These have been changing times, and the demands for change are incessant — whether it’s about birth control, divorce, the celibacy of priests, or the role of women. These issues must be examined intellectually and spiritually.
Our Church wants to be responsive, and we want to remain current with the times. On the other hand, there are certain principles which simply cannot be subject to constant change and reinterpretation.
Coupled with all of these considerations, we’ve come through some very rough sledding — with revelations of wrongdoing and charges of severe impropriety by some clergy. Information about these events has left us exposed, and opened us to criticism from the media who seem to delight in tearing the Church asunder. This has profound significance not only for our beloved Church, but for all Catholics and especially the Knights and Dames of Malta.
I would like to believe there is an awareness, growing among us, that the responsibility to carry the torch for our Church rests with each of us. We must take our vows to serve the sick and the poor as a personal commitment. At the same time, on those most divisive, controversial, and searing issues of our day, we must be soldiers of Christ — and be willing to stand up and speak out against what is morally wrong, even when it’s a popular point of view. Oftentimes, when we bring up certain subjects that are deemed sensitive or might be considered controversial, or make people feel uneasy, we risk raising walls of fear and discord.
The younger generation has its own way of describing this. They say some subjects just aren’t “cool.” Sadly, in society’s eyes, they’re right. Just try mentioning God, our Lord Jesus, or the Blessed Mother in so-called polite conversation, and you may notice people becoming a little nervous. Then, if you really want to cause a stir, the next time you’re at a dinner party you can stop all conversation, immediately, by simply uttering one word — abortion. Recently I chaired the first annual Pro-Life Athletes dinner in New York. At our first meeting, I remember being surprised to see how many people were nervous and apprehensive about giving a dinner in support of a cause that is really anathema to the “politically correct” crowd. The discussion raised many questions: What if there are demonstrations? What if there is picketing of a pro-life dinner? What should we do about that? And what about the publicity?
All that rubbed me the wrong way. So I asked a question: Why should we apologize for what is right? I believe abortion is one of the most important issues of our time — and I believe we are going to find that we have many more supporters than we ever dreamed we had. Indeed, our dinner sold out in two weeks, and 390 people filled the room to capacity — athletes, business leaders, politicians, and entertainers. It was a warm and wonderful affair. They were magnificent people — people like Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Coach Dan Reeves, Frank Gifford who was our master of ceremonies, and his wife, Kathy Lee. And the words spoken were magnificent — that abortion is not just a tragedy for each unborn child, it’s a tragedy for all America.
Every year for 20 years, abortion has deprived 1.5 million boys and girls of their right to life. And when America denies the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to some of its citizens, it sacrifices the strength and power and beauty of the American Dream for all its people. Abortion deprives us of our teachers, doctors, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow — and future stars of our sports world who might follow in the footsteps of an L.T., Phil Simms, or Joe Montana. If those athletes were willing to stand and be counted, how can we, the so-called leaders of our Church, as Knights and Dames, remain mute before this great issue of our day? The answer is, we cannot. I realize that the “politically correct” are pro-choice. The leaders of groups like Planned Parenthood talk about the need to eliminate unwanted pregnancies, and about the need for population controls from our inner cities to the farthest corners of the globe. They say the world is “over-populated,” and that we’re running out of space and resources. So our polite society thinks the solution is to dispose of unborn children. And so we kill them.
Not long ago, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Clinton sat only a few feet from Mother Teresa. Her head was barely visible over the lectern when she said, “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.”
And, as it was reported, the room stood and cheered, while a visibly uncomfortable president sipped his water and whispered to a stone-faced first lady.
Mother Teresa stands barely half as tall as many people in this room. But as for her moral courage, she stands head and shoulders above most of the political leaders in Washington, D.C., and for that matter, in all the free-world countries combined.
And if she were here, I think she might ask, Why don’t we solve the problems, rather than kill the children?
When two million parents are literally standing in line in hopes of finding a baby to adopt, why don’t we make it easier to adopt — rather than abort — a baby in America today? I have three adopted grandchildren. Everyday I think of them, and think how lucky I am — and how lucky they are to be able to grow up, and not be among those 1.5 million children who will never enjoy their right — their right — to life.
There are so many things we can do. We are the greatest, most prosperous, and freest country in the history of the world. There are no limits to our ability to produce. We have the wherewithal to solve our problems. The real question is do we have the will?
And so, let us not fret too much about offending people who are defending the morally indefensible. No one disputes that abortion is justified when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. That is the position of the Catholic Church. But neither can anyone defend 1.5 million abortions a year — 30 million young men and women deprived of their lives in the last 20 years. We must not shy from speaking the truth, or from speaking what we feel most deeply in our hearts. Someone once said that, scarce as truth is, the supply will always be in excess of the demand. That is why the greatest homage we can pay the truth is to use it. I want to speak the truth, to see the walls come tumbling down, and to talk about what I believe are our responsibilities as members of the Catholic Church. Above all, I want to talk about life — about the importance of our days on earth, for although we are but a speck in the sands of time, every speck is important in the eyes of God.
