America Centennial Mass Homily: Delivered April 18, 2009
First of all, I want to say, as speakers on great occasions always say, how honored I am to be here. For me it is very true. I have great and personal reasons for saying this. I first discovered America as Columbus was wont to say, back in the 1950's when a newly named editor invited me to come for a visit. I had just left Fordham College and entered Saint Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie to study for the priesthood of the Archdiocese of New York. The newly appointed editor-in-chief at that time was Fr. Thurston Davis, S.J. He was my Dean at Fordham and he had become a great friend and thoughtful counselor to me as I pondered the question of priestly vocation.
Together with the assistant dean who later became the associate editor of America, Fr. Eugene Culhane, they were very important guides in my life and unforgettable characters in my own academic and spiritual development. For that special reason, coming back to America Magazine at this point in time, as it celebrates 100 years of extraordinary service is, for me, a great blessing. To preach here today is also great challenge because, since then, America has been part of my academic and cultural formation, as it has for so many Catholics and non-Catholics and especially so many priests and religious leaders of our society.
To bring it to full cycle, the invitation to preach today comes from a great friend who is also one of my heroes. Fr. Drew Christiansen, the present editor-in-chief of America Magazine, has been a friend and counselor, a guide and model for me in so many ways over the last 20 years. Much of my life has been spent in international affairs, even as I served happily as a diocesan Bishop here at home. Drew Christiansen has been a good guardian angel who always did the right things and thought the great thoughts. He was with me in challenging and even dangerous situations, always accepting the opportunity to probe deeper into the mores and foundations of our society, in dark days of war and conflict, as well as in equally perilous days when national policies sometimes seem to drift away from the ancient values of our society and ultimately cloud the compass of the teaching of our Church. Drew has truly been a vital force for good in this country. I appreciate that the Holy See may be hesitant about an early canonization,  but the extraordinary leadership that he has given in so many areas-in the Bishops' Conference, in the work of the Woodstock Center and in America Magazine has clearly been outstanding.
This is true of so many of those who have stood at the helm of the great adventure which is America Magazine. During the days of the Second Vatican Council, the writers, the thinkers, the workers in the field of America were of great importance to our understanding of the processes of that remarkable gathering of the Church. Although there were moments when the final outcome of the documents were still uncertain, the thoughtful, careful and sometimes challenging documentation that was found in the pages of America were, I am sure, helpful beyond our shores and even at the Council itself. This is why America Magazine has been important to the church in our country and why our present Holy Father will speak of his appreciation of the contribution which America has made to the life of the church in our nation and will encourage the magazine "to persevere in its tradition of journalistic and literary excellence in the service of the Gospel and the fruitful dialogue of Christian faith and contemporary culture." His Holiness well understands that love for the Church has never been absent and that this thread has always led to the final garment being a credit to the Society of Jesus and to the Church itself.
It is perhaps described best in a letter which I received from Fr. Christiansen a couple of months ago. It was a thank you for accepting the challenge of preaching at this centennial celebration. I quote it: "For 100 years America has served as a forum for discussion of religion, politics and culture from a Catholic perspective. Some of the Church's great authors, scholars and public intellectuals have written for America. They have helped the Church connect to the world and the world understand the Church. The Ignatian tradition of `finding God in all things' and the promotion of justice continue to shape our commentary today."
This really says it all. These words summarize not only the thoughts of an editor-in-chief, but the foundational premise on which a great Catholic magazine must always rest. In the pages of America one will always find great prose and great poetry and great presentation to help us understand the currents and tides of human development today. There is probably no intellectual exercise that has ever been fostered by American learning that has not been presented, criticized and analyzed in the pages of America. The great challenges of our time -issues of immigration, of the ecology, of peace and war, of nuclear arsenals, of foreign policies under many administrations, all these have been richly treated in the words of this truly extraordinary publication. One need not always agree with all the thoughts expressed. But that is the role of a thoughtful journal! More than anything else, however, America is a challenge to the thinking Catholic and to the thinking man and woman of every religion, race, ethnic group or association. That, in a sense, is one of its great gifts. It comes to entertain, but more than that, it comes to educate and to be in our midst a constant nudge that brings us closer to the truth as we find our own way to it, guided in its pages by reason and by the gift of our faith.
But today we gather not so much to comment on America Magazine, but to give thanks for it. The Gospel reading is a great favorite because in it we see God's great goodness and the all too common response to His great favors, as the gratitude we owe for the ineffable gift of His grace so often falls short of what we know is due.
