Mexico, we would be foolish to think that discipleship comes without any costs.
And for this reason again, we pray that God make us strong in faith and fearless in our witness. When the Knights were formed a little more than a century ago, Catholics were regarded with suspicion in our nation. When Christopher Kauffman wrote “Faith and Fraternalism: the History of the Knights of Columbus 1882-1982”, he noted in his introduction that to write the history of the Knights meant that he would be exploring such fascinating topics as nativism, anti-Catholicism, the revolution in Mexico, and McCarthyism. The Knights have lived – and continue to live – “in interesting times”.
Nativism that first surfaced in the early 19th century with the Know-Nothings who opposed immigrants because they were Catholics and Catholics because they were immigrants was still very much alive in the late 19th century world in which Father McGivney ministered. And, we have seen that that same Nativism still alive today in today’s current divisive debate on immigration, a debate in which anti-immigrant sentiment is a thin veneer covering an underlying anti-Catholicism. One commentator in criticizing the bishops in their call for a just and comprehensive immigration reform said that the bishops were just “trolling” for more Catholics to fill their “empty” pews.
On this issue of important public policy in this country, the Knights have stood with their bishops. And you have stood with us on this and other issues that make our times “so interesting”. In the midst of the weeds sown by the enemy, the weeds of abortion, the weeds of so-called same sex marriage, the weeds of a contempt for human life and the dignity of the person as evidenced by the growing acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide, in the midst of the weeds of a individualism and a relativism that discourages the possibility of making that permanent commitment necessary for life long marriage or the flourishing of priestly and religious vocations, in the midst of the weeds of a culture of death, you have promoted a culture of life – and you have do so united with the Holy Father and with the bishops.
Knights in their history have promoted a Catholic identity that is strong in faith and unafraid. You have resisted those that would tell you that faith must be separated from society and that one’s beliefs should be kept to oneself. And, in doing so, you have promoted the legitimate place of Catholic citizenship in a pluralistic, democratic American society.
In bringing up this history of the Knights, I wish to emphasize that what you do as Knights is in continuity with a long tradition that begins with the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles, a tradition that is ultimately guided and directed by the Holy Spirit. And realizing this can help us maintain a healthy perspective as we in our turn today seek to respond to the Lord’s Great Commission to be his witnesses to the entire world, a world that for being a “field of weeds” might tempt us to become frightened or discouraged. Without that perspective we risk perhaps forgetting that what we do – after all – is the Lord’s work, not our own.
Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est: “In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: ‘The love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Cor 5: 14). #35 Deus Caritas Est.
This humility is what must characterize the interior disposition of anyone, of everyone who wishes to do the Lord’s work. For without humility, we can stray in one wrong direction or another. We might for example give in to the temptation to take charge, in other words, to seize the reins from God’s hand, and instead of letting God do it his way – and our accepting to it God’s way -, we insist on doing it our way. Or we go to the other extreme and give in to a certain inertia in which we explain away our mediocre response to the challenges presented to us by saying – it doesn’t make any difference anyway.
Without that humility that Pope Benedict spoke about we all can stray. We will most certainly stray. And so that we do not stray, Pope Benedict in that beautiful encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, offers as the only antidote: a living relationship with Christ – a relationship that is nurtured and strengthened in prayer.
Prayer can give us serenity even when dealing with the messiness of our lives – or the lives of other people. As Jeremiah prays in today’s first reading, “Is it not you alone, O Lord, our God to whom we look?” Prayer reminds us to “Let go and let God”. The Knights as organization – as your parishes do – offer you the opportunities to do many things on behalf of the Lord and his Church – and the Knights or your parishes can train you how to do these things. And we all should strive to learn to do what we do better. All this is very necessary. But only prayer will offer you the “soul” of each and every apostolate. Only prayer will keep you humble.
Without prayer, our apostolic works and ministries become just activism – not distinguishable from the good works that some secular organizations do. Without prayer, Catholic fraternalism as represented by the K of C, loses its soul – and it becomes sterile incapable of “spreading and growing” the Church because without prayer it is no longer rooted in the Word of God.
For many years now, we have been grappling with the great challenge of our time – secularism. Again, Pope Benedict has given us a succinct definition of what secularism is. He calls it a “way of living and being present in the world ‘quasi Deus non daretur’, as if God did not exist. God is reduced to the private sphere –not an objective reality outside of ourselves and above ourselves, but only a sentiment.
Such a world is a dark, foreboding world – a world in which man exists only to die. It is precisely to such a world that Christ came. Into that “field of weeds”, the Son of Man sows good seed. He plants the tree of life – the Cross, the authentic tree of life whose fruit we partake of in this Holy Mass which makes present for us the Sacrifice of Calvary
The goal of the Knights of Columbus is to make God present again in society, in the day to day life of the people we serve. And of course, to do this, God must be present once in again in our lives. Pope Benedict said this past Palm Sunday: “We do not attain to life by seizing it, but by giving it. Love is the giving of ourselves and, for this reason, is the way of authentic life symbolized by the Cross.” And this is why Father McGivney founded the Knights; this is why we are Knights.
“Be not afraid”. “Be strong in faith.”