Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Open Letter to Fr. Frank Francese on the Occasion of His Ordination to the Priesthood

(This homily was given on June 24, 2012—the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist—by Fr. Raymond Suriani.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Frank Francese First Mass Homily]

Preaching this weekend at St. Pius has presented me with a unique and extremely difficult challenge: to somehow bring together three different themes.  The first relates to the feast we’re celebrating in the Church in honor of St. John the Baptist; the second concerns the “Fortnight for Freedom”; and the third, of course, concerns the ordination of one of our parishioners, Frank Francese, to the priesthood.

What’s a preacher to do?

Well, I prayed about it for several days, and what I was prompted to do was write a letter—an open letter—to Fr. Frank on the occasion of his ordination.

My homily today, therefore, will consist of this letter, which I will now read to you.  (Normally I don’t read my homilies word for word, but since letters are meant to be read, today’s homily will be an exception to the rule.)

And even though it’s written to our newly ordained priest, most of what’s here applies to everyone—which is why it’s an open letter and not a private letter.

So here it is:

Dear Fr. Frank,

It is both significant and providential that you were ordained this weekend, when the Church universal celebrates the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, and as the Catholic Church here in the United States continues its observance of what our bishops are calling a “Fortnight for Freedom”.  These are to be 14 days of prayer, study, catechesis and action with a singular and urgent purpose: to inspire Catholics in the United States to stand up for and defend the right to religious freedom—not only for themselves, but for all Americans. 

Religious freedom is foundational to the political and social life of this country.  This is clear from the fact that it’s the very first freedom mentioned in the first amendment to our Constitution.  But it’s a freedom that we’re in grave danger of losing in the very near future, ironically because of the oppressive actions of our president and other civil leaders, all of whom have taken a sacred oath to protect and defend the Constitution in its totality.

It was not a coincidence that this Fortnight began on June 21st.  That happens to be the vigil of the feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher: two courageous men of God who defended religious freedom in England in the mid-16th century, against a power-hungry king named Henry VIII.

John Fisher was a devoted bishop; Thomas More was a brilliant lawyer and the Lord Chancellor of England.  The very fact that they share the same feast day reminds us that the duty to defend religious liberty and the dignity of the human person is a duty that is shared by both the clergy and the laity.

It’s not just “the priest’s job”!  You, Fr. Frank, must make that clear to the people you serve in your parish, since it’s the laity who are primarily responsible (according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council) for bringing the Gospel message into the marketplace that we call “the world.” 

You must form your people in the truth, and empower them through the sacraments, so that they can go forth and assume their rightful place at the forefront of this most important battle.

Before he was martyred for his faith, Thomas More reportedly uttered the famous words, “I die the king’s good servant—but God’s first.”  In that one line he shows us that there is no necessary contradiction between being a good Christian and a good citizen.  Thomas More was both in 16th century England.

Similarly, our first president, George Washington, knew that it was possible (and desirable) for Americans to be deeply religious and deeply patriotic at the same time.  In fact, he maintained that religion and morality are “indispensable supports” of our political prosperity.  Our second president, John Adams, obviously held the same view of these matters, as indicated by his famous statement, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Our Founding Fathers—like John the Baptist, Thomas More and John Fisher before them—realized that good religion helps to form good and virtuous people, and good and virtuous people make the best citizens.

This truth, unfortunately, is no longer understood and embraced by many in our contemporary, American society—and that includes many of those currently in power in our civil government.

This has resulted in a blatant disregard for the freedom and conscience rights of Catholics and other loyal American citizens who identify themselves as “religious”.  The attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to force religious institutions to pay (directly or indirectly) for abortions and for other services which they deem immoral is but one recent example of the phenomenon.

John the Baptist would not be silent in the face of such a moral outrage (King Herod would certainly attest to that fact), and neither must you be silent, Fr. Frank!  You are ordained to “speak the truth in love,” as St. Paul reminded you in Ephesians 4: 15.  His words to the young priest Timothy are also appropriate here: “I charge you to preach the word, to stay with this task whether convenient or inconvenient—correcting, reproving, appealing—constantly teaching and never losing patience.”

This will not be easy!  You may have to suffer greatly for your faithfulness to your priestly mandate.  And as More, Fisher and the Baptist remind us, martyrdom is not completely out of the question when one lives in a country whose leaders and laws are no longer rooted in and informed by the precepts of the natural law.

This is why you must be a man of prayer and the sacraments, always drawing your strength from the Lord and his mighty power (to quote yet another text of St. Paul).

On that note, I give you these practical words of advice:

  1. Make the Mass the center of your spiritual life.
  2. Pray for at least an hour a day, every day—preferably in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. 
  3. Go to Confession regularly.  
  4. Immerse yourself in God’s word in Sacred Scripture. 
  5. Stay close to Mary, our Blessed Mother. 

And, in the process, make sure that your deeds witness to the truth of your words.  As we all know, some priests in recent decades have lived lives that have contradicted the words they preached from their pulpits, and we—clergy and laity alike—have suffered for their evil deeds.  And, of course, our enemies have sought to use this tragic and scandalous situation to their advantage, by attempting to discredit the entire Gospel message by discrediting the sinful messengers who delivered it.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that there’s only one argument left to convince the world of the truth we preach and teach, and that argument is holiness: our holiness as Catholics; your holiness, Fr. Frank, as an ordained priest of Jesus Christ.

And that’s why your greatest role model (indeed, our greatest role model) in this cultural battle to secure religious freedom in our nation has got to be Blessed John Paul II. 

John Paul II, in his holiness and in his prayerfulness, knew how to deal effectively with the civil leaders of his day who actively and consistently persecuted the Church and violated human rights.

His prayers from heaven can now help us to do the same in our present circumstances.

Thirty years ago, most people in the free world would not have believed that the scourge of Soviet Bloc communism could be eliminated without a major armed conflict, and perhaps even a nuclear war.

But it happened! 

And Pope John Paul II was a key player—many would say the key player—in this relatively peaceful collapse of a corrupt system of government: a system that was rooted both in atheism and in a denial of the dignity of the human person.  In June of 1979, John Paul visited his native land of Poland for the first time as Holy Father, and he immediately ignited what many historians have called “a revolution of conscience”. 

For the very first time an international figure publicly confronted the leaders of a communist regime—and lived to talk about it!

This inspired the oppressed Polish people—and countless others in Soviet Bloc countries—to pray, and to protest, and to work together peacefully for change.

And, ten years later, the Berlin Wall came down.

So there’s always hope!—even now, in the good, old U.S. of A.

But the current attacks on religious freedom in our country will not stop if we do not pray, and protest, and work peacefully together for change—like the citizens of Poland and Eastern Europe did three decades ago in their battle against communism.

You must also do your part, Fr. Frank, as a priest of Jesus Christ: by your holiness, by your teaching, by your sacramental ministry, and by your personal priestly witness.

Yes, it’s a challenging time to be a Catholic; yes, it’s a challenging time to be a priest.

But it’s also a great time to be both!  Because as a Catholic priest in 2012 you not only have the opportunity to help souls achieve eternal salvation; you can also help to secure religious liberty for all American citizens in our generation—and in generations to come.

So go forth, Fr. Frank; and, as Blessed John Paul II would say, “Be not afraid!”

Many of us—hopefully most of us—will stand with you!

Ad multos annos!