Homily given by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., during the Diocese of Trenton’s Mass for Law Enforcement (Blue Mass), March 19, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."
How often have we heard those words introduce one of the longest-running and most widely-watched crime shows in television history, “Law and Order.” Speaking for myself, the show and its various spin-offs are, without a doubt, my favorite entertainment. I think I have seen virtually every episode in the show’s twenty year run. You know the format. Police confront a crime and apprehend the criminal in the first half hour and the district attorney’s office takes the case to court in the second thirty-minutes. It’s all very neat and the most vexing crimes are resolved and put to bed in an hour.
Wouldn’t it be great if crime solving was all that clean and easy? I’ve watched the show with police officers and with lawyers --- the “two separate yet equally important groups” --- and their reaction is almost always the same: that’s not real, that would never happen that way. Law and order take a lot more effort, a lot more sacrifice … and no one knows that better than you who are gathered here today in this Cathedral.
The hundreds of women and men who “serve and protect” us in the police uniform throughout New Jersey, from Mercer County to Burlington and Monmouth and Ocean Counties, on city streets and interstate highways, in institutions and in residential communities throughout the Garden State and along the Jersey shore --- you could stand up today, and like the lead-in to the TV show, you could say: “These are their stories but, rather, these are OUR stories.” The difference would be your stories ARE real, your stories DO happen. But there are rarely cameras that show what you do, day in and day out, or that depict your bravery and courage in public service and public safety.
Absent those cameras, today --- this Blue Mass --- is our annual opportunity to recognize you, to thank you, to lift you up to God in prayer, regardless of your particular religious beliefs, to raise you up and ask Almighty God to watch over you, to care for you, to protect you, the way a father watches over and cares for and protects his children --- the way St. Joseph, whose feast we celebrate today in the Catholic Church, watched over, cared for and protected Jesus and his Mother, Mary.
Our scripture readings today speak of fatherhood, the parenting of nations and kingdoms; the covenant involved in such relationships and progeny; the righteousness that grounds the promise made and obedience to its law in faith --- believing, hoping against hope, that God’s promise and his word would be fulfilled. St. Joseph embodied all of that. J
ust think of the Gospel from St. Matthew that we heard moments ago --- this just man, this good man Joseph took a pregnant Mary into his care and loved and protected her and her child, God’s child, as though he was his very own. He was a father to him and a husband to her: faithful, loving and true.
Joseph’s love for Mary and Jesus is a symbol of God the Father’s love for us all and so, in the Catholic Church, we call him the “universal patron” of the Church. We ask his intercession today the way any child would approach his/her father: with confidence in his protection and care. We do not hear or read too much about St. Joseph in the Gospels or even Mary for that matter. And yet we encounter Jesus the Lord Christ whom the Father entrusted to Joseph as a child and as he grew.
In his homily earlier this morning, our new Holy Father Pope Francis asked
How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. … Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly.
This homily, these passages from scripture that we have heard and the feast of St. Joseph that we celebrate today set a tone as they help create a spiritual context for your stories: for who you are, what you do and, critically important, how you do it. In St. Joseph, we have a model of how “to protect and serve.”
I am certain that there are days, like St. Joseph experienced in the Gospel today, when what you deal with and see makes absolutely no sense, when it may even lead you to question God. Yet we who are believers see with different eyes the mysterious hand of God, the Father, without whom life in this world could never make any sense at all. We need to believe and have faith that God our Creator never leaves our side. And faith, above all, brings us peace so that we need not be troubled or afraid.
And God speaks other words to us as policemen, as public servants: words like duty and honor, words like integrity and service would be difficult for us to believe in and to understand if you did not walk among us, if the Lord did not walk among and with you who “protect and serve.” And today we are here to celebrate “our stories” and to pray with you and for you, that Jesus who “came to serve and not to be served” and his foster-father St. Joseph might protect you who serve us.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton