I've just got back from a meeting on the permanent diaconate on Long Island. On Thursday night, we were bused into New York City to see the memorial at the site of the World Trade Center that honours those who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The memorial is two massive fountains on the exact spots where the twin towers stood. The names of each of the 2,977 who perished have been engraved around the fountains.
[Here is a video I took of one of the fountains. As I prayed the Office of the Dead there, two texts helped me find meaning in its design: "Deep is calling on deep, in the roar of waters: your torrents and all your waves swept over me" from Psalm 42, and "death and Sheol will be cast into the fiery lake" from Rev. 20.]
The death of each man, woman and child—one of the 9/11 victims was an unborn child—was an enormous tragedy. But as I read name after name I was struck by this thought: the dead were not only those who were in the towers when the planes crashed into them: 411 of the names were those of emergency workers who entered afterwards.
According to Wikipedia, The New York City Fire Department lost 341 firefighters and 2 paramedics. The New York City Police Department lost 23 officers. The Port Authority Police Department lost 37 officers. Eight emergency medical technicians and paramedics from private emergency medical services units were killed."
The deacon who led our group around the memorial found the name of his young cousin, a New York City policeman. Of course I already knew of the bravery and heroism of many who died, including one priest, but what amazed me about the story of the deacon's cousin was where he was when he died: on the 31st floor.
Think about that for a moment. We've heard a lot about the sinking of the Titanic in the past few weeks, and about the courage of those who went down with the ship to allow others a place on the lifeboats, including three priests.
But a policeman climbing to the 31st floor of that burning building was like someone actually boarding the Titanic to save others.
In the words of this morning's Gospel, it was like someone laying down his life.
In today's Gospel, Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd. But it is not a sentimental image of Jesus surrounded by little white lambs; it is a startling icon of his surrender even to death. If there are lambs in the picture, they are stained with blood.
How forcefully the Gospel makes this point: five times Jesus says that he lays down his life—freely, of his own accord. In case we miss his meaning, the Lord prophesizes his Resurrection, when by his own power he is restored to the life he had laid down for his sheep.
I didn't mention the policeman and the other brave first-responders on 9/11 just to get your attention at the beginning of this homily. These heroes speak to us of the place of self-sacrifice in the human drama. They remind us that the self-giving of Jesus is the model of Christian living for all his disciples.
For only a few will this mean the literal choice to die for others. Yet every Christian is called—I might dare to say 'commanded', the word the Gospel uses—to imitate Jesus and lay down our lives for others.
It is true for married people, for parents, for single people, priests, sisters, and brothers. We are all called to obey joyfully what Blessed John Paul called "the Law of the Gift," which he said "presents a summary of the whole truth about man and woman."
A key source of this insight was the Vatican II declaration on the Church in the Modern World, often known by its Latin title Gaudium et spes. The council taught that the human person, "the only creature earth whom God willed for its own sake, can attain its full identity only in sincere self-giving."
Married, single, priest or lay: only in sincere self-giving can we attain our full identity.
Only in laying down our life do we receive it fully.
The easiest way to understand this is in marriage—because most married people know this truth from experience. They know that finding a husband or a wife means losing something of yourself—"me first" must become "me second" (and when children comes along, you might even come dead last).
No matter how independent and footloose a man or woman has been before marriage, their own plans, dreams, and preferences become subordinated to the good of the spouse and children. How they spend their time and money and how they order daily life is no longer a private matter; as the theologian Edward Sri has pointed out. The family becomes the primary reference point for everything.
I once preached a homily at a wedding that warned against the 50/50 rule, where the husband puts 50 per cent into the marriage and the wife 50 per cent. It's a formula for failure, because the "law of the gift" demands 100 per cent from each.
It's rare nowadays, but marriage has even demanded that some literally lay down their lives. Fifty years ago yesterday, a young doctor in Milan died during childbirth. During her very dangerous pregnancy, she had said "If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child—I insist on it. Save him".
On the morning of April 28, 1962, the mother died. She was 39 years old. Today the Church venerates her as St. Gianna Beretta Molla.
The law of the gift may be obvious for married people and parents, but what about single people? The law of the gift applies to them too. Many, many years ago my mother told me very simply that unmarried people who do not devote themselves to the good of others will become self-centered and odd. (I think she had a particular neighbour in mind!) We were created in the image and likeness of God, and God gives himself freely; so must everyone.
If you are not planning to marry, start thinking now about the best way to lay down your life. One common way we've seen this done in our society is when unmarried people dedicate themselves to the good of their nieces and nephews; I know many examples of selfless and generous aunts. We also know unmarried people who become mothers and fathers in their parishes, nurturing the faith of others and strengthening the community.
It should come as no surprise that celibate priests are bound to obey the law of the gift. Configured to the Good Shepherd not only through baptism but also through ordination, we have a very special call to lay down our lives for the flock entrusted to our care. Archbishop Carney used to warn priests against celibacy becoming a comfortable bachelorhood. The law of the gift means that celibacy demands much more of priests than remaining unmarried.
I spend hours wondering and worrying about the shortage of priests, and about how to encourage vocations among the many wonderful young people in the parish. I'm so happy in my own vocation that I think young men should take one look at me and head directly to the seminary!
But it doesn't work that way. Our young men will go to the seminary when they are ready to imitate not me, but the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. They will go to the seminary in response to the call to seek out the lost, and to surrender their personal plans and ambitions into the hands of the Father.
Most of what I have said this morning—not only about priesthood but about every state in life-could seem daunting. Isn't it human nature to hold on to ourselves, not to hand ourselves over?
Of course it is, which is why the "law of the gift" is not a natural law. It's a supernatural law, and we obey it only with God's help
There's a reason why we read the Gospel about the Good Shepherd during the Easter season. Without the fact of Easter, we would know only half the story. To lay down your life is a noble thing, as so many stories from September 11 and throughout history record. But to take it up again? This only makes sense in light of the Resurrection.
Indeed, the law of the gift depends on the Resurrection. We give in the knowledge that we will receive. We lay down our lives, knowing that God will return them to us.
As we think about this today, each one of us might ask how well we are responding to the Father's command to lay down our lives. Do we put family first? Do we help others-especially those outside of Christ's flock—to hear the Shepherd's voice? Do we priests give up personal freedom to be available whenever we are needed? Do single people have a conscious focus outside of their own wants and needs?
None of us is a hired hand. Baptism has called us to be first responders to a world in crisis, in ways both dramatic and ordinary, both in daily life and in the big choices we make.
A note: I had some technical problems posting last week's homily. I'll post it sometime during the week in case anyone is keeping track!