Audio file

“You are the Salt of the Earth”

by the Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
Bishop of Phoenix
August 24, 2015

“Lord send out Your spirit and renew the face of the earth.”

— Psalm 104 

May this heartfelt prayer resound in all our hearts as a new academic year begins at Thomas Aquinas College. I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate this Mass of the Holy Spirit with you today. For some years now, we in the Diocese of Phoenix have profited from the Catholic education offered at this college, and especially from the fire of love that the Holy Spirit has ignited in its graduates. On behalf of the Church in Phoenix, I want to express my appreciation of the witness to Christ offered by the faculty, staff, and students of this exceptional institution, and to thank you for your love of learning and your desire to offer fitting worship to the Blessed Trinity. Thank you, too, for being wiser than despair.

When I first met Dr. Quentin Faulkner he was seriously engaged in a spiritual journey that would lead him into the Catholic Church. He had already left behind his ministry in a Protestant denomination; he was teaching in the School of Music at the University of Nebraska, and was an organist at the Catholic Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln. A few years later, after being received into the Church along with his wife, Dr. Faulkner published a book with an intriguing title: Wiser than Despair.

This book could only have been written by someone who is familiar with the mystery of the Cross, and who believes firmly in the victory of the Risen Lord Jesus; someone who trusts the truth, loves the Church and has served Christ faithfully in turbulent times, like those in which we live.

“Wiser than despair” — this seems a fitting description of the grace that Christ is offering to the Church in America today, and especially to us who have the privilege to bear witness to the Gospel of life as a culture of death and radical secularism wreak havoc around us.

Events of this summer of AD 2015 have provided many temptations to despair. On the sixth of June, five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court decided that they could redefine marriage. It is worth noting that the other four justices all wrote strongly worded dissenting opinions, which shows the gravity of this disastrous decision. Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that the majority opinion has no basis whatsoever in the U.S. Constitution; and Justice Samuel Alito stated that this decision “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

Not long after the tragic Supreme Court decision was handed down, a series of videos was released by the Center for Medical Progress, offering damning evidence of the practice of Planned Parenthood making profits by selling body parts of aborted babies. The ugly face of such horrific evil turns our stomachs and tempts us to despair, but as people of faith, let us instead shout to God, “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104).

As I have prayed and considered how best to respond to these dreadful evils of the summer, I am reminded of a saint who lived in Nazi Germany last century and who faced similar large-scale disregard for the dignity and rights of human beings. She is the virgin and martyr Edith Stein, now known as the Carmelite St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I also mention her today because she was a renowned scholar with a deep appreciation of St. Thomas Aquinas, but even more I speak of her because of the way the Holy Spirit led her to faith in God.

Two women were the Lord’s instruments in leading Edith Stein to discover and to accept the gift of faith: the widow of an academic colleague, and a woman whose name is unknown. Let me speak briefly of each woman, beginning with the wife of a fellow philosopher and friend Adolf Reinach of the University of Freiburg. Professor Reinach was killed during World War I on Flanders’ fields. His death left Edith distraught and disoriented. She had admired his wisdom and his kindness; if there were a God, she thought, how could He allow such a good man to be killed in war?

Then, when asked by Reinach’s widow to come and help her to collect and publish her late husband’s unpublished papers, it was with considerable hesitation that she traveled to the Reinach home. There, to her surprise, she met a woman who, instead of being overwhelmed with sorrow, was filled with hope, and who even offered Edith and others peace and consolation. More than 20 years later, Edith would tell a priest friend, “It was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it. For the first time I was seeing with my very eyes the Church, born from her Redeemer’s sufferings, triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth.”

Not long after this meeting with Mrs. Reinach, a second woman crossed her path in what seemed like pure coincidence, but in faith we know there is no such thing as coincidence.

A friend took Edith to see the cathedral in Frankfurt. This is how Edith described what happened, “We went into the cathedral for a few moments, and as we stood there in respectful silence, a woman came in with her shopping basket and knelt down in one of the pews to say a short prayer. This was something completely new to me. In the synagogue, as in Protestant churches I had visited, people only went in at the time of the service. But here was someone coming into the empty church in the middle of a day’s work as if to talk with a friend. I have never been able to forget that.”

An anonymous woman, whom Edith never saw again, stirred within her heart the hope of being able to talk to God as with a friend, longing for a relationship with God that went beyond philosophical concepts and that combined truth with love. If this woman could be so absorbed in prayerful communion with God, just seconds after leaving behind the noisy turmoil the city outside, then could she not hope for a similar loving intimacy with God?

Dear sons and daughters in Christ, Edith Stein reminds us of two tremendous blessings of our Catholic faith, which Protestant Christians are lacking: firstly, the spiritual tools for dealing with suffering; and secondly, the great treasure that is Jesus personally present to us in the Eucharist. Both of these make it possible to be wiser than despair. The Sacrament of the Sick, the Stations of the Cross, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Sacrament of Confession, and much more provide us with rich sources of grace and consolation.

So, those of you who are presently dealing with sorrow or suffering, turn to these spiritual resources with great hope. Remember that the Cross is the Tree of Life, the vessel by which Jesus redeemed the world. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, our friendship with Him deepens and expands, as do our relationships with others whom He gives us to love.

Remember, too, that suffering and sacrifice are a key part of fulfilling one’s vocation and mission from Christ. As St. John Chrysostom said in the 4th century, “Do not think that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth.”

As for the Eucharist, the patron of this college is a great example of one who turned constantly to the Blessed Sacrament to deepen His friendship with Jesus. When St. Thomas Aquinas celebrated the Eucharist, he became so absorbed in the mystery of Christ’s love that tears frequently ran down his face. In his commentary on the Eucharist and John 6, he wrote, “Nothing is more a source of wonder than that God should become one of us.” In the Eucharist, Christ draws close to us by becoming even smaller than He did in the Incarnation; He became so small so that He could be our food, the Bread of Eternal Life. So great was Thomas’s awe and wonder at Christ’s love in the Eucharist that he wrote beautiful hymns that continue to inspire us today, such as the Panis Angelicus, in which he exclaims: “O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum, pauper, servus et humilis”; “O marvelous wonder, a poor and lowly servant eats the Lord God!”

Recall that Thomas lived at time when the Albigensian heresy, similar to popular false notions of human nature today, were undermining the dignity of human persons and producing twisted notions of femininity and masculinity. As a result, there were misunderstandings about the Eucharist and a tragic decline in Eucharistic devotion and practice. Various means were taken to restore a proper appreciation of the Eucharist, such as celebrating Benediction regularly, putting the tabernacle in a more prominent place in the churches, ringing bells at the elevation of the Host and Chalice at Mass, and so forth. While all these made a difference, none proved as effective as the Eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas. Such beauty could only come from a heart full of love for our Savior and from a friendship with Him that was nourished each day at the Table of the Lord.

Beloved sons and daughters in Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Edith Stein, and all the saints inspire us to bear sorrow with dignity and hope, to be wiser than despair, and to treasure the love of Jesus in the Eucharist.