Let me tell you a .story which took place in an inner city parish in Washington several years ago. The scene was a Mass of Thanksgiving in one of our inner city schools. The youngsters had all gathered in the parish church where I was to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving the day before their Thanksgiving recess began. Many of the parents had been invited because there was going to be a little presentation to illustrate the Gospel teaching on that day. It was the same Gospel as the one we used at our Mass today, the Gospel of the healing of the ten lepers.
The specific ten lepers chosen for this presentations must have been from the fourth and fifth grades, at least that is what it seemed to me. They were all dressed in white robes with their heads covered by towels and sandals on their feet. Most of them were carrying hockey sticks to demonstrate how hard it was for them to walk because of their terrible infirmity. After the Gospel was read, the enactment was to begin. I stood in front of the altar, right by the altar rail, and they all came up, the ten of them and they looked at me and in unison said, "We want to be healed." I said, according to the script, and according to the Scriptures, "Go show yourselves to the priest and you will be healed." So they all traipsed off, hobbling along with exaggerated gestures, as fourth and fifth graders may tend to do, to the side aisle and then proceeded to the back of the church. Suddenly, there in the middle of the side aisle as they were approaching the center of the church, they all shouted, threw off their towels, threw down their sticks and cried out with one loud voice, "We are healed!"
According to plan, nine of them then joined their families for the rest of the liturgical celebration. One came back. This little fellow came back without his towel on his head and without his stick, walking proudly as a sign of his cure, and stood in front of me as the center of attention. Unfortunately, whatever his next lines had been, he forgot them completely, and so he stood there, looking at me and I looking at him. I would have helped him if I knew what his lines were but I had not the slightest idea of what Sister had prepared him to say. There was an awkward pause that became a very great moment of tension. The parents, I'm not sure which were his parents, all began to feel uncomfortable. The children began to giggle and he began to suffer with terrors of the doomed. Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable moment, he shouted out, "Thanks!" and not knowing at that point what my key should be, I said, "You're welcome" and the play ended.
We have heard the Gospel today and we know what happened in that extraordinary beautiful encounter, showing in a very special way the humanity of Christ as He feels disappointment concerning the other nine. But his heart must have been filled with gratitude at this one person who came back and even more that he was a stranger or foreigner. This man knew that God had worked a great wonder in his life and that he had to come back and say thank you. I think I never understood the parable better than that day when I saw it reenacted before me. It teaches us three things, I think. It shows the power of the word, the power of the moment and the power of an emotion.
The word is &lsquothanks.&rsquo How often does it appear in our lives? How often do we forget it or take it for granted? How often do we think of the accomplishments of 100 years of a great magazine and not say to God, to the Society of Jesus, and to a long series of brilliant dedicated men and women-thanks?  Thanks for this great service, thanks for this great opportunity to tell the truth with clarity and hopefully always with love. Thanks is a word whose power can move mountains and soften anger and create friendships that last forever. There is great power in the word &lsquothanks.&rsquo
There is also power in the moment has we saw when the whole congregation joined in sympathy and united in hope for this youngster as he stood before me. We all wanted him to succeed. We all wanted him to find the right word. We all wanted him to do what he had been prepared to do and to do it well. It is a wonderful moment 'when everyone is touched by a need, by a temporary weakness, by a difficulty that seems insurmountable. That moment should never be lost because it is the grace that can bring us all together, even as the appearance of the one leper in giving thanks to the Lord must have been a special moment in his own life and in the life of Jesus.
And then there is the power of an emotion. "It is an emotional Gospel. The lepers come despairing and hopeless and counting on Jesus as their last opportunity. Some are perhaps near death. Some are perhaps just beginning the long struggle with illness. For them, it is filled with emotion and it must have been with Jesus. He does not immediately say, "I will heal you." He prescribes carefully what they must do. He watches them go off now with hope, but not necessarily with total conviction. His emotions, when the one man returns, are certainly complex. He is grateful that this one healed  stranger finds the grace to say thank you, even as he is troubled by what is perhaps the premonition that so much of the world will even never think of saying thank you or fewer find the time to do it. A word, a moment, an emotion today, too, the word is thanks the moment is the completion of one hundred years of exceptional service, the emotion is gratitude for then and for now.
Moments of gratitude are moments touched by grace, and in a sense today is also that kind of a moment. As we look back on the century of America Magazine as it has touched the lives of so many, we are grateful for the good wishes of our Holy Father as he calls those who carry on the awesome responsibility of guiding this journal to a renewed commitment to those high intellectual and apostolic ideals which gave it birth, and we too thank God for all the labor and all the brilliance and all the love that has gone into it.
As we look back on 100 years of vital and fascinating service, we thank God that America Magazine has served our Church and our country with such devotion and skill. And so all of us become part of this great anniversary as we say God bless America in more senses now than one.