Memorial Mass Homily
Most Reverend William E. Lori
Archbishop of Baltimore
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Memorial of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Each year at the Supreme Convention, the privilege falls to me to celebrate this Mass, in which we remember with love our brother Knights who have gone before us with the sign of faith. Here at the altar, we give thanks to God for their lives, and also we pray for them, for we know that their souls live on, and will be reunited with their bodies on the last day. We know also that our prayers can come to their aid as we ask the Lord of life and love to grant them eternal salvation.
This year the memorial Mass falls on the feast day of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. A distinguished philosopher and convert to the Catholic Faith from Judaism, she became a Carmelite nun, and died a martyr in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, 70 years ago today, on August 9, 1942.
Listen again to the words we prayed in the Collect of today’s Mass:
This prayer and the feast we celebrate can help us understand more clearly the mystery of death in the context of our faith and our hope of eternal life.
To do this, let’s go back in time, to 1921. In Germany, a brilliant young philosopher named Edith Stein was wrestling with serious intellectual and spiritual questions. Gifted with a remarkably powerful mind, she admired her mother’s deep faith, but as a teenager had drifted from the Jewish faith in which she was raised, into a restless but persistent atheism.
One evening, around the age of 30, while staying with of some Lutheran friends, Dr. Stein pulled off their bookshelf the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. During the night, she read it cover to cover. In the morning, forever changed, she put the book down and declared, “This is the truth.”
From that first encounter, she set about learning more about the Catholic Faith, and, within a matter of months, she was baptized. She quickly discovered that, far from stifling her freedom and creativity, her newfound faith in Christ allowed her to be the person she was created to be. Indeed, “at the end of a long journey, she came to the surprising realization only those who commit themselves to the love of Christ become truly free1.
Before long she discerned a vocation to live only for Jesus, to whom, as she said, she was related not only spiritually, but also by blood. About a decade later, she was professed as a Carmelite nun with the name Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce – literally, Sister Teresa, Blessed by the Cross. And the shadow of the Cross was looming not far away.
During the Nazi occupation of Germany, her Carmelite superiors transferred her to their convent in Echt, in the Netherlands, in an effort to protect her. But unwilling to use her Baptism to worldly advantage, even to save her life, she was arrested, subjected to the most inhumane conditions, and transported by a cattle car to Auschwitz.
Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross had long known that closeness to Christ means a share in his suffering – his redemptive suffering. So she knew in the depths of her being that this, her last and greatest trial, was nothing other than a share in the Cross of Christ. Thus she bore her sufferings not merely with resignation, but with love.
When the day of her martyrdom came & poison gas extinguished her earthly life, she left this valley of tears to go and be with her divine Bridegroom. “The true message of suffering is a message of love,” said Blessed John Paul II at her canonization. “The true message of suffering is a lesson of love. Love makes suffering fruitful and suffering deepens love2.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross shows us that there is only one place to go when approaching the mystery of death, and that is up the hill of Calvary, and to the foot of the Cross.
And our embrace of the Cross, together with our steadfast Christian hope, is decidedly not the defiant denial of the stoics. It is no denial of reality; it is an embrace of reality: the reality that the Son of God has descended to the depths of human suffering, and has conquered the terror of the grave, and has risen triumphant.
What Christ offers to us is much more than the nebulous “better place” which is often spoken of when people die. He offers us the gift of eternal salvation, a union of love with the living God, the fulfillment of every human desire, the very purpose for which we were created. And Christ made possible for us this gift of eternal salvation at the price of his own Blood, which He poured out on the Cross, and which is made present in the Eucharist.
This is perennially true in every age and in every circumstance. “Dum volvitur orbis stat Crux,” the Carthusian motto proclaims: While the world turns, the Cross stands still. Indeed, this was the source of Father McGivney’s heroic pastoral love for the dying, and for bereaved families. This is what brought him to numberless bedsides and gravesides: so he could bring the light and love of Christ there. It is what moved him to action to help Catholic men open themselves more fully to the grace of Christ through the active practice of the Catholic Faith, and to help extend the Church’s care for those who had been visited by tragedy.
This is what emboldened the Mexican Martyrs – 6 priest martyrs, brother Knights, 25 martyrs in all – Their relics, present in our celebration today, remind us of their faith in the conquering love of Christ crucified – a love which at length conquers every form of human tyranny.
All of this shows us that, in life and in death, love and truth must always go together, because the truth is eternal, and love is stronger than death. Indeed, as Blessed John Paul II proclaimed at the canonization of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:
“Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie3.”
When we think of the deceased Knights for whom we offer this Mass, and all the members of our family and friends who have died, we remember them with such emotion because we have loved them – and they have loved us.
Thus do we approach now the altar on which the crucified and risen Christ, the source of life and truth, will be made present in the Eucharist.
We ask Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to pray for all these sons and daughters of Father McGivney who have gone before us into eternity, that the Cross may be for them, and for us, as it was for her, the sure and certain hope of eternal life.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
1 Blessed John Paul II, Homily at the Canonization of Edith Stein, October 11, 1998, n. 5
2 Ibid., n. 7
3 Ibid., n. 6