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The Second Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 12, 13, 14, 1926

New York: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

 [24] The Congress Sermon
Bishop of Central New York

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested and we have seen it and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you."—I St. John 1: 1-3.

THE words fall with a serious and solemn weight of awe. There is about them a gladness of surprise, a reverent sense of mystery; above all, they have in them a breathless devotion.

We realize this, when we stop to think of the tremendous story that lies behind the words. Christianity began in one of the most beautiful and delightful of human experiences—an intimate friendship. Jesus Christ chose a few men for close companionship, training them until they were able to understand the meaning of His life, and then sending them into the world to bring God to men in the glory of a new discovery.

St. John's Gospel begins with the Apostle's interpretation of Christ's life, and then, after this prologue, opens its story with the account of the disciple's first introduction to Jesus. It is still so real and vivid that he remembers every detail—the very hour of the day when he met the Christ, the expression in the Lord's face as He turned and looked at these two disciples of the Baptist who were following Him.

[25] The other evangelists tell the story differently, but they all tell it with the same vivid remembrance. It is, I have said, an account of a delightful human experience. Their Master walked with them through the fields and hills of Galilee, slept with them under the evening stars, talked with them in the intimacy of friendly companionship. His speech was of the simple things of their daily life. He talked of the woods and the winds and the weather, of the farmer sowing the seed in the field, of the growing grain, of the fields whitening to harvest, of the women at the mill grinding the grain, of the housewife kneading bread, of the bride and the piece of silver that was lost from her wedding necklace, of the guests at a wedding feast, of the master and the manager of a great estate, of the shepherd and the lost sheep, of the dealer in precious stones and the pearl he risked his whole capital to purchase, of fishermen at their nets, of children playing in the public square, of the reckless and impatient boy who left home to try out his talents in the bigger world; talked of these everyday things of life, until they saw all life in a spiritual light and every common bush seemed afire with God; talked of the God whom Hebrew theology had made remote and unapproachable and Hebrew religious practices had lost in a maze of religious machinery; talked of a spiritual world back of the material universe, until God became real and God became near.

Then, as He talked, slowly they began to feel that God must be like the Friend who spoke about Him. By the time their life together had reached its parting they began to find in Christ what Bishop Gore calls "all the values of God." They discovered themselves acting towards Him as towards God. They found Him encouraging this attitude and putting Himself towards them in the very place of God.

[26] It all came as a slow process, and never while He was with them in His earthly life did they explain it fully to themselves. It could not have been otherwise. Had He told them plainly who He was, all their intimacy would have been destroyed and the very purpose of His Incarnation would have been defeated. It was a slow growth in knowledge and faith. He taught patiently, little by little, until (to use the striking phrase of Charles Lamb) "His ideas slid into their minds."

Then came the end, when all their hopes and expectations were rudely dispelled and the Master upon whom they had rested in complete reliance was betrayed and, after a mockery of a trial, was executed. And then followed that which is the only possible explanation of all their later history—He triumphed over death, rose again, and appeared among them, and after His departure in glory sent His Spirit to call to remembrance all things He had said unto them, to lead them into all truth and to quicken them in their service in making Him known to the whole world.

Now, as the writer looks back over the experience, you feel the thrill of his words as he tells of its meaning. Now—now, at last, they understand. What did it mean? Nothing less than this: that when they listened to Him they were hearing One who spoke, and had a right to speak, as the Voice of God; when they looked at Him they had actually seen God; when they touched Him (wonder of wonders) they had touched God Himself; they had gazed upon, and their unworthy hands had handled, the Word of Life.


I want you to concentrate your minds on this one thought: that the words are the words of breathless devotion, of amazement and awe at a mystery so great that it [26/27] hushes the heart into solemn stillness. I want you to remember that it was with such a sense of surpassing surprise as of the wonder of a great discovery—it was in this spirit that the Gospel was first given to the world.

That is what made the message of the Apostles and their companions so fresh and real and beautiful. Religion in their day had become formal, conventional, fixed, hard, and those who taught it hugged their privilege to their own hearts. God had become distant, severe, unapproachable. Then the Apostles came to tell of a God with whom they had actually lived, and they declared that the heart of God was as the heart of Jesus.

But that was not all. They gave their message with breathless awe. They stood in amazed adoration at the wonder of what they told. And they spoke as men who felt the thrill of what they knew, and utterly and entirely forgot themselves in the glory of their vision. Their words had wings, because as they spoke they had in remembrance the very tones of their Lord's voice as He talked with them in those wonderful days when they were groping towards fuller understanding; they thought of the look in His eyes, and now they knew that many things which He could not say to them till later were not really left unsaid, had they seen and listened with deeper understanding. At any rate, now at last they understood, and they could hardly find words with which to tell what they knew. Small wonder that when they speak of it they think of "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." There is something poignantly beautiful about those words of St. Paul, so like the words of the Beloved Disciple. They had seen the light of the knowledge of the glory of God—and they had seen it in the face of Jesus Christ.

