Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville
14 January 2019

Your Excellency Bishop Thomas Olmsted, my brother priests, dear deacons, brothers and sisters in Christ: it is a pleasure and an honor for me to stand before you today to deliver this homily for your annual Red Mass, which is always such a significant moment in the life of a local Catholic community. Thank you for this invitation.

Today’s gospel leads our minds to the edge of the Sea of Galilee some 2,000 years ago to hear afresh the call of Jesus to His first apostles, Simon and Andrew, James and John. The same call in Mark is remembered by the author of the Gospel according to St. John when he recalled that day along the Sea.  Called by Jesus, he announced it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon or the tenth hour.  Scholars have looked for some liturgical meaning to this mention of the time of day but found that Temple prayer would have been the 9th or the 12th hour or 3 and 6 o’clock.  The best explanation lies in the way humans recall momentous events in their lives.  They remember details. A spouse recalls his first meeting with his bride in specific terms.  Go back in your mind’s eye to that call of Jesus.  I recall a High School chapel in my 10th grade and can almost transport myself.

While the tradition of the Red Mass stretches back to the 13th century England, the noble profession we honor is much more ancient.  It is the call from God to an individual to take up a special path of service to Him and to the community.  This Red Mass is meant to stir into flame your calling as real as Andrew’s and Simon Peter’s. I invite you to recall the earliest stirring of that call that you of the noble profession of law experienced.

When I served as Bishop of Knoxville in East Tennessee, I heard of the wise advice given to Judge Turnbull by Attorney William G. Craven, mentioned at funeral eulogy on June 13, 2000 in Fentress County.  Allow me to quote Judge Turnbull: “Early in my practice, I recall that Bill took great offense at lawyer jokes. He told me, ‘John, don’t ever forget that as a lawyer you are helping people solve problems that are too big for them to solve themselves. Make every client your most important client and every case your most important case. Think only about your client and the fees will take care of themselves. You are here to provide a service.' It was the best advice I ever received as a lawyer.”

At this Red Mass all the Church prays for you who serve our society as judges, lawyers and administrators, that you receive the grace of wisdom, courage, compassion and right judgment – seeking always to uphold the dignity and rights of every person and the good of the community. Your work touches the very fabric of our culture and, as you serve well, brings justice to all and contributes to the fabric of a healthy society.

I also invite you to pray with me a prayer of lament for our Church and society in the midst of recent failures on the part of clergy and bishops to address adequately the scandal of sexual misconduct in truth and transparency and to reach out to victim survivors.  I share the frustration and anger of so many and at the same time, having recently spent a weeklong retreat with my brother bishops, am hopeful for purification and renewal.  I am committed to working with you to welcome the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church.

Allow me to speak of your special task of preserving what has been called the first freedom, the gift of religious freedom.  In 1965 during the deliberations of the II Vatican Council, a document on religious freedom was approved.  “The Declaration on Religious Liberty” or Dignitatis humanae, known especially as a teaching with heavy contributions from the experience of the United States of America, defined religious liberty as a right grounded in the dignity of the human person.

This first freedom, so prominent in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, runs the risk of being taken for granted.  In a democratic republic, it is precisely this gift that needs safeguarding.

Three reasons to love the Gift of Religious Freedom

I present three reasons that we who are Catholic and American want to promote our first freedom, that is, religious freedom.  I believe these reasons will find a place in each of our hearts.

First, we promote and defend religious freedom because we believe that truth, not power, undergirds a rightly ordered politics.

Second, because our faith convictions or dictates of conscience call us to inspire a culture.

And finally, because religious freedom gives us the space to serve with integrity of faith and conscience.

Religious Freedom moves us to seek truth rather than power

Why is religious freedom important to us? Because religious freedom and the freedom of conscience leads us to consider now simply what we want for ourselves but what we ought to do.  The dictates of conscience call us to search for truth and not simply to impose our will on others.

While the insatiable desire to get what we want can dominate a persons’ life and turn a culture into an uncivilized jungle of “dog eat dog, our commitment to seeking the truth and not simply imposing your will on another is fostered by that higher goal of following the dictates of your conscience. True democracy depends on this higher goal of seeking and proposing to others the truth as a God given reality.  I will travel to Washington DC on Friday to promote the right to life of unborn children, will preside next Monday at a prayer service opposing racism on the national day remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and last week took part in a service during National Migration Week precisely to voice support for seeking the truth on which a nation ought to rest.  In all cases, we seek to propose this truth to all in our nation and never to impose one will on another.

The human person has dignity, because she is created in the image of God, and this means, in part, that she has the capacity to seek the truth about God. All of us are compelled to ask these basic questions: what is life all about? What happens when we die? How should I make my time on earth worthwhile? Who is my Creator, and how should I respond to Him? These questions are ultimately questions about religious truth, and they inevitably involve how one ought to live one’s life.

As Americans, we intuitively understand that individuals should be free to seek the truth of life.  A politics that respects religious freedom is a politics that acknowledges the preeminence of the search for truth that is at the heart of what it means to be human.

And I think we see in some of our challenges to religious freedom, that when we lose this respect for the search for truth, our politics degenerates into power-seeking for the purpose of imposing one’s will on others. When this happens, we are really losing respect for basic human dignity.

