Bishop William Murphy was the principal celebrant and homilist of the annual Red Mass for Nassau County on Oct. 2 at St. Joseph Church, Garden City. The Red Mass marks the traditional opening of the judicial year. During this Mass, all members of the legal community, including judges, governmental officials, attorneys, legal staff, paralegals and law school faculty are reminded of the power they possess and request God’s guidance in administering their office of position with wisdom, justice, fortitude, compassion and counsel.
Below is Bishop Murphy’s homily from the Red Mass
Promises are a part of the lives of us all. They may be the solemn promises made by a couple who pledge their faithful love on their wedding day. They may be the promises we priests or consecrated women and men make that publicly profess our commitment to a certain life. In the many worlds of the law promises undergird much of the law, whether it be in contracts or in other kinds of commitments when two or more persons agree upon and thus commit themselves to fulfill the terms of agreement. Without promises and the trust that accompanies them we as a society would find ourselves in a sorry state.
When you think of it for a moment, promises are the stitching of religious life and the world of faith, the many ways God relates to us and we to God. The first historical promise in our tradition is recorded in Genesis when God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. God is the one who initiates the relationship with a promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sands by the waters. Those promises imply a mutual relationship. Torah regulates the terms of that relationship. And the history of Israel records the high points and low points of promises kept and promises broken, obligations accepted and lived out or not depend so much on the freedom with which God created us.
At the center of the New Covenant is a promise. Jesus promises to be a prophet to fulfill the vision of Isaiah and, as he preaches and teaches, he deepens that promise to a radical, indeed revolutionary, one: I will send you the Spirit who will teach you all things. Those words uttered on the night before Jesus was to suffer and die were the climax of the history of God’s promises to humankind. With the death of Jesus, the very men who heard that promise were disillusioned and felt abandoned and bereft, until, on that first Easter, in the Upper Room, the Risen Jesus does exactly what he promised: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me so I send you. And when he had said this he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’.
The gift had been given. The promise kept. And the living out of that that implied the vocation to which the apostles and first disciples bent their energies and ultimately gave their lives. The promise of the Spirit once given did not destroy their freedom. It did give them a strength that was not their own. With it they did fulfill their true vocation to go out into the whole world and preach the good news. There were times when difficult decisions had to be made; times when circumstances demanded prudential judgments. Can we preach to the gentiles? Do they have to be circumcised? But they made those decisions by the criterion of being always faithful to the promises that they had made and faithfully kept. And they had always the pastoral good of the Church before their eyes.
I say all this because I would like propose that our society and the practice of politics and civic good might learn something that will help us all in this critical time in our country and in the world. There seems to many of us and certainly to the media a lot of talk about polarization and a shift of attitudes and outlooks that would tend toward confrontation rather than collaboration. It is not my purpose to enter into the details of our current political back and forth. While I have my own opinion, that is beside the point.
What is to the point is to suggest something about promises made and commitments to keep that need to have some help to move beyond polemic and to find some kind of yardstick that would be helpful. My suggestion for us all in our own respective areas of expertise is to ask us all to turn to the virtue of prudence. I am convinced that the practice of prudence can offer new hope for resolving differences in the political field as it can in all areas of law and justice where we need to seek the common good and to make decisions on very concrete challenges about policies, programs and what serves the best interests of our people and our nation and, indeed, the world.
Joseph Pieper, one of the truly great theologians of the last century, calls prudence the pre-eminent virtue that guides and helps determine the choices we make for justice, the actions that require fortitude and the self control that is temperance. Prudence is concerned not so much with ultimate goals so much as it is about the reality of the situation we have to face and the means we have to deal with that reality. Its gives us the practical wisdom to assess the concrete situations and evaluate what can be accomplished or what cannot be accomplished at any given moment in which decisions must be made that avoid doing evil and advance what is good to the extent that can be done. Prudence tells us that collaboration is a good, not a sign of weakness. Prudence tells us that, while we may want to achieve thus and so, respect for the other and commitment to the common good demand that we make a reasonable political or civic compromise so long as such is not done by impeding the good or embracing what is evil. Prudence helps us look at things objectively, evaluate what can be accomplished and how what can be done moves us closer to what is true and good, right and honorable.
Some might think I am advocating compromise as an end in itself. I am not. Prudence is a virtue and thus seeks the good and does not compromise by accepting evil as good. But prudence is the virtue of seeking the good within the context of what is possible. As such, Pieper calls it the first of the virtues, and “the mold and mother of all virtues”. To my mind it is the most important virtue for the art of politics and is the advancement of the common good in a pluralist society such as ours. I fear it is sadly lacking today in our all too real world of political bickering that seeks to blame the other, even to destroying their good name and maligning their character.
But it need not be this way. Practicing prudence in our political and civic public discourse leads us to find new hope in forging agreements and developing programs that may not give any position all that is desired. But it does respect the integrity and good will of the other and finds the space to create new hope instead of more acrimony. It is a commitment to fulfilling the promise of seeking the good and it takes its satisfaction in achieving what best advances that.
Paul today speaks of the promise fulfilled by Jesus: the promise of the Holy Spirit which he gave his apostles that first Easter. That spirit showed itself in different ways through different gifts but all worthy of being exercised for the good. Paul reminds us that to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. He reminds us that there are many different gifts of the Spirit and that each one of us has something to offer to build up the body.
My prayer today, a prayer I ask you to make your own with me, is that the many gifts our political leaders, our officers of the courts and our keepers of the safety and security of our society may build up the body politic and advance the civic good of us al. My prayer is that we all seek to exercise prudence in our professional lives to create bonds and not break them, to forge agreements and not deepen differences. May we all put aside the temptations of polarization to embrace the common good. For what is at stake is the good of our people, our nation and the world. What is at stake is the common good and the people to whom God sent his Son and the Son sent the spirit of truth to teach us all things so that all might be free to live as sons and daughters of a loving God.