The Scalia Invitation

The Scalia Invitation {
Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool
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The funeral Mass for Antonin Scalia was an extraordinary moment in the life of this country.

That Justice Scalia's requiem was offered by his son captured the imagination of many. Fr. Paul Scalia was the instrument of grace in the way few priests will be in the context of a single liturgy. He preached a masterpiece of a sermon, perhaps the best in form and content that most people will ever hear, and to which many people have been drawn. 

While observing the reaction to Fr. Scalia's sermon, I am reminded of an encounter between King Herod and St. John the Baptist. "When Herod heard John the Baptist, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly" (Mk 6:20). Thus does St. Mark unveil the heart of King Herod, whom no one ranks among the heroes of the Gospel story. Herod was committing adultery with his brother's wife, and St. John the Baptist urged him to repent and change his life. Was John admonishing Herod? Yes, but much more was John pleading with Herod to stop sabotaging the authentic desires of his own heart for truth and goodness.

The saint spoke with an evident charity for the sinner, and the sinner was, as a result and even in spite of himself, drawn to the saint. Why? Because Herod's heart, like every human heart, was not made for selfishness -- it was made for self-forgetfulness and self-giving. Herod recognized the truth of John's message, and was drawn to it. Tragically, Herod had substituted pleasure and passing satisfaction for something much deeper and richer: the fulfillment and joy of a virtuous life. But for at least the instant St. Mark records, Herod recognized this himself.

Though Herod is not a hero to Christians, he is a figure of every human heart in some measure -- including every person who watched or participated in the funeral Mass of Antonin Scalia and was stirred by his son's sermon. To the degree our hearts do not belong to Christ, we feel the same tension St. Mark describes in Herod. We can recognize the truth, because we are made in the image and likeness of the one who is truth. We desire the peaceful and lasting contentment that only truth brings -- in that sense, we hear that truth "gladly" -- but we may remain "perplexed" if we have not yet found the humility and courage we need to respond to truth's invitation to a change of heart.

The line most quoted from Vatican II further explains why only Jesus fulfills every heart's desire for lasting joy and peace. "Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Only Jesus Christ can tell us who we are and for what -- or better, for whom -- we are made. Only Jesus Christ can show us how to live. And only Jesus Christ can give us the means to live that way, and so find the path to joy.

Through the voice of Justice Clarence Thomas, in the second reading for Justice Scalia's funeral Mass, St. Paul said, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom 5:5). For Christians, truth is not something sterile, or something notional or subjective, or something detached from the practical realities of daily life. Truth guides and shapes the heart so that it will love generously and sacrificially. Truth protects us from selfishness -- from what Christians call "sin" -- or said another way, from acting against the proper desires of our hearts. Sin is always a self-inflicted wound that damages the human heart and its relationship with God and with those created by him and for him.

To neglect or set aside the truth of our identity as children of our Father in heaven -- as Herod was doing -- leads to a self-defeating search for happiness, by leaving us at the mercy of our appetites and passions, and so spoiling our relationships. This is the road to emptiness. Only the love of God ennobles and fulfills the human heart.

The reverence and beauty of Justice Scalia's funeral Mass and the magnificent preaching of his son invite each of us to look beyond ourselves for what we know -- if only in passing moments -- we lack and we want. To not lose the grace of such moments, we must ask ourselves why we have been drawn to Fr. Scalia's sermon. There is more at work here than sentimentality. The strength of the homily was that it kept at the center Jesus Christ, who is the answer -- and the only answer -- to the longing of every human heart. As Father told us, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb 13:8).

Following the model of St. John the Baptist, Fr. Scalia urged us not to leave the funeral Mass of his father unchanged. We have received truth's invitation for a conversion of heart. Now the choice is ours.

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