Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Homily for Trinity Sunday, Newman College, University of Melbourne, 7 June 2020. Listen at https://soundcloud.com/frank-brennan-6/trinity-sunday-homily
It’s Trinity Sunday. Like most priests, my homily for this feast in the past has commenced with an upfront acknowledgment that the Trinity is a mystery followed by some minutes trying to explain the mystery or avoid it altogether.
Acknowledging the mystery, this year I thought I might consult two popes – Benedict XVI and Francis: Benedict because he is an academic theologian and Francis because he is so down to earth and pastoral.
Joseph Ratzinger wrote a lot of theology before he became pope. But as pope, Benedict needed to make his learning accessible to us mere mortals. The usual place to find such teaching is in the pope’s brief address to the crowd in the piazza prior to the Sunday Angelus.
On Trinity Sunday in 2005, Benedict said: ‘God is not solitude, but perfect communion. For this reason the human person, the image of God, realizes himself or herself in love, which is a sincere gift of self.’ The next year, he told the crowd: ‘For those who have faith, the entire universe speaks of the Triune God. From the spaces between the stars to microscopic particles, all that exists refers to a Being who communicates himself in the multiplicity and variety of elements, as in an immense symphony.’
In 2009, he became quite expansive, speaking longer than usual in the piazza. It must have been a beautiful spring day. He observed: ‘Three Persons who are one God because the Father is love, the Son is love, the Spirit is love. God is wholly and only love, the purest, infinite and eternal love. He does not live in splendid solitude but rather is an inexhaustible source of life that is ceaselessly given and communicated. To a certain extent we can perceive this by observing both the macro-universe: our earth, the planets, the stars, the galaxies; and the micro-universe: cells, atoms, elementary particles. The “name” of the Blessed Trinity is, in a certain sense, imprinted upon all things because all that exists, down to the last particle, is in relation; in this way we catch a glimpse of God as relationship and ultimately, Creator Love. All things derive from love, aspire to love and move impelled by love, though naturally with varying degrees of awareness and freedom.’ He concluded with this observation: ‘The strongest proof that we are made in the image of the Trinity is this: love alone makes us happy because we live in a relationship, and we live to love and to be loved. Borrowing an analogy from biology, we could say that imprinted upon his “genome”, the human being bears a profound mark of the Trinity, of God as Love.’
Reflecting on today’s reading from Exodus, Pope Francis said three years ago on Trinity Sunday: ‘Thus he says: “the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Ex 34:6). This name implies that God is not distant and closed within himself, but is Life which seeks to be communicated, is openness, is Love which redeems man of his infidelity. God is “merciful”, “gracious” and “rich in charity” because he offers himself to us so as to fill the gap of our limitations and our shortcomings, to forgive our mistakes, to lead us back to the path of justice and truth.’
Unlike the Jews and Muslims, the followers of the other Abrahamic faiths, we Christians imagine and put our faith in a God who is eternally in communion, in love – loving and being loved. Our God is not just completely ‘other’. Our God is also one of us. Our God is not only with us. Our God is in us. Our God is Father, Son and Spirit. Our God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Our God is Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer. Our God is not just the conductor of creation and life. Our God is the whole symphony of creation and life. Our God brings everything and everybody into relationship, into love. Our God is not standing outside creation and history as judge. Our God is immersed in creation and history, as participant, in communion with us through all the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the past, present and future.
Our God is with us as we witness the policeman’s knee on George Floyd’s neck as he pleads, ‘I can’t breathe’. Our God is with us as we witness the US president brandishing a bible in front of a boarded up church. Our God is with us as the local bishop of that church proclaims, ‘Let me be clear, the president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus …We align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others….We hold the teachings of our sacred texts to be so, so grounding to our lives and everything we do, and it is about love of neighbour and sacrificial love and justice.’
Our God is with us as the local Catholic bishop confronts the US President’s decision to go ahead the next day visiting the shrine of Pope John Paul II at a planned event proclaiming freedom of religion for all. Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said: ‘I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.’
I was at Boston College in 2014 when Eric Garner died at the hands of police uttering those now piercing words, ‘I can’t breathe’. This led to a statement by 456 Catholic theologians for police reform and racial justice. They wrote: ‘As Eric Garner’s dying words “I can’t breathe” are chanted in the streets, and as people of faith, we hear the echo of Jesus’ breathing on his disciples, telling them, “Peace be with you.” His spirit-filled breath gives his disciples, then and now, the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in a fragmented and violent world (https://catholicmoraltheology.com/statement-of-catholic-theologians-on-racial-justice/).’ In January 2015, I attended the US Society of Christian Ethics Conference in Chicago where one of the key authors of that statement, Fr Bryan N. Massingale, who describes himself as ‘a black man, a Catholic priest, and a professor of moral theology at a leading university in the United States’ spoke passionately, challenging the largely white audience of moral theologians.
Today, Massingale has published an article in the London Tablet saying, ‘To understand what is happening in the United States, I would ask you not to fixate on the videos of burning buildings, broken windows, and engulfed police cars. Listen instead to the grief, the anger, and the lament that too often goes unheard and unheeded. Hear the fury of being told too often and in too many ways, “You don’t belong”. And stand in solidarity with those of us who continue the slow, frustrating, painful, and even dangerous work of trying to make this country the beacon of justice that it professes to be.’
The learned Fr Massingale from Fordham University commenced this week’s article with one simple vignette: ‘I arrive at a suburban parish whose members are overwhelmingly white to celebrate Mass for a fellow priest who had suddenly taken sick. I ask the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He hesitates and asks, with suspicion, “Why do you want to know?” I explain the situation to him, thinking my visible Roman collar is already a complete explanation of why I am here. He interrogates me. “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” After explaining yet again who I am and why I am here, he responds, “Well, why didn’t he send us a real priest?”’
When confused and troubled about what to make of race relations in the USA, I, like many of you, often turn to Martin Luther King. In a speech at Stanford University on 14 April 1967 entitled The Other America, he said that ‘in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard’. Here is a fuller expression of what he said and meant:
‘Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots. Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. …But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. [O]ur nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.’
This Trinity Sunday, let’s thank God that our God, who is a mystery and always will be, is with us and is within us – creating, liberating and sustaining us, here in Australia as in the United States, gracing us with ‘the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in a fragmented and violent world’.
By Fr Frank Brennan SJ