The following homily was delivered by Fr. Neuhaus at the annual Memorial Mass of the Military Vicariate at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on the Feast of the Ascension, 2007.
The Scripture texts just read are for this day, the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. And they could hardly be more fitting also for this Memorial Mass of the Archdiocese for Military Services.
The Ascension of God incarnate, the crucified and risen Lord, bears witness to the sovereignty that you serve as ministers of Christ—ministers of Christ who minister Christ to those who serve in the military. In the first lesson, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Today, remembering the chaplains of the past, praying for the chaplains of the present, and anticipating the chaplains of the future, we gratefully acknowledge a ministry that has extended and today extends, just as Jesus said, “to the ends of the earth.” That ministry bears witness to the sovereignty of Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. As in the time of the apostles so also now, that sovereignty is disputed. His will be a disputed sovereignty until he returns in glory and, in the words of St. Paul, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
We are servants of a disputed sovereignty. In the responsorial psalm we declared, “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy.” Christ has ascended his throne, but his rule is challenged by rival thrones. For us who believe, St. Paul says in today’s second lesson, it is the fact that Christ rules “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.” But the principalities and powers of the present age still rage against his rule. We are the servants of a disputed sovereignty.
In today’s gospel reading from Luke chapter 24, we hear the words of Jesus, “You are the witnesses of these things . . . . Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” The apostles stayed in the city and then, clothed with pentecostal power from on high, went out to the ends of the earth. And they continue to go, until the end of time. Christ goes with us, St. Paul says, in the form of the Church, “which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” In the face of the principalities and powers, we bear witness to his disputed sovereignty. In the loneliness of military camps, in the terror of battle, in the emptiness of loss, you who are chaplains bear witness to the presence, the sacramentally Real Presence, of “the one who fills all things in every way.”
As the sovereignty of Christ is disputed, so also is the ministry of the military chaplain disputed. How, it is asked, can those who serve the Prince of Peace also serve in the wars of the principalities and powers of the present age? It is an old question, but a question that continues to be asked, and understandably so. It is a question that addresses, as St. Augustine would put it, the right ordering of our loves and loyalties.
The second century “Letter to Diognetus,” which is explaining the Christians to a pagan reader, says, “For the Christians, every foreign country is a homeland, and every homeland is a foreign country.”
In the right ordering of our loves and loyalties, we are patriots of this foreign country called America, which is also our homeland; but we are patriots bound by a higher patriotism to the country that is our true home—the country, the Kingdom, where the sovereignty of the ascended Lord is no longer disputed. Like St. Thomas More, we are “the king’s good servants, but God’s first.” And we are the king’s better servants because we are God’s first.
Jesus says, “And you will be my witnesses.” As chaplains, you are the witnesses of Christ and his Church to a new order of undivided love and allegiance. That kingdom is now present by faith’s anticipation of what is to be. There are many important things a chaplain does: he teaches, he counsels, he encourages, he consoles. But, above all, the chaplain is a witness to the sovereignty of Christ and his kingdom. He is a witness to what is to be; he is a witness to what, for those who believe, already is. Through him, Christ makes sacramentally present a new heaven and a new earth. A new heaven and a new earth where the conflicts of the principalities and powers are no more. A new heaven and a new earth that is now, by the gift of faith, peace in the midst of battle.
Speaking last October to the International Congress of Military Ordinariates, Pope Benedict declared: “The Church is missionary by nature and her principal task is evangelization, which aims to proclaim and witness to Christ, and to promote his gospel of peace and love in every environment and every culture.”
In situations of mortal conflict, in a world too often marked by the absence of peace and love, your task is to bear witness to a promised new world order. In doing so, you are the nation’s good servants, but God’s first. You are witnesses to the sovereignty of Christ, a sovereignty now disputed but one day to be acknowledged by all.
Whatever your military rank or distinction, your defining commission was received on the day of your ordination as a priest of Christ and his Church. On that day, you were, in the words of today’s gospel, “clothed with power from on high.” Our only power is the power of witness. We should want no other, we need no other. The Church is the people ahead of time—the community that bears witness now to what one day will be recognized by all when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The principalities and powers still strut across the stage of history, trailing behind them the bloody carnage of their vain ambitions. So it has been through the centuries, and so it will be until Our Lord returns in glory. We read in the first lesson: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” Between now and that happy day, we have no utopian delusions about the principalities and powers of the present time. The dream of a permanent peace, of a world without conflict, awaits the day when the sovereignty of love incarnate is no longer disputed.
Until that day, the history of the world is marked by what St. Augustine calls libido dominandi — the lust for glory and power. We describe wars as just and wars as unjust, and it is necessary that we make such distinctions for clarity of mind and security of conscience. But, short of the coming Kingdom, all is provisional and approximate; all is riddled through with ambiguity, contradiction, and tragedy. That is how things are, and that is how things will be along the way of history’s long journey toward the perfect justice of Christ’s undisputed sovereignty. Meanwhile, we bear witness to what is to be, and, for those who believe, already is. The Church—her ministers and her members—is the people ahead of time.
Again, St. Augustine: “Peace must be your aim; war should be a matter of necessity . . . . One does not pursue peace in order to wage war; one wages war to achieve peace.” And then he adds, “If peace is such a desirable dimension of our temporal happiness, how much sweeter is the divine peace that belongs to the eternal happiness of the angels.” We are not angels. But neither are we beasts, forever consigned to the confusions and conflicts of libido dominandi. We are the people ahead of time.
To you, the chaplains of the armed forces—past, present, and future—is owed an immeasurable debt of gratitude. You are the nation’s good servants but God’s first; and you are the nation’s better servants because you are God’s first. In the midst of the clashes of the principalities and powers of the present age, you have been “clothed with power from on high” to bear witness to the One who was and is and is to be.
To those in battle, to those preparing for battle, to those bearing the wounds of battle, and to those who love them, you bear witness. Your only power, our only power, is the power of witness. We should want no other. We need no other. “Amen, come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.