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‘Character matters!’ – The text of Cardinal Gregory’s homily at annual Mass honoring Dr. King

(The following is the text of the homily by Cardinal Wilton Gregory at the annual Mass sponsored by The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington honoring the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was held Jan. 13, 2024 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Washington, D.C.)

Just a few short weeks ago, Catholics the world over celebrated the Christmas Feast of the Holy Innocents – those unnamed and countless toddlers who were killed in order for Herod to make sure that the Child Jesus would never reach maturity. We consequently have no idea of the number or the names of those little ones that we today honor as the martyred saints whom the Church now calls the Holy Innocents. 

Nonetheless we do know the names and the number of the innocent children who were brutally murdered as a defining part of the Civil Rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair were the victims of indiscriminate hatred on Sunday morning September 15, 1963.

Those four young girls were then at a very tender age when their lives were taken in a horrendous act of bloodshed. The nation had already heard of and been stunned by the news of the assassination of many other adult victims of racial hatred and violence including that of Medgar Evers earlier that same year. But there is something transfixing about the violent death of a child. Our hearts still ache at the memory of the vicious deaths of the little ones from Newtown, Connecticut; Uvalde, Texas; Parkland High School, in Florida and in far too many other places in our nation from the more recent past. The death of children anywhere ought to stun us all. We have grown too accustomed to the frequent acts of horror that shut down schools and public places because a deranged individual has attacked a community location once thought to be safe and secure. And the sheer number of aborted babies worldwide is just staggering.

Sixty years ago, those four youngsters’ brutal deaths were a powerful force that compelled the U.S. Congress finally to take legislative action that led to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. In that sense their murder was a sacrificial offering that advanced justice for all of us. Today those youngsters would now be in their 70s. Most likely they would have become wives and mothers and today might well be grandmothers. Their deaths brought such thoughts to a premature end.

As we observed Dr. King’s annual memorial this year, we pause once again to recall his always riveting words of a dream that must challenge us all to examine the content of our own characters. That famous reference was never intended to be simply a hope, or even a fantasy, or just a suggestion – it was a challenge for all of us no matter what our race, age, or ethnic heritage. Our personal character all need development and constant attention. Our character is the very gatehouse of the virtues that we must pursue. Our character is the foundation of our integrity.

Dr. King admonished all Americans to long for the day when each one of us would be judged not by our skin color, not by the land of our origin, not by our age or gender, not by our first spoken language, or political opinion or IQ or any other defining attribute, but ultimately only by our character and our human integrity.

Those four young girls never had the opportunity to bring their character to full flower, but the memory of their premature deaths encourage all of us to develop our own character according to the highest principles of our nation and our religious heritage. It is not enough for us to simply pause today and recall the tragic loss of four young lives. We are all prodded to take up Dr. King’s admonition and warning that we live lives of integrity that are capable of withstanding the withering scrutiny of public examination – as well as the even more perfect summons of God Himself who as the first reading reminds us calls each of us incessantly.

The ultimate goal of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was to establish a society of justice wherein people would be judged by the only criteria that ever truly matters, the state of heart and soul of a person and not by mere appearance. Dr. King himself paid the ultimate price of real leadership, as have countless others not only in the Civil Rights Movement but also in all of those struggles that have been waged for human dignity everywhere. 

Only a few short weeks ago, people throughout our nation, paused to honor the great legacy of Rosalynn Carter who had elevated the office of First Lady to new heights through her championing of the mental health needs of our citizens and other social programs.

Dr. King Himself was certainly a disciple of the Lord like those first called to follow Him from today’s passage from John’s gospel.

The meaning of that unforgettable phrase: the content of their character is a continuing path that we must all follow – from the very young to those who are advanced in years. As we honor Dr. King during these next few days, we reflect in gratitude on all those who have given true light and significance to those words, and today we must recommit ourselves to living lives of harmony, integrity, compassion and charity so that our own character might serve to inspire another generation of Americans no matter what their age or background. For, in truth, it was the good examples of others who have brought us this far by faith.