God’s Work of Art

A year-or-so-ago, on Pentecost Sunday, appropriately, I had one of those rare-but-dramatic moments of divine illumination.

I had just finished celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation for about two-dozen of our special needs children.

None other than the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, had attended that 10:15 Mass at St. Patrick’s that morning, and was very moved by the ceremony.  She graciously asked to meet each of the children and their beaming families.

As I began the introductions, I bought her to our first child.  “Madam President” I began, “this is a wonderful Down Syndrome young man.”

The proud parents, with all the courtesy and respect possible, wisely and properly corrected me.  “Oh, no, Archbishop Dolan and Madam President!  This is Mark, who happens to have Down Syndrome.”

That was a moment of inspiration for me!  I am eternally grateful to those parents.

I trust you understand the essential distinction those loving parents made:  Mark’s identity is a child of God, made in God’s own image and likeness, redeemed by the Precious Blood of God’s only Son, Jesus.  Mark, God’s work of art, happens to have a condition called Down Syndrome.  But, he is hardly identified by the condition that he has.

Get it?  I tell you who expressed it well:  Blessed John Paul II, who said, “Being is much more significant and essential than having or doing.  And the greatest temptation we face is to prefer having and doing more than being.”

Once, as a parish priest, I had the heart-wrenching duty of sitting with a family sobbing over their husband and dad’s suicide.  This young father had sunk into a deep depression six-months previously when he had lost his job.

He had left a note, somberly writing his wife and kids, “I’m of no use to you anymore because I can’t work.”

Never will I forget his ten-year old son tearfully whispering, “But he was still my dad.”

That boy got the distinction: his dad might not be able to do what most dads do — work, so the family could have what they need.  But, he was still his dad.

Being is more important than having or doing.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught — pardon the Latin! — agere sequitur esse – “actions flow from being!”  What we do springs from who we are.

A recovering addict once shared with me that, before the Blessed Sacrament in Our Lady’s Chapel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, after a three week binge that had left him literally in the gutter, he prayed “I am nothing but a helpless, desperate, worthless drunk.”  He kept repeating it, he told me, working himself into a more dungeon-like gloom.  Until he came to his senses, clearly through God’s grace and mercy, and exclaimed, “No, I’m not!  I am child of God, unconditionally loved by Him, made in His very image, destined for an eternity with Him — who happens to be addicted to alcohol!”

His identity was much more than his addiction.  The reaffirmation of his identity led to his recovery.

We are not defined by our addictions, wealth, nationality, color, sexual attraction, urges, popularity, grades, health, age, property, background, résumé, political party, or stock portfolio.

We have an inherent identity, a dignity, from God.

Everything we do, or don’t do — morality – flows from the belief about who we are — provided by our faith.

Today we often hear, “I sure appreciate all the things the Church does — its charities, schools, healthcare, even its worship, feast days, sacraments, and traditions.  But I could care less about what the Church teaches, and can’t understand why our religion is so ‘hung up’ on all that doctrinal stuff.”

I’m afraid those who claim that you got it backwards: all the good things the Church does flows from who we are, the faith we have which provides us our very identity.  We do good stuff precisely because of our faith.

Who we are is infinitely more important than what we have or do.

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18 Responses to “God’s Work of Art”

  1. Psalm says:

    Eleven years ago I was diagnosed as “mentally disabled” and at times I feel like I am put into a group of being “crazy”. Mental illness is such a misunderstood diagnosis and a stigma that is often associated with “you are mentally disable” verse a diagnosis and not who I am. I am a child of God who is created in His image and likeness, He loves me for who I am and what He is creating me into being – His instrument here on earth. A follower of His son Jesus Christ who is my Lord and Saviour. I pray that people see me as a Christian because of my actions and not because I tell them “I am a Christian.”

  2. John says:

    This is a very interesting post, I just wonder how it coincides with the Catholic doctrine embodied in James 2:14-19 (“faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead”). It’s easy to say, “I believe in one God…” but what good does that do the world if those words are not followed by actions?

    Similarly, if a man professes to be a Buddhist or a Muslim or even an atheist, and we see this man feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, housing the homeless can we really say that man is not a child of God, from whose grace those good things flow?

    How does a person’s failure to acknowledge the divine nature of his good deeds in any way diminish the value of those deeds to those around him?

    Genuinely curious, not rhetorical.

  3. Sonia Bukvic says:

    My Dear Cardinal: Congratulations on your divine illumination! I do disagree on one thing though–we are all identified by what we are and hardly ever, except the rich and famous-by who we are. Incidentally, intelligence is equal throughout all of creation; it is the brain that separates all creatures. Our brain is an identifier that reaches into our innermost being and latches onto others. Remember–the head is separate from the body though they are one. Commune with a fly and you’ll know what I mean. In the Lord, SONJA BUKVIC

  4. Ellen Marie says:

    How this hit home to me at this time. I am a recovering cancer patient and am waiting for another CT scan to see if my cancer has returned.

