If you have been following the news lately then you are aware of a manufactured news story which made national headlines, about the effort by a group of gay marriage activists to remove a Catholic priest from the Newman Center ministry at George Washington University here in the Nation’s Capital for doing his job, i.e. teaching the Catholic faith, hard as it is for many to accept. What you will not be aware of is that the priest in question, Father Greg Shaffer, is a friend of mine, and someone whom I respect greatly. He has not asked me to write what I am about to share with you, and I will refrain from speaking about him personally other than in general terms. However there comes a time when attacking the Church moves from debates and hypotheticals into attacks on people whom we care about, and in fact on what forms the very essence of who we are as Christians. Therefore I hope Father Greg will forgive me for adding my two rather measly cents to circumstances in which he certainly needs no help from me, but in which I am proud to offer whatever support I can.
Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a mass concelebrated by Father Greg with Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and a number of other priests. Those of you who are regular readers of these pages know that Newman Center masses are not really my style, as guitars and what is referred to as “praise and worship music” make me wince. Nevertheless, this is a question of taste, for it has been a long time since I was an undergraduate, and more importantly there is no question whatsoever regarding Father Greg’s orthodoxy – he is probably the priest most passionately devoted to the Blessed Sacrament that I have ever met. Plus, when your Cardinal-Archbishop comes to visit, you can hardly want to stay away. Never let it be said that I have turned down an opportunity to kiss the episcopal ring.
The mass itself was beautiful, and the congregation full. We were very fortunate to have Cardinal Wuerl come straight from the airport off a flight from Rome in order to be able to celebrate with us and publicly demonstrate his support, and despite some obvious fatigue and jetlag His Eminence soldiered on. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of enthusiasm both for him, and for Father Greg among those assembled for mass.
Yet the most striking thing about the mass itself was unquestionably the Cardinal’s homily. Fortunately for those of you who were not able to attend this mass, the Cardinal has posted the text of this sermon on his blog, which you can read here. It is not only a powerful statement of support for Father Greg personally, the challenges of Christ’s teachings, and the dangers of limiting religious liberty, but more importantly I believe it is something that Catholics anywhere in this country, and indeed worldwide, can read to remind themselves that they are not alone. Indeed, toward the end of his homily, His Eminence quite literally brought me to tears when he said, “Dear brothers and sisters, never be ashamed of Christ, his Gospel, his Truth – or your identity as Jesus’ disciples. Always be proud of who you are.”
Cardinal Wuerl clearly knows what is happening in our society and is responding to it, in his own particular way and gentle charism, just as his brother bishops such as Cardinals Dolan and George, and Archbisshops Chaput and Lori, among others, are doing in their own dioceses. In doing so they are following in the footsteps of their predecessors in leading Christ’s flock, from St. Peter and the Apostles onward, even when it would be so much easier and more comfortable to say nothing. We all know from history that, apart from St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, going along to get along is what happened to the English bishops, when Henry VIII decided that his own sexual incontinence was more important than his immortal soul, and indeed more important than the immortal souls of the English people.
How blessed we are, by contrast, that in the current age of impending persecution – for make no mistake, that day has arrived – that we Catholics have bishops, priests, and religious who are not afraid to witness to the truth of our Faith, through the teachings of Christ and His Church. We Catholics are all members of a Church on Earth made up entirely of sinners, who are constantly falling and having to pick ourselves up again. That is something which is hard enough to do when things are going relatively well. Yet to be able to do so while being under attack is something that will test not only the mettle of our shepherds, but our own as well.
“Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by Briton Rivière (1872)
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool