Cross of Christ Remains at Center of Irish History
In place of my regular column, I am happy to share the homily delivered by Father Matthew F. Malone, S.J., editor in chief of America magazine, at Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the Solemnity of St. Patrick, March 17.
My brothers and sisters in Christ:
Thank you, Your Eminence, for your gracious invitation to preach from this pulpit today. A little more than a century ago, when my family set forth for this city from the west of Ireland, they could hardly have imagined that one of their own would one day stand here in this holy and historic place, on this of all days, and preach the Gospel. Thank you.
I am also mindful that my presence here today, Your Eminence, involves an act of faith on your part: if the last 12 months have taught us anything it is that you can never predict what a Jesuit is going to say.
As you know, the Jesuit connection with this place is older than the cathedral itself. The Jesuits were the original owners of this piece of real estate between Fifth and Madison avenues. Now as anyone who has ever spent time in a Jesuit community will tell you, while the faithful sons of Ignatius are often mistaken, we are never in doubt. Accordingly, in 1810, my learned brother Jesuits concluded with certainty that this part of town had no future. And we sold it for a song. As you might have guessed, the Jesuit superior who made that fateful decision was an Irishman.
Of course he was an Irishman. For they were nearly all Irishmen, at least in the beginning. While the Church is comprised of every race and ethnicity, each an indispensable, living thread in a vibrant global tapestry, the sons and daughters of Ireland have made an unique contribution to the progress of the Church in this country. The Irish influence—from the apostolic zeal of Dagger John Hughes, first Archbishop of New York, to the literary genius of Flannery O’Connor—was so significant, says the historian Jay Dolan, that, in time, the Irish would come to “define what it meant to be a Catholic in America.”
The Irish experience, of course, began in a crucible of hardship, starvation and war. For the Irish people the cross of Jesus Christ was and remains at the center of that history. For centuries, Ireland had united her struggle to the cross of our Lord, drawing from his passion the strength, the courage, the hope to endure. Downtrodden and alienated from herself, Ireland placed her desperate faith in the crucified one, the stone that the builders rejected, who had become the cornerstone. Thus with their eyes firmly fixed on the hope of heaven, a long suffering people came to believe in the promise of a new Earth.
They then set sail for this city, which they would transform into a daring center of unprecedented apostolic activity. From here, the Church would advance across the continent; and everywhere that the Church advanced, the Irish followed, founding parishes and schools, hospitals and orphanages, colleges and sodalities. This was a new evangelization for a new world. Here in the land of the free, the stones that the earthly builders had rejected, became the living stones of a new church. In time, in this city, a home often hostile to their hopes, ordinary men and women—dockworkers, housekeepers, cobblers and teachers—pooled their pennies and laid the cornerstone of a great cathedral. Through centuries of struggle, they had united themselves to his cross; now, here in this place, far from the tyranny that had long oppressed them, they built a perpetual, living witness to his resurrection.
Today, some 150 years later, we have committed our time and our treasure to preserving for future generations that which they built for our generation. But more than that, we re-commit ourselves, as the heirs to their new evangelization, to the one who ultimately guides our earthly pilgrimage. For it is his voice above all that speaks from these stones. And it is the voice of faith. It is the voice of hope. It is the voice of love: It is the voice of Jesus Christ, crying out from this place, across the centuries, proclaiming in stone and sacrament: I am alive!
Above the din of our frenzied earthly life, in the shadow of our this-worldly temples, amidst the silent suffering of far too many, the voice of Jesus Christ speaks from this place to the people of New York and the world: “I am alive. I am the way and the truth and the life. Rally to my cross. Sons and daughters of Cork and Galway, Mayo and Sligo, Meath and Wexford: Come and follow me! You are the new evangelists. Take up your cross, rebuild my church, the church of your forefathers, once and always the first and last hope of the world. From here, the capital of the world, go forth and make disciples of all the nations, that from the rising of the sun to its setting, every knee shall bend toward the God of love.”
Such is the voice of the Lord. How are we to respond? Today the Gospel describes the disciples’ response to Jesus: “They left everything and followed Him.” Just like that. Imagine. It seems impossible. But it isn’t. For in many and varied ways that is precisely what our forebears did, the countless men and women who left everything and crossed an ocean, at risk of death, in search of life. They got up and followed him. An act of faith, an act of love that changed the world. St. Ignatius reminds us that deeds are more important than words, especially in acts of love, which are the most important acts of faith. In fact, the greatest acts of faith are impossible without love. For our faith is not in a proposition, dogmatic or otherwise. Ultimately, our faith is in a person: the person of Jesus Christ. And this person is the one to whom the disciples and our forebears responded with such alacrity and daring and hope.
And this person still speaks to us, here, now, from this place in the heart of Manhattan, where the old world meets the new, this temple built by the hands of our fathers: “I am alive! Be not afraid. Lift up your hearts. Rise with me. Bear all things. Hope all things. Believe. I am alive, through you, with you, in you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God the Father. Forever.
“I am alive! You cannot be the same.”