    I keep saying that I don’t have time for this and my family needs me.

    God’s will be done.

    Your article helped to put this life into perspective.

    Blessings!

  5. joe arrigo says:

    Somehow, especially with men, we define ourselves by what we do…completely. That is a very dangerous prospect, to say nothing of false; because if we lose our job, by that definition, we are nothing. We are far, far more than whet we do. And most of us need to learn that. That man who committed suicide was, like his insightful son expressed, A DAD. He was a husband. He had people who loved him for who he was, not for what he did. He had gobs of potential, unique talents, he had dreams. He had a precious life to share with the people he loved. A job is nothing in comparison.

  6. mary ann camlis says:

    Thank you so much. I agree with what you have said but it seems that most of those I come in contact with need to identify people with labels…how sad….we are more than that. It always surprises me that those you feel would be most open to not labelling someone are the very ones that do….a reverse discrimination.

  7. Ann Erwin says:

    Thank you, Your eminence, for a wonderful column, a great reminder that we are who we are and not what we do. I like the story of the alcoholic who came to his senses. My brother John, a lifelong alcoholic and drug addict earlier in life, sees no need to go to Confession or even considering going to see a priest. He has terminal cirrhosis of the liver. I pray every day, as do others, but I live too far away to visit, and calling him is of no use. You give me hope that the light will dawn for him before he slips into eternity and realizes the infinite Love Our Lord and Lady have for him, if only he would reach out to them.

  8. Thank you Cardinal Dolan, for having the humility to share what you learned from the parents of a young man who happened to have an extra chromosome.
    My ten year old daughter Christina is similarly endowed, and has taught her mother a great deal, yet, I must agree with you that the most profound of her lessons is to just exist in the joy of the Lord and not allow the stress of the day, the opinions of others, the material objects you lack, or even your own sinfulness get in the way of realizing how precious you are to Our Lord. He loves you without your doing or having anything.
    Revel in His love and soon, as Mother Teresa says, “joy is a net in which we catch souls”, we will be contagious Catholics.
    Thank you God for sending me this priceless lesson through the love of a young lady whom the world often rejects.

  9. Dianne Dawson says:

    Dear Archbishop Dolan,

    As usual you have such beauty, inspiration, and timing in your writings. In the rush of today’s society it is so easy to forget the basics.

    Thank you for being God’s instrument,
    Dianne

  10. Kathryn Mesward says:

    Excellent! We all need to use “People First” language to express the dignity of each human being.

  11. Anna Marie Walker says:

    What a great idea to remember! Than you Cardinal Dolan and may God love and bless you for all you do for the Catholic Church here in the US.

  12. TeaPot562 says:

    Very nice reflection. Thank you!
    TeaPot562

  13. Tom T says:

    Your Eminence,

    Thank you for a very moving and insightful article. Sometimes people know all that but get caught up in the problems of life. God Bless you are in my prayers. Pax.

  14. taad says:

    Very beautiful and moving. Thank you Cardinal.

  15. AndyP/Doria2 says:

    And our next generation must hear these heartening words.

  16. Irene says:

    My first thought was what John (August 29) pointed out; both faith AND works are needed for salvation, right? What we believe is very, very important, but how we act is not just a poor second. When Jesus talks about the final judgment, he talks, not about our beliefs, but about our actions and inactions. (For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink…).

    I think it would be very, very dangerous to assume that what we do is somehow less important than what we believe.

  17. daniele says:

    Thank you, Eminence! Purtroppo il mio inglese è deficiente, ma so che lei conosce bene la mia lingua, grazie Eminenza, grazie!a

  18. Phil says:

    Who we are arises not from what we believe, or what we say. Or identity arises not from the talking of the talk, in which it is so easy to fool ourselves.

    Who we are is best seen in what we do, in the walking of the walk, in the act of love.

    Catholic charity is much more popular than Catholic ideology and politics for a very good reason. We should listen to non-Catholics when they share this observation, as they are on to something important.

    Acts of love, the walking of the walk, are the most credible and persuasive statements of faith that we can make. In terms of saving souls and bringing people to God, no sermon can compete with the humble modest quiet Catholic who is too busy serving to give speeches.

    Love, expressed in action, inspires, unites, and brings people together in God. That’s the message of Jesus Christ.

    Ideology, any ideology, divides people, and pits them against one another, as is so very evident in today’s Church and the culture at large.