That same sense of reverent awe that same spirit of hushed devotion, glows in every word they speak or write. [27/28] When the aged Paul writes to the younger Timothy he reminds him how "great is the mystery of godliness"; how God was manifested in the flesh, proved just and holy through the spirit; and then (rising to phrases whose meaning has never been fully explained, with a brevity that of itself expresses reverent astonishment) how the God thus manifested was "seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory."

Sometimes the Apostle is awestruck at the mystery of the divine humiliation; sometimes bowed in penitence at the thought that the wealth of divine condescension is brought down to his own individual need. Now he pleads for his converts that the same mind be in them which was also in Christ Jesus, and you can almost see the look of awe in his face as he adds: Being originally in the very form of God and of His nature, He did not think of this equality with God as a prize to be grasped at and held fast, but emptied Himself of the insignia of His divine majesty, and took upon Himself the form of a slave, and was made in the likeness of men, and became obedient until death—more than that, the disgraceful death of a criminal. Indeed, you need not use the imagination to realize the awful mystery of the words, for at once the Apostle goes on to tell how at the name of Jesus every knee bows in adoration, in heaven and on earth, while all tongues proclaim His glory and call Him Lord. Again, it is the same Apostle who remembers that the divine humiliation was undergone for Himself, even (had it been not necessary for others) for Himself alone. It is the humiliation of a Lord "Who loved ME and gave Himself for ME." One can hardly read the words without feeling their depth of emotion.

You find, once more, the same wonder at every thought of the Divine Master. You feel it in the record of the [28/29] Resurrection, from that first Low Sunday when Thomas knelt at the feet of the Lord, his eyes full of love and penitence, as he gasps out his words of faith, "My Lord and my God." You feel it in the story of the Resurrection days when the disciples must have risen every morning to look into each other's faces with the unspoken question, "I wonder whether we shall see Him today?" till at last they were so sure of His presence, seen or unseen, that they could safely be left as He withdrew into the invisible world. A cloud received Him out of their sight and left them with a veiled presence only.

You feel the same hushed devotion again when the Apostle speaks of the ever-present Spirit who is closer than breathing and nearer than hands and feet. Listen: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" Their very bodies were sacred, a house for the Most High. Listen again: "Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption." Theirs was an awful power of free-will; they could actually hurt the heart of Deity.

And this indwelling Spirit knits together the faithful in a union so close, in the Church and through its sacraments, that one could go on through the whole length of this sermon simply repeating the words with which the great Apostle summons his converts to an awful sense of the mystery of the divine indwelling and impartation. In the Church we are brought into a union with Christ as close as that of the members of the body with each other. In the sacraments the very life of Christ flows into the soul. In Baptism the change is so real that it is a death and a new birth. In Holy Communion the contact is so great an actuality that the unworthy, unrepentant recipient is guilty of the very Body and Blood of Christ.


[30] I have multiplied examples because we need to drive into our consciousness this one thought: that the first proclamation of the Gospel was so wonderfully effective, because the early disciples lived in the glow and warmth of an experience the thrill of which never left them. I want you to see (I want to feel it myself, so that I may make you see) how vivid it was to these men to whom we go back for all our understanding of Christianity, how they lived in the atmosphere of reverence and awe and amazement and devotion and holy fear. The remembrance of their days of friendship with Christ did not make them feel "chummy with the Almighty"—if I may use a slang phrase which expresses the chief characteristic of some evangelistic preachers of today. They never went about the business of religion with breezy familiarity. That, however, is not the main point. The matter of vital importance is this, that they had such a sense of the mystery, the beauty, and the glory of the experience which they were trying to pass on to others, that this of itself conveys the very content of their faith. They lived as men who suddenly found themselves transplanted into another world. They lived as men who were in vivid contact with the divine. It so showed itself in their speech that others felt the glory of it.

And their reverential awe in the presence of the mysteries of redemption gave them also a certain reverence for those to whom they were sent with the Gospel. In the light of the Incarnate Christ, the world became a great, human family. Not that the Christian faith gave to the world, for the first time, the idea of human brotherhood; but it realized the idea. The Church told men that the tie which made them brothers, and children of a common Father, was not a mere figure or fancy. Belief in the Incarnate Lord showed men that they were one because [30/31] a Divine Person had entered into them and made them one; a Divine Person was continually penetrating them and consolidating them. At the altar, therefore, master and slave knelt side by side to receive the same Lord. Moreover, God the Holy Spirit was the living bond between men of many races and classes. Human brotherhood, until then a pretty idea to be played with, meant something to the Christian.