Our Lord once said that a just man sins 70 times 7 each day. Well, the Good Lord gave me a keen mind for numbers, and I’m convinced He did that, because, with His perfect foresight, He knew I would be sinning in such multiples that I would need a superior ability to figure out and keep track of the total. So my story isn’t about Saint Bill on the road to Damascus. Rather, it’s about a series of experiences — moments of truth, if you will — that caused me to look more closely at my own life, and to begin to seek that higher, better path as a more truly committed Christian, Catholic, and Knight of Malta.
During my association with the Knights, I’ve seen this order change a great deal. We just took in our largest incoming class in history, and we have formed a foundation to increase our activity and assistance. We’re moving away from our former emphasis on social activities, to recommit ourselves to the abiding truths of our mission — the spirit of generosity and sacrifice which characterizes our members, and those ancient, revered tenets which have faithfully guided the Knights since their inception nearly 900 years ago.
The first principle is the principle of noblesse oblige. It’s described by Webster’s as the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth. But, for the Order of Malta, noblesse oblige also carries a spiritual dimension, because the privileges with which we’ve been blessed are accompanied by great responsibilities which require us to share our blessings, physically and materially, with our brethren, beginning with the sick and the poor.
The second principle is the principle of chivalry. By chivalry, I don’t just mean the genteel, public courtesies shown to women and elders which mark you as a well-mannered person. No, I’m talking about our commitment to attend to the welfare and needs of anyone whose path we cross in life. Chivalry, for us, is seeking out those who need material and spiritual help, and providing whatever we can to better their condition — for example, as Hospitallers ministering to the sick and the poor. That is our mission.
The third principle is the principle of aristocracy. According to our charter, we are the aristocrats of our Church. Well, I’ve always had trouble with that idea, and I guess so would most Catholics. The word aristocrat is often used in a pejorative way to describe a haughty person. But Thomas Jefferson noted the true meaning of the word some 180 years ago in a letter that he wrote to John Adams. Jefferson said, “I agree with you Adams that there is a natural aristocracy among men. And, the grounds of this are virtue and talents.” That is the kind of aristocrat that you and I are called to be — champions and soldiers and noble men and women, living the guiding principles that God gave us through His beloved Son. But we are also meant to live these principles in a quiet and humble way — remembering the Lord’s admonition not to draw attention to ourselves when we help the least of our brethren.
Taken together, these principles embody a very special commission that we all are given as Knights and Dames and auxiliary members of the Order of Malta. This commission should be more than a uniform, or a tax-deductible check in support of worthy programs. It really means, most importantly, heeding that inner voice that calls on you to give by giving of yourself — your time and energy, and your heart and spirit. There are many paths to fulfilling this commission. We’ve heard of the wonderful programs conducted by our members and their families through the auxiliary — including the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Center in New York, the Chapin Street Health Center in South Bend, the Shelter in St. Louis for the Homeless and Infirm, the midnight runs of food and clothing for the people in the streets of our cities, and the healing hand of Bob Macauley’s Americares which touches not only our own country but every other country where tragedy and despair strike.
I wish I could say my own embrace of all these principles was quick, clean, and complete. Alas, it was not in a sudden flash or a dream, but gradually, over a period of time, that I came to see I was not ready to stand before God in judgment. I came to see that I’d been too busy worrying about my needs to worry about His and to finish the work He entrusted to me. But I’ve also lived long enough to know that God sends angels to watch over us — especially for the times in our lives when we are walking in the wilderness.
This is what we are talking about as responsibilities of the Knights and Dames of Malta. For me, they’ve been my wife, Carol, and my children, noble people like Cardinal O’Connor, Monsignor Tom Hartman, Father Maury Chase in Los Angeles, and Father Bruce Ritter from Covenant House. And, as I look back, I can also point to three experiences in particular that began changing the course of my life and steering me toward the right path as a Knight. The immediate impact of each caught me by surprise, and each brought a light of revelation — a small spark that eventually grew into a flame, and whose warmth and fire continue to stay with me still.
My first experience came when, thanks to Peter Grace, I became involved with the Covenant House. Through my years working the chow line and spending Christmases at Covenant House, as well as many other days during the year, with my wife, Carol, and several of our children, I learned many a valuable lesson and hard truth about a world I had seen little of before. I learned that there are countless youths in our cities who have never known love and do not know how to accept it.
The Kingdom of God did not exist for them — until they walked through the doors of Covenant House. For many, this was the beginning of a spiritual discovery and the first real knowledge of love — by feeling God’s love for them, and coming to see what productive people they could become.
