By The Very Reverend Canon Gary S. Linsky, V.F.
Pastor of Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Columbia, South Carolina
Normally my homilies focus on the Gospel or one of the other readings at Mass. However, this weekend, overwhelmed as I am and hopefully you are, by our Holy Father, Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, I feel it is necessary to capitalize on his words, his gestures and the reactions of so many to his presence in our country.
With my staff, I sat in our conference room on Tuesday afternoon to watch the Holy Father’s arrival at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington and then again, Wednesday morning, to witness his official welcome at the White House. There, the President, in perhaps his finest and least partisan speech, focused on the words and work of the Holy Father and the Catholic Church in the United States. The Holy Father’s words, in turn, touched us as he struggled, in English, to convey his hopes for our country and for his visit here.
Most strikingly, I spent Thursday morning, at home, glued to the television, again, to hear the Holy Father address a joint session of Congress. What a refreshing hour it was, as the vast majority of our legislators, Supreme Court justices, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, diplomats and thousands of others inside and outside the Capital gathered to hear this man of peace challenge our lawmakers, and, by extension all persons of good will, to work together for the common good. In that normally overly partisan place, the Holy Father gently asked that the United States, again be known for leadership in terms of kindness to strangers, the hopeless, those weary of war and the most vulnerable, always showing respect for the dignity of the human person in all stages of life. He asked that all nations abolish the death penalty and consider future generations and by taking action, now, to protect the earth, our common home.
To see the tears in Speaker Boehner’s eyes the day before he announced his pending resignation and retirement as well the Vice President, Senator Rubio and others from all political spectrums was to have hope the Lord may be found, not as much in the maelstrom of earthquake, wind and fire that lately has been our political system, but in the calmness of a peace that can transcend partisanship.
I have been moved to have seen the Holy Father speak with our Bishops and celebrate a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where he canonized Saint Junipero Serra the patron of the California Missions. And who would not have been moved to have seen New York City come to an absolute standstill as thousands upon thousands hoped for a single glimpse of this truly holy man on the streets, at a catholic school in Harlem and at Vespers at Saint Patrick’s, that deeply meaningful inter-religious time of prayer at Ground Zero and Friday evening’s Mass in Madison Square Garden.
Yesterday morning, I watched the Holy Father celebrate Mass in the Philadelphia’s Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul where I once sang as seminarian before going on to Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary where I spent my first two years in formation to become a priest.
His words at that Mass were very important and I wish to focus on them as I consider our ministry here at historic Saint Peter’s. The Holy Father spoke of Saint Katherine Drexel’s meeting in Rome with his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, where she pleaded for him to help with the education of America’s youth. To this plea, His Holiness responded, “What about you?” He then asked the assembled bishops, priests, deacons, brothers and sisters religious, “Do we challenge them to foster a sense of personal responsibility for the Church’s mission as a leaven of the gospel in our world?”
The Holy Father’s question is one that has been resonating in my heart for the past few months. As I see attendance and participation growing, straining our meager staff, facilities and resources, and our financial giving off slightly, I’ve wondered how to challenge you to become more committed to spreading the Gospel of Joy Pope Francis continues to share with us.
Years ago, as an Air Force Chaplain, I would often supervise both Catholic and Protestant communities. I noted that Catholics would volunteer their time and talents whereas Protestants were more generous with their financial giving. And I don’t think the situation is much different in civilian life. While we have some wonderful volunteers, Saint Peter’s is limited in her outreach because most are content that the majority of our outreach be accomplished by paid staff. I believe we need to totally reverse this situation for our Holy Father has asked us to be open to “creativity in adapting to change.”
“What about YOU?” the Holy Father asked! I believe all gathered here have come to Mass with hope of encountering the Lord. And I would like to give you all the opportunity given to Saint Katherine Drexel years ago, an opportunity she responded to with incredible generosity and joy. To this end, I would like to inaugurate the Saint Peter’s Volunteer Corps. Of course, I’d like volunteers to help organize and establish this with me!
The Volunteer Corps will be an opportunity for you give back to God in ways that are not limited to lectoring, being an Extra-Ordinary Minister of Holy Communion or providing music, but instead should help to harness your imagination and many gifts. Pope Francis said, “Jesus told the Apostles to go out where (the people) they are NOT where we think they should be.” This is an incredible challenge for the Church but more importantly, an opportunity for us all.
Perhaps some have come to Mass today out of curiosity because you, too, have been touched by Pope Francis. I include you in this challenge. Who knows what Saint Peter’s might look like if all our hands become occupied in doing the work of the Lord in this place, in this city, this world Pope Francis calls “our common home.”
Our parish is beginning to develop communities that address points of being, such as Tapping Theology for young, single professionals in their 20s and 30s, and our new Family Fellowship for families with younger children. Soon, I expect to launch new programs for singles, widowed and divorced in their 40s and 50s as well as program for newly married. These are in addition for 50+ club for seniors, Men’s Prayer Group and many programs for youth. Your participating in these will strengthen us all as you share of yourselves with others in similar points of your lives.
I pray that our Holy Father’s Apostolic Visit will continue to strengthen and inspire all of us to welcome the stranger, to return to and deepen our faith and to love more deeply and profoundly. And I ask that you commit yourself to giving back in whatever way you can, financially and through our Volunteer Corps so that together, we may, through work and prayer, build His Kingdom in this place!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.