This gave the Apostles a real reverence for the people to whom they were sent. It gave them a love for souls, of whatever nation and in whatever condition. It gave them, as we see in some of St. Paul's epistles, a tender and anxious care for those specially committed to their charge. They "watched over their souls as they that must give account." Most of all it gave a certain breadth and Catholicity of appreciation no less than astonishing in men who had been born to race isolation and nursed in race hatred and exclusiveness, who had turned from a stranger because he was a stranger—men who out of that narrowness and bigotry now found themselves possessed of the glorious liberty of the children of God and stood fast in this liberty wherewith Christ had made them free; men who had dreamed the most wonderful of all-dreams, that men are brothers all and sharers in one another's destinies; men who saw one another, therefore, in a new light, and in their reverential awe at the abounding grace of the Lord whom they loved, discovered that every soul was precious in His sight.


Now for ourselves. We are gathered here this week, men of many shades of opinion and practice, yet united in our full acceptance of the faith which is in Christ Jesus and in loyalty to the Church and the sacraments which He instituted—the Church which is His body, the [31/32] means through which He expresses Himself; the sacraments which He uses as agencies through which we realize His presence and receive His grace.

If we are to make others see the winsomeness and attractiveness of our faith we need the spirit of reverence and devotion in our presentation of that faith. I plead for a three-fold reverence: First, reverence for human personalities and a sympathetic understanding of their thoughts and feelings, their doubts and difficulties, even their prejudices and misconceptions; second, reverence for sacred mysteries and solemn awe at the privilege of participating in them; third, reverence for the Lord whom we serve, the Lord who humbled Himself to live among men and is willing to entrust His cause to their keeping.

First, reverence for human personalities and sympathetic understanding of their thoughts and feelings.

(1) How many of you are really trying to carry the Gospel outside the four walls of your Church? Do you try to understand the man outside? Miss Maude Royden wrote recently of a conversation with a distinguished theologian to whom she exclaimed impulsively, "I hate religious people"; to which he replied, "Shake hands! So do I." Then she went on to explain with illuminating clearness that what she really meant was that too many religious people thought they were cultivating Christian graces, but had never actually laid a foundation in the every-day virtues of ordinary life. We men of the clergy and you, our helpers among the laity, are apt to fail in commending the faith because we have little appreciation of the simple ideas of religion in the heart of the average man. To him religion means unselfishness, generosity, sincerity, cleanliness of soul, a genuineness and straightforward honesty that despises cant and is chary of religious professions, an abiding faith in goodness, a very real [32/33] humility because of his own defects—which we are quite justified in calling penitence—a readiness, therefore, to forgive defects in others; with it all, a general consciousness of God, of whom he is rather vaguely aware and about whom he finds it almost impossible to speak easily and naturally. For such men there must be the simplest and most vivid preaching of the Gospel story. We need priests, the one passion of whose ministry will be to try to interpret the average man to himself and make him see that all the ideals of goodness he ever had are found in Jesus Christ. I want to do more than that: I want to make men see that everything that Jesus Christ was God is. I want them to know that if there is a God He must be like Christ and I want them to believe that He is just that sort of a God in spite of all difficulties and in the face of all appearances to the contrary. I want them through Christ to be so certain of God that they will gladly give Him the undivided allegiance of their lives. After all, that is what religion is.

(2) Again, how many of us make any real effort to understand our Protestant neighbors? Some of them have a personal consecration of life, a fervor and devotion of service, and a generosity of giving that puts us to shame. Even now, despite the disintegration of belief that characterizes Protestantism in America today, they have a real heritage. Every sectarian movement has sprung out of the neglect or minimizing of some truth which the Catholic should have held precious. Do we try to find out how we can stand with men on their own ground, look at things through their eyes, start our teaching with the truths they accept, and so lead on patiently to truths and practices they have neglected?

(3) Once more, have we of the clergy reverence for the human personalities which make up our congregations? I have never been able to understand the priest [33/34] who could enter a parish and act as if history began on his arrival. I have never been able to understand how he could fail to see something beautiful in the love and loyalty that attached people to old and accustomed ways and made them slow to change. I have never understood how a priest can make changes for the sake of changes, or insist on unimportant details for the sake of having his own way, and forget that the Church is not his Church, but that it is the Church of his people, many of whom, perhaps, have given to it generously in pains, care and cost.

(4) Nor can I understand the type of mind which makes no effort towards sympathy with men of other schools of thought, much less the type of mind among the clergy which holds aloof from all those who fail to come up to one's own standards. Modernism, for example, of whose dangers we are all aware, often stands for an honest effort to meet intellectual difficulties, is often in conflict with theories no longer tenable which we have never made the mental effort to understand and constructively to modify.

I plead, then, for sympathetic understanding. The true Catholic is a missionary-hearted Christian. He wants to win men, not offend them. He can never win them until he tries to put himself inside their minds and think their thoughts along with them.