My second revelation came during my first pilgrimage to Lourdes. Lourdes changed my life dramatically and permanently. Lourdes was an indescribable experience that opened my eyes and enriched my spirit and soul in ways I am still discovering. I have had the privilege of taking most of my family there, and, God willing, I will return every year. For all who have not gone, I can only tell you that the Spirit of God and the nurturing spirit of the Blessed Mother and Our Lord truly live in the streets of that beautiful and remarkable place. I remember telling my son, Billy, after our first Mass in the underground cathedral, “That is the closest I’ve ever felt to heaven on earth.” I have had the good fortune to share this experience with many of my family and some close friends. We have seen how powerful thousands of voices raised in hymn and prayer together can be. We have seen the miracle that faith can be in our lives. We have been uplifted by the sight of the malades that fill the grotto and the baths every day in the hope that they, too, will be touched by the healing hand of God. And, we have all heard the stories about how the blind can see, the deaf can hear, and the lame can walk. But there are millions more, of whom I am but one, who discover that the real miracle of Lourdes is the miracle that happens within.
My third revelation I have Cissie Ix to thank for. Cissie had mentioned during our pilgrimage to Lourdes that she has for many years been a eucharistic minister at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan. This has been a ministry that Cissie Ix and the Dames have taken on themselves, much to their credit. And, I would urge all my fellow Knights to make the commitment to do this at a hospital near your home.
My ministry began after my return from France last spring. Cissie put me in touch with the chaplain of Sloan Kettering, and I have been a eucharistic minister there, and at Morristown Memorial Hospital, close to our home in New Jersey. I spend time with people who are on the doorstep of death. I try to comfort them, I try to console them. I try to let them know a friend is by their side. And I pray to our Lord that He will manifest His love to them through me — whether through my touch, words, or smile. I want them to feel that special peace that is beyond all understanding — the peace from knowing that, where they are going there is something infinitely better than the pain and grief in this troubled world they leave behind.
When that peace comes, it comes from talking to them. They want to be talked to, and they want to be listened to. They want to visit. Some are sad. They all wish to pray. I also have my holy water from Lourdes with me, and they are, without exception, overjoyed, and many cry as I pour water on their bodies. And, of course, I offer them the Holy Eucharist — the Body of Christ. And this is an experience I have great difficulty describing, because it goes back to my youth, and my years as an altar boy, when we were admonished never to touch the Host — because that joy and privilege were reserved for, and only for, ordained priests. And I’ve always thought of that, watching the priest during the consecration as he held the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. So, you can imagine the joy one experiences, when today you are able to give the Eucharist as a layman.
I cannot tell you how many times I have come away from my visits in these hospitals wondering if I have given the sick and infirm half of what I have taken away from them. So I am doing you a favor by asking you to do this. You will be thrilled when you see how many people in crisis reach out to God through the sacraments and are awed by the strength the spirit gains even while the body weakens. The peace that these people — young and old — find in prayer and communion is more healing than all the medicines our world can provide. I am humbled by the faith that they demonstrate, and I feel deeply grateful for the challenges these people have given me in defining my own faith.
Each of us must find our own way to honor God, and find that path he has set for us. But, we are certainly meant to be more than just the socially and financially elite among Catholics, as so many mistakenly perceive us to be. We have been given the opportunity, as Knights and Dames, to serve. This is our responsibility. This is our duty. And whether you choose to practice the Eucharistic ministry or other avenues that are open to you to help the least of our brethren, your reward will far exceed the simple words I’ve said today.
We are called to be activists — even though we may sometimes make waves and upset the timid in our midst. And, if serving and standing for our Lord causes you some discomfort, why not think for a moment about this and compare it to the discomfort He felt when he suffered and died for our sins. So, we cannot equivocate. We must be among the Church leaders, standing steadfast for the enduring principles of our Church, as servants of God and through Him as servants of the poor, tending to them with our time, our hands, and our hearts.
At a time when so many are like weather vanes, swinging back and forth with every change of the wind, we can offer a compass — a compass that is tried and true, and a compass that is steady as can be. It is the compass of God’s principles — and His principles never fail us if we do not fail to live up to them. That compass is the very compass Jesus used when He followed His path nearly 2000 years ago. It is a path often shunned by society. It is a path often shunned by the politically correct. But it is the right path — and the one sure path that can bring us closer to Him, and to His will for us, His children.
As Knights and Dames, every time we can minister to a sick and lonely person, every time we can strike a blow against poverty, every time we can bring opportunity into someone’s life, and every time we can stand unflinching for God and His Son, we are raising higher our Lord’s banner on the battlefield of life. The stronger our commitment, the faster the walls of doubt and despair, and sickness and hopelessness will begin to come down. I cannot imagine any greater victory we could win for our Lord.