The Catholic University of America

Homily for the Law School Commencement Mass
Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.
University President
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 28, 2005

Our readings this morning begin with an appropriate sentiment for the occasion that we celebrate. The author of the Book of Sirach writes:

I thank the LORD and I praise him;
I bless the name of the LORD.
When I was young and innocent,
I sought wisdom openly in my prayer
… In the short time I paid heed,
I met with great instruction.
Since in this way I have profited,
I will give my teacher grateful praise.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we are, indeed, grateful to God today for we have sought and found wisdom at The Catholic University of America, we have "met with great instruction" at the Columbus School of Law and "have profited" in this way, and we do praise our teachers. But in this part of our celebration, at this particular moment, our ears are attuned to God's message as we prepare to put the "great instruction" we have received here into practice as lawyers.

I would like to turn your attention to the Gospel today from St. Mark. We find Jesus in Jerusalem, in the temple area, mixing with the religious and cultural leaders of his day. He had already had a rather unpleasant confrontation with the money changers by the time our Gospel story begins. The issue now is "authority."

Interesting word, interesting concept: "authority." It has been defined as "a power to influence or command thought, opinion or behavior." And, so, the leaders of Jesus' day are asking him where he received his power to influence the thinking and behavior of others. This is not a nice encounter nor is it one that happened by chance. The leaders have had their eyes on Jesus and what he was doing - he had just cured a blind man, Bartimaeus, and he had overturned the tables of those who had turned the temple into a marketplace. They had their ears fixed on his words and preaching. And now they had their chance to ask him, "Just who do you think you are? And how is it that you do what you do and say what you say?" On what "authority?"

In the Jewish world, authority must be based upon a prior authority. It is something "passed on from master to follower, rabbi to rabbi, ultimately reaching back to Moses" (F. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, p. 230), who received his authority from the author of all things. Yes, authority has an author. That is why the psalmist sings, as we did a few moments ago,

"Lord, you have the words of everlasting life." Your laws and decrees are perfect and trustworthy, rejoicing the heart and giving wisdom. Your ordinances are true, all of them just.

Jesus is doing and saying some strange things in strange ways, things that do not exactly or easily match up with rabbinic practice and teaching. He is acting like the author rather than simply one acting with authority. He is giving a hint about his identity. And when confronted about his "authority," Jesus answers their question with his own question. What about John the Baptist? Was his baptism from heaven or earth? They fell silent for they knew if they spoke the truth, it would look bad for them before God but if they denied the truth it would look bad for them before the crowd that had gathered. And so they did not answer. Nor did he. He did not have to. They knew.

What does this story have to do with us today, you might be asking yourself? Let me answer your question with a question. What does Jesus, what does your faith, what do your values and convictions have to do with what you are celebrating in commencement: your legal education and professional career? By what authority will you do these things and who gave you this authority?

Your education in the law and its ratification with admission to the bar will give you "authority," handed on as it has been to the generations before you. But that is too simple an answer. "Authority," yes; but what about its "Author?"

The law is a secular arena and there is in this country a cherished, although not entirely unambiguous, separation of church and state. But you studied this secular subject in a Catholic university, where authority is never separated from its Author. The terms that decorate our history - "in God we trust," "one nation under God," "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," "so help me God" - relate our system of justice and law to its ultimate author, to our Creator. Here, these phrases have meant something special, or they should. And, so, as custodians of the law, as its practitioners and interpreters, it is your responsibility not to impose your beliefs on the law or the law on your beliefs but, rather, to ensure that law and the justice it creates, that your authority is never too far distant from its Author. That's the stamp that we place upon your legal education. It is your responsibility as custodians of the law to remind those associated with you in its practice, that the cause of humanity is authentically served only if what you do is joined to conscience (John Paul II, Jan. 11, 1997). It is your responsibility as lawyers to ensure that the law you practice and the way your practice it will never cause you to lose your soul.

One of the strange and crazy things that Jesus reminded the Pharisees in the Gospel was, "The Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath." Remember that purpose the Author placed in authority and the law so that, like Jesus, it will not be necessary for you to tell anyone "by what authority" you do the things you do. You will not have to. They'll know.

Very Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.