Second, reverence for sacred mysteries. May I say to the clergy that the one thing which most often drives people away from Church is the feeling that those who minister at the altar have so slight appreciation of the awful realities of their holy office? You cannot create a sense of mystery merely by "mumbling the mass." We have a glorious liturgy—there is nothing anywhere to [34/35] compare with it—and if it is rendered with reasonable devotion it has tremendous power to move men's hearts. You will not, of course, intrude your own personality into the liturgy or the sacred offices; but you can put your whole heart into them. If you do, the sense of mystery will soon be aroused. Devotion is one thing you cannot keep to yourself. Character is something that is always being communicated.

Not long ago I celebrated the Divine Mysteries at a little summer chapel. At the close of the service a man came to me—a Churchman who is a really great scientist as well as a most attractive man of the world—who said, "Bishop, let me explain that I stayed throughout the service today simply because you asked us to, and I like to recognize authority. Then let me say that I have not made my Communion for over thirty-two years. I have had uncertainties, hesitancies, doubts, difficulties, and since the time I last knelt with my mother at the altar rail I have never received. Today I stayed, and the service drew me in a way I cannot express. I found my doubts lifted and my difficulties forgotten, and I came."

A week or two later I spoke of the incident to a group of the clergy and, unless I misread their thoughts, their principal feeling was one of uncertainty as to the actual value of a Communion received without formal preparation and without regard to the ancient law of fasting! At any rate I know they did not see, as I had hoped they would see, the compelling power of the service itself. Certainly they did not understand the wonder of the man's spiritual experience, nor the deep satisfaction I felt at being God's instrument in bringing him back to the Father's fold.

Do you of the laity realize that your devotion, if it is real, may touch some other heart and warm it into life? Do we of the clergy remember that all the preaching in [35/36] the world about the Divine Presence by those whose obeisance is mechanical cannot make men accept the teaching? Only as your own heart is stilled into reverence can you make other hearts hushed. Not long since I heard the offices of the Church read for a small congregation in a little country church, and when the priest began, "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him," silence was truly kept by the congregation because they knew, they could not help knowing, that the priest felt that God was really near. I ask, then, for greater reverence for sacred mysteries.


Finally: reverence for our Lord, Who has entrusted His truth to us, that we may commend it to men.

Often we shall have to defend that truth, explain it, controvert mistaken conceptions of it. We need never do so with bitterness of controversy. It is too tremendous a thing merely to argue about. It will never win its way save as we present it with loving patience, and in the glow and warmth of a real personal experience.

Never did the world need Christ as it does now. George Tyrrell says that to believe that this machine-like world of ours, with all its seeming blind fatality, really comes from God, and lies in God, and moves toward God, and that somehow all things work together for good—"that takes faith in long trousers; all else is faith in knickerbockers." The real trouble with the world today is that men feel this with a keenness they never felt before. They may not realize what is the root of their trouble, but this is what it is. The problem was always there, but a generation that has passed through the World War feels it with new anguish. Sin and sorrow and suffering and death are felt as never before, and because of this men have lost faith in God.

[37] Once more, new knowledge in science, in historical criticism, in the study of the origins of religion—this has brought new doubts, and men who do not deny God, at least leave Him out of consideration. The real question today—underlying the question of Catholicism or Protestantism, of Romanism or Anglicanism, of new or old views of Biblical criticism; indeed, even lying back of the question of Christianity or the lack of it—is a question of the existence and power of a Personal God, who is a God of Love with whom we may have real intercourse and communion.

Apart from Christ, I do not see how it is possible to keep on believing. I do not believe there is any stopping ground, logically, between full faith in Him and blank agnosticism. Believing in Him, I know—I know because He knew; I know because, accepting Him, I believe that He actually unveiled the Heart of Deity. Believing in Him, I believe in prayer, because He prayed and told us to pray. Believing in Him, I know that I can find God now, because in His understanding of my weakness He left in His Church the signs and tokens of His presence. Believing that God once lived in human flesh, I believe that He may again find a special dwelling-place in the sensible and material. So I come to find Him here. Finding Him, my heart is stilled at the mystery: I, too, feel that I cannot speak but in words weighed down with awe and devotion; for my eyes have gazed upon—your hands and mine have handled—the Word of Life.

If men saw that we really believed this, and really felt the mystery of it in our hearts, they could, it is true, disagree with us; but I do not see how they could persistently misjudge and misrepresent. The trouble is, we say that Christ is God, but we do not treat Him as God; we say that we have received His actual presence in our [37/38] hearts and we are only as other men—often just a little more petty, a little more contentious, a little more uncharitable; seldom a little more Christ-like.

This service summons us to devotion. This sermon pleads for it, not for ourselves only, but for others. This Congress will send us home with quickened faith, if in all our discussions and all our work we try truly to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God and look for it in the face of Jesus Christ.

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