Cardinal Sean O'Malley's Keynote Address at Knights of Columbus Annual Convention

Here is the keynote address delivered by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston at the 131st Annual Convention of the Knights of Columbus, held in San Antonio, Texas

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The New Evangelization in the Pontificate of Pope Francis

Brothers and sisters in the Lord: it is a joy and an honor to be invited to address you at this extraordinary gathering. I am so grateful to God for my forty year friendship with Carl Anderson, whose life and vocation have been such a blessing for the Church. I am grateful to God for all that the Knights of Columbus does to spread the faith, promote the Gospel of Life and build a civilization of love.

Some of us had the privilege of accompanying our young people on the World Youth Day Pilgrimage with Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro. Cardinal Dolan and I were so blessed to be able to give the catecheses at the Rio Viro Center sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and where thousands of young Catholics from the US, Canada, Australia and other English speaking communities gathered for prayer, fellowship and catechesis.

We were all overwhelmed by the Mass on the beach at Copacabana where a throng of young Catholics that equaled the entire population of Ireland gathered around the successor of Saint Peter, our new Holy Father Pope Francis, the first Pope from the Americas, whose spirit of compassion and love is touching people’s hearts all over the world.

Following Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict, Pope Francis is challenging us to embrace the New Evangelization with new ardor, with new boldness and with great love for all those who God places in our path.

I spent twenty years in Washington, D.C., it was there that I came to know Carl Anderson. In those days there was a curious incident that I will always remember.

Wilbur Mills was a long-time speaker in the House and a one-time presidential candidate. Mills was involved in a traffic incident in Washington, DC in 1974 when I was a young priest working there. His car was stopped by US Park Police late at night because the driver turned out the lights. Mills was intoxicated and his face was injured from a scuffle with Annabella Battistella, professionally known as Fannie Fox, the Argentine firecracker. In an attempt to escape, they leapt from the car and jumped into the nearby Tidal Basin. One month later, Mills was to be on the ballot in his home state of Arkansas for re-election to the Congress. While his office denied that he had a drinking problem, Jack Anderson reported that if his staff said, “He can’t speak with you now, he’s on the floor”, it was never clear if Mills was on the floor of the House or the floor of his office. In the election, a month after the scandal, Mills’ challenger used the slogan: “If you like liquor, sex and thrills, cast your vote for Wilbur Mills.” Mills won handily with 60% of the votes. He had asked for forgiveness from his constituencies and explained to them that his problems were a result of cavorting with foreigners.

For 20 years I was in Washington cavorting with foreigners working at the Centro Catolico, the Spanish Catholic Center. I did not find this to be a corrupting influence on my life, but rather an uplifting experience and indeed a great privilege. Coming from a lace curtain Irish community in the Midwest, being thrust into the challenges and sufferings of the immigrant community was truly an eye-opener.

Shortly after arriving at the Centro Catolico, I was visited by a man who was obviously a campesino from El Salvador who sat across from me at my desk and broke down and wept bitterly. He was so overcome with grief that he could not speak, he simply handed me a letter from his wife back in El Salvador who took him to task for having abandoned her and their six children to poverty and starvation. When the man was able to compose himself, he explained to me that he came to Washington, like so many, because with the war raging in his country it was impossible to sustain his family by farming. So he found a coyote who brought him to Washington where he shared a room with several other men in similar circumstances. He washed dishes in two restaurants, one at lunchtime and one at dinnertime. He ate the leftover food on the dirty plates so as to save money. He walked to work so as not to spend any money on transportation, so that he could send all the money he earned back to his family. He said he sent money each week, but now after six months, his wife had not received a single letter from him and accused him of abandoning her and the children. I asked him if he sent check or money orders. He told me that he sent cash. He said: “Each week I put all the money I earn into an envelope with the amount of stamps that I was told and I put it in that blue mailbox on the corner.” I looked out the window and I could see the blue mailbox, the problem was it was not a mailbox at all, but a fancy trash bin.

That encounter certainly brought home to me how difficult it is to be an immigrant, to be a stranger in a strange land and experience countless humiliations and deprivations as one struggled to make enough money to feed one’s children.

The immigrants turn to the Church as their spiritual family, and for their part have contributed so much joy and vitality. In Washington they have doubled the Catholic population in forty years.

The irony is that I went to the monastery to become a missionary, expecting to be sent to Papua New Guinea or the Easter Islands, and I spent twenty years in Washington, D.C. working with Central American refugees. When I was in the seminary, our Provincial, Father Victor, wrote a letter to Rome in which he said that our vice-province in Puerto Rico was flourishing and that our Province was prepared to take on a new mission. He said that he wanted the most difficult mission in the world. The response was lightening quick, saying that we should open a mission in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Guardian, Father Fermin Schmidt, from the Capuchin College in Washington, was named the first Bishop and friars were sent. Eventually, three of my classmates went. It was reported back to us that when the friars landed in a field, the natives who had never seen Europeans or an airplane were curious. They asked if the plane was male or female. They said if it was a female they wanted an egg.