The Church envisions politics as service to truth-seeking. I think most Americans want to live in a country with that kind of politics.

We are called to inspire a culture

Secondly, we are called to inspire a culture.

Perhaps there is nothing more personal than our freedom of conscience and freedom to live out our religious convictions.  But as personal as they are, they are not private.  In fact, the demand of the Christian faith is to live our faith publicly and to witness to that faith.

In 1935 Pope Pius XI used an image on the occasion of the canonization of two saints who died a martyr’s death in 1535 – the lawyer/statesman Thomas More and the priest/bishop John Fisher.  He called their lives “grand lighthouses set up to shine and enlighten in the way of God.”  While the insatiable desire to get what we want can dominate a persons’ life and turn a culture into an uncivilized jungle of “dog eat dog,” the witness of a virtuous life seeking the good of others can lift up a culture.

For sure we do not seek to impose but we propose.  It is precisely in our exercise of freedom as good citizens that we seek to influence the social fabric of our culture.

When we talk about human dignity and seeking the truth, we are talking about a vision of human flourishing. We want to propose this vision to our culture. And we want to be able to enjoy an encounter and a dialogue with people of other faiths about our different visions and how we can promote human flourishing together.

It is both our faith conviction and our civic duty that call us as a church to contribute to the common good, to witness to our faith by proposing and not imposing and to serve others without giving up the integrity of our faith convictions.

Recently Pope Francis, at his visit to the White House in 2015, spoke of religious freedom as “one of America’s most precious possessions.” Our Holy Father urged us (quote) “to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”

To be with Pope Francis at the White House was an emotional moment, but even more so when he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor and when we served lunch together at a shelter in Washington. Being with the Holy Father for six days left me with a deep sense of responsibility to help ensure our Church and all people of faith can serve as God asks of us.

The Catholic Church serves in a multitude of areas, such as education, health care, child welfare serves, and migration and refugee services. At the heart of all these efforts, there is a vision that we uphold – a vision of the human person and dignity, a vision of the family and the gift of sexuality, a vision of a nation that serves the common good. We propose this vision with passion for the good of individuals and for the good of our nation.

Religious freedom means that we are free to propose this vision, and that we can engage in a free exchange of ideas with others about how persons can flourish in this country.

We are called to serve with integrity of faith

Finally, in our work for religious freedom, we are asking for the space to serve with integrity.

Our nation has flourished over many decades precisely because of the generous contributions of individuals, congregations and civic organizations that serve others.  De Tocqueville in his tour of the 1830’s USA testified to the vibrancy and gift of voluntary organizations.

The service given is invariably motivate by and sustained by the convictions and vision of the group gathered and others become attracted to continue the service by this same consistent vision.  The vision provided not just why we serve but the way we serve. Recently a family seeking care for an aging mother heard of the reputation of a nursing facility operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor (who incidentally this year celebrate their 150th year of service in my home of Louisville, Ky!). It was the common vision of all who worked there that created the environment that attracted them.  Though they were not people of faith, they saw the result of this faith vision and liked what they saw.

The Governmental Mandates that sought to impose requirements that would violate faith convictions were opposed precisely because of the effect that they would have on the integrity of the faith that motivates and sustains service. The Little Sisters of the Poor would have to make an impossible choice between giving up their faith convictions to continue to serve vulnerable people, like the elderly poor, or paying crushing fines that would put them out of business.

We understand that religious freedom has limits.  In fact the 1965 Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae number 2 speaks of due limits to religious freedom.  Here is the quote: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits."

Echo of this notion of “due limits” can be found in the practice of strict scrutiny by the Supreme Court, which first determines a compelling governmental reason to curtail freedom and then seeks to ensure that the least restrictive means of such curtailing occurs.

While the current administration is seeking to give relief to those with moral or religious objections to coverage of contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices, unfortunately we just received a ruling from a federal judge in California last night that threatens the administration’s attempt to respect conscience and religious freedom.  Threats to our freedom to serve continue in other areas, including our welcome of immigrant and refugee families.

Let me note that the Church certainly envisions a distinction between Church and state, but not a wall of separation. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in Deus caritas est, “The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.” (DCE, 29).

Our country is much richer when we have public-private partnerships that work well. Faith-based organizations are some of the most trusted groups within a local community. They often have very deep roots.

To exclude a faith-based group from serving the public—whether it’s feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping migrants and refugees, or assisting people affected by the opioid crisis to find the road to recovery—excluding faith-inspired groups makes no sense in a pluralistic society like ours. Everyone who is willing and able should be included when it comes to tackling the greatest needs of our day.


In 1929, six years before Saint Thomas More was canonized alongside Bishop John Fisher, the famous writer G.K. Chesterton said about the lawyer-saint: “Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying, but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.”  We are now only ten years away from that moment, and I would say that Chesterton’s prophecy was right on the mark!

At this Red Mass embrace your vocation.  It was 4 o’clock when Jesus called St. John.  Recall the details of your call. Know that your noble calling lived rightly, will foster truth over power, will inspire a culture by your living witness and will allow you and countless others to serve with integrity – building up a culture and a civilization of love and life. What a beautiful vocation is yours – what a noble profession! 

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