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.