Many years later, a young friar I ordained who was working in Papua New Guinea came to see me on his home visit. He had glorious pictures of smiling natives, with bones in their noses, feathers in their hair and little else in the way of clothing. He announced proudly, “This is my parish council.” I was particularly intrigued because one of my own pastors had just told me that his parishioners were not ready for a parish council. If Fr. Provincial wrote today asking for the most difficult mission, we might have been sent not to Papua, New Guinea, but to the US, England, France or Canada. This is true for so many places in the Western World where secularism and dechristianization are gaining ground. This is the challenge of the New Evangelization. It is much harder to preach the Gospel in a culture that seems to be vaccinated against the Faith, in our own country where so many Catholics have stormed off, dozed off or simply drifted away from the Church.

Pope Francis is calling on all of us to be missionaries in our own communities. In this new millennium, business as usual is not enough. We must be a team of missionaries, moving from a maintenance mode to a missionary one. We must ask ourselves, “What does it mean to live in a culture of unbelief; a culture which does not even know it does not believe because it still lives on the residue of Christian civilization?” As Hauerwas has expressed it so well: “The Church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of the sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more that the cultivation of an ever shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.” Pope Francis is ever warning against a self-referential Church turned in on itself. He tells us to open the doors, to invite ot
her in and so that we can go out and invite.

To be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church is much more than a head trip. It is a way of life together; the whole person is engaged in the process.

Education for this journey must therefore be experiential, personal, engaging and life-giving. We learn discipleship the way we learn a language, by being part of a community that speaks that language. Our young Catholics must be mentored in the faith by others, either peers or older Catholics who are walking the walk. A writing from the early life of the Church that has always fascinated me is the Letter to Diognetus, where the author is describing to his friend what Christians are like. He says that they live in the same neighborhoods, speak the same language, dress like everybody else; but they do not kill their babies and they respect the marriage bond. Very quaint indeed. It is a little scary to think that the Diognetus letter could have been written last week.

In today’s world we must promote the Catholic way of life which is increasingly alien in the secular world, where our concern about unborn children or the sacredness of marriage makes us appear quaint and even nettlesome. We need mentors: parents, grandparents, Godparents, teachers, youth ministers, neighbors, who are ready to pass on the faith.

Pope Francis is calling on us to embrace the vision of reality that is the Church’s faith and that values each and every human being, and stresses our responsibility to love and serve each other, especially the most vulnerable in our midst. The word that Pope Francis repeats over and over is “tenerezza”, tenderness. On the Feast of St. Joseph, in his inaugural Mass he speaks to us about protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. He says: “We must not be afraid of goodness or tenderness.” He points to the heart of Joseph, his tenderness which is not the virtue of the weak but a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern and compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love.

Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion. I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world. Recently I read about an American relief worker in Africa, who reported on being at a camp for a food distribution line, it was very chaotic, even scary. He could see that they were running out of food and that these starving people were desperate. At the end of the line, the last person was a little nine year old girl. All that was left was one banana. They handed it to her. She peeled the banana and gave half each to her younger brother and sister. Then she licked the banana peel. The relief worker said at that moment he began to believe in God.

We must be better people; we must love all people, even those who advocate abortion. It is only if we love them that we will be able to help them discover the sacredness of the life of an unborn child. Only love and mercy will open hearts that have been hardened by the individualism of our age.

In the United States we are an immigrant Church. It is very significant that the Holy Father’s very first trip as Pope was to Lampedusa, to underscore his concern for the plight of immigrants. As the Archbishop pointed out so eloquently in his homily, this is an issue that it is great importance to us as American Catholics.

When the Holy Father went to the island of Lampedusa he threw a wreath of flowers into the sea where thousands of refugees have perished in the modern day coffin ships the bring refugees from North Africa. The Holy Father talked about the globalization of indifference – indifference to the suffering of others, to the fate of the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the mentally ill and the immigrants.

We must overcome this indifference in our own lives and help people to see that the Church’s teaching is about loving and caring for everyone. In his talk to the Brazilian bishops last week, Pope Francis said: “We need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of entering the world of wounded persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.” The Holy Father alludes to Cardinal Kasper’s work on mercy when he says that mercy without truth would be consolation without honesty and is empty chatter.

On the other hand, however, the truth without mercy would be cold, offputting and ready to wound. The truth isn’t a wet rag that you throw in someone’s face, but a warm cape that you wrap around a person, to protect and strengthen them.

Project Rachel has been just that kind of a combination of mercy and truth that the Church’s pro-life efforts need to be about.

Our efforts to heal the wounds of society will depend on our capacity to love and to be faithful to our mission. The Holy Father is showing us very clearly that our struggle is not just a political battle or a legal problem, but that we must evangelize and humanize the culture, then the world will be safe for the unborn, the elderly and the unproductive. The Gospel of Life is a Gospel of Mercy. If we are going to get a hearing in today’s world, it will be because people recognize that authenticity of our lives and our dedication to building a civilization of love. We are called to live our lives as a service to others and commit our lives to give witness to the presence of God’s love and mercy in our midst. It’s like the story – if we do not go the extra mile, give our cloak along with our tunic, turn the other cheek – then the patient will die.

As Saint Augustine said, “Without God we can do nothing, without us God will do nothing.”

Pope Francis said it in Rio, “Jesus Christ is counting on you! The Church is counting on you! The Pope is counting on you! May Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, always accompany you with her tenderness. Go and make disciples of all nations. Amen.”

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