The following homily was delivered Sept. 7 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archhbishop of Washington.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). This admonition from Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is what brings us to this basilica today. Jesus told us to pray with an unshakeable confidence born of faith.
We learn from the Gospels to pray with perseverance, sincerity and total confidence: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7)
We come together this afternoon for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East and in every other land. This we do in response to a call from our Holy Father, Pope Francis, that we join him and people of faith throughout the world in petitioning God for the grace to change hearts, so that we might truly rejoice in the blessings of peace and justice. He reminds us that peace is a precious gift that needs to be promoted and protected.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has reaffirmed the Holy Father’s call for leaders in Syria and the “international community” to make clear proposals for peace … a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people” (Pope Francis, Sunday Angelus, Sept. 1, 2013).
As an expression of solidarity with all the victims who suffer, especially the children, particularly in Syria, but throughout the Middle East, we raise our voices in supplication for peace and reconciliation.
You may wonder what difference our small acts of prayer and fasting will make in the face of such great suffering of so many people. How might our prayer affect world events? When Jesus offered his disciples the instruction on prayer to the Father, he revealed to them the generosity of his love. “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-15).
We can come to the altar today in the confidence born of the pledge that the Holy Spirit would fill our hearts, so that when we cry out, “Lord, Lord,” we will be heard. Our voices are not unknown to God. As his adopted children who cry out in the very power of his Spirit, he hears us, knows us and is prepared to answer us. It is for this reason that we have such confidence. No prayer is ever lost as it makes its way to the throne of God.
But there is more than just our confidence in the power of prayer that summons us today. We respond in solidarity with our Holy Father, Pope Francis. Mindful that Jesus himself told us, “Where two or three are gathered, I am with them,” the Pope calls us to join him and the tens of thousands who are gathering at this very hour in Rome at St. Peter’s Square. In churches, great and small, in cathedrals, basilicas and chapels around the world, Catholics and our neighbors are coming together in twos, and threes, and hundreds and thousands, so that Jesus will be with us as we lift up our voices in prayer.
In uniting our prayer with that of our brothers and sisters throughout the Catholic world, our prayer truly becomes universal and a sign of hope for the world. The Holy Father explains that “humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!”
Today we pray for those who are a part of our human family and who endure terrible acts of violence. We also invoke God’s blessings on those who strive to contain violence around the world. We ask God to give all of us the strength to walk in the light of God’s love and that we might be agents of human solidarity, justice and true peace.
It is particularly appropriate and urgent that the Church, as a voice of conscience in our nation and a moral force in civil society, should call us to pray. As the guardian of the truth of the Gospel and as a victim of much violence and persecution herself, the Church brings a unique testimony to the present circumstances.
The Church always calls us to prayer. Particularly in moments of crisis, we turn to prayer. It is what we do best, because it is what Jesus asks us to do. I can remember almost to the day, 12 years ago, gathering with my brother bishops in this very basilica to seek the comfort and guidance of God’s presence and wisdom.
On Sept. 11, 2001, in the course of one of our annual bishops’ meetings, we heard the news of the attack on our nation here in Washington, in New York and in Shanksville, Pa. The meeting was adjourned, and we did what the Church does in such moments: We prayed. We walked from the conference building to this Basilica of the National Shrine, where we offered the greatest prayer of the Church, the Mass. We were not alone. The basilica was filled. We all needed to pray with one another, with one voice to God. We did then what we have come to the basilica once again to do. We place our trust in God, and we pray for peace.
Once again, we hear Jesus saying to us, “Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened for you.” This time we ask on behalf of those who suffer so mightily in the Middle East. We seek for them and for ourselves peace. We knock at the doors of human hearts all over the world, but particularly in Syria and the Middle East, asking that God open them with the power of his love, so that those hearts might be changed – so that the world might be changed.
In calling for this day of prayer and fasting for peace, Pope Francis has urged that we take the path that offers the only real solution that puts an end to the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom. “With all my strength,” he said, “I ask each party in this conflict to listen to the voice of their own conscience, not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but, rather, to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict.”
In particular, he continued, “may no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.” We must strive to make these words our own.
In the Responsorial Psalm today, we hear, “God is my helper; the Lord sustains my life.” We must never allow the violence that exists in the world to wound our inner conviction that Christ is “the way, the truth and the life.” The path he sets before us, to be peacemakers and to hunger and thirst for holiness, justice, mercy, is his way.
What the Lord tells us is that we have the power within us to make this world a better place. Our actions, while individual and seemingly small, play a part in the great cosmic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between peace and war, between violence and harmony, between hatred and love. Jesus tells us that victory begins first in each human heart. The Church is not unrealistic – proclaiming peace, kindness, compassion and love as if we are all unaware that there is division, violence, conflict and even hatred.
Men and women of faith, as they have from the beginning, serve our country by protecting our great land. Our prayers must include words of gratitude for those who serve our nation both here and abroad. Their service is born of necessity. Their bravery is their gift.
What the Church proclaims is the message of Jesus that each one of us can do our part to make the world just a little bit better. Through God’s grace and our prayers, hearts can be changed. If enough hearts are changed, the world can change. What is needed is to change hearts. Hearts are changed with love.
Jesus sets before us a world of peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for holiness, justice, mercy, compassion and righteousness. To the extent that each one of us participates in that effort, there is just a little bit more light, peace, harmony and love in the world. Our prayer for peace is now and will always be our most effective means.
Today is the vigil of the Nativity of Mary, whom we venerate as the Queen of Peace. With our Holy Father, Pope Francis, “Let us ask Mary to help us to respond to violence, to conflict and to war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation and love. She is our mother: May she help us to find peace; all of us are her children! Help us, Mary, to overcome this most difficult moment and to dedicate ourselves each day to building in every situation an authentic culture of encounter and peace. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!”