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Text of Cardinal Gregory’s homily at Unity Mass for the African National Eucharistic Congress

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory gives his homily at the African National Eucharistic Congress Unity Mass that he celebrated on July 22, 2023 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann/The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

(The following is the text of Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s homily at the African National Eucharistic Congress Unity Mass that he celebrated on July 22, 2023 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.)

Summertime is a time for parables. Each one of the three Synoptic Gospel authors, in sequence, is allowed to take his turn in telling these stories of faith, stories of spiritual challenge, and stories of human intrigue that summon all of us to reflect in humble gratitude upon the sublime wisdom that Jesus continues to provide for all ages. Each one of us no doubt has his or her own favorite parable, but they all belong to all of us.

The parables of Jesus manage to range far and wide over farm fields and vineyards, into the world of botany, and regularly within the kitchen as well as on the high seas to find images that tempt the human heart to listen to and to learn about God’s perfect mercy as well as His faultless justice. The parables are the quintessential sacramental expressions of faith and wisdom intended to inform and form the hearts of believers in the ways of charity and justice.

Jesus’s parables introduce us to kings, vine-dressers and merchants, dishonest servants and humble publicans – they are all rich in imagery that is intended to help the heart to hear and to understand and most importantly to believe that God’s reign is worth everything – as we search through these pearls of inestimable value.

The reign of God ultimately will be that place and that time where justice will be perfect.

Welcome, my dear brothers and sisters to the Archdiocese of Washington for our fourth African National Eucharistic Congress during the parable season this year to listen once again to some parables and to learn from one another in your pursuit of God’s reign. In my name and in the name of the Church in Washington, I welcome all of you to this congress that is dedicated to rejoicing in increasing the reverence for the Church’s great treasure of the Eucharist. It is my fondest prayer and hope that you will find new and life-giving ways to invite and to inspire others in your own local communities to hear and to respond to the demands of Gospel justice that is so often the very point and the ultimate purpose of Jesus’s parables. This Eucharistic congress is an important link to the Eucharistic Revival initiative of Catholics throughout the United States. Your deep faith and wondrous cultural traditions honor and inspire us as we share that one Bread that unites us in Him.

Today’s Gospel brings us back to the fields and once again into the kitchen where we rediscover images of seeds and of yeast. Both of these images entice us to see and to understand that great things can be and are often accomplished in spite of very humble beginnings. Tiny mustard seeds become trees that eventually shelter and provide homes for the birds of the air. A small amount of yeast can transform a great mass of dough. And the careful farmer knows that patience is the price that one must pay in order to bring to fulfillment a bountiful harvest. Farmers know that the good seed that is sown is often contaminated with weeds – only at harvest time can they successfully separate the wheat from the chaff – and the valuable from the worthless.

The parables just proclaimed along with all of the others we have heard often before have inspired and challenged the hearts of believers since they come from the words of Jesus in order to help us to see into the mystery of God’s reign and how we are to live in anticipation of the fulfillment of that reign. Certainly, the pursuit of justice is an unavoidable consequence of the announcement of God’s reign. No one who truly listens to the parables of Jesus and then shares in that Banquet of Life which is the Eucharist can fail to take to heart the mission of justice that flows from God’s Word and the Sacrificial Meal that we share at Mass. That quest to honor the Lord in His Eucharistic Presence of course is what brought you to Washington at this time.

Those of you who are assembled here for this congress know full-well the challenges that we now face in many different nations throughout the world to understand and honor Church’s cherished gift of the Eucharist. I am thankful that you have once again chosen Washington as the location for your gathering. 

This city and archdiocese have a rich legacy of welcoming people from throughout the world and an important history of social justice as the civil rights movement of the last generation often turned to Washington as the locus of important national decisions. The scriptures themselves provided a leitmotif for the civil rights movement and so many of the images that are associated with the movement came from the very writings of the sacred authors.

The parables of Jesus continue to inspire and to shape us to reverence His enduring presence in the life of the Church. 

You have come to the Archdiocese of Washington at this time of year to honor the Eucharistic Lord which in turn will help you to learn how to advocate for those people living on the margins of society more effectively, collaboratively and even perhaps more courageously. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist today must also include a care and a concern for the natural world that we inhabit – an issue that might not have been viewed as vital or a part of the Church’s Eucharistic devotions only a generation ago – yet it has become increasingly important within our own time. The nations of the great lands of Africa hold vast natural riches which must be preserved. We are summoned to see the environment as a common treasure and a joint inheritance that we must protect for those generations that will follow us. Our concern for the Earth fits the parable paradigm quite appropriately since so many of Jesus’s parables begin with the things of nature and presume that there will be seeds and fields, plants and vineyards that are capable of producing a harvest tomorrow – whether ten-fold, or thirty-fold, or even a hundred-fold.

Because you are not mere social workers or secular environmentalists, but people of deep faith, we routinely begin our responsibilities by listening to the words of Scripture and then sharing in the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. We go about our service to the poor and the neglected based upon our acceptance of Christ’s commandments and then we are nurtured by His own Body and Blood – using those gifts of the earth which have become the sacramental food of everlasting life.  The important American liturgist Godfrey Dickman once said, “What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don't?”

Summer is a season for parables, but the work of unity, justice and peace that they inspire must continue throughout the year – and through the Eucharist that we share, we pledge ourselves to that task each day of our lives. God bless your congress efforts these days to highlight the central importance of the Eucharist and your work always and everywhere in behalf of His kingdom. Amen.