Talk by Brian Burch on the occasion of his receiving the St. Thomas More Award for Catholic Citizenship at the Annual Dinner of Catholic Citizens of Illinois on
September 25, 2019.
On behalf of all of the staff and supporters of CatholicVote, I am honored and grateful for this recognition.
There’s an old saying some of you may know, I believe attributed to Hubert Humphrey, that behind every successful man is a proud wife and a surprised mother-in-law. I’m not sure how proud or surprised either my wife or mother-in-law are this evening — but both of them are with me here tonight. And nothing I have accomplished at CatholicVote, or in life for that matter, could be imagined or sustained without the role of these impressive women, along with my own mother.
Motherhood, it seems, is at the heart of nearly all of our contemporary public debates. And not coincidentally, motherhood is also the form God chose to serve as our primary intercessor to Him. Our Lady and her Rosary is the answer that nearly every saint of the past century gave to the question of how to overcome the problems in our modern world.
I was reminded of this earlier this year. Think back for a second to where you were on April 15th. And no, I’m not referring to where you were when you filed your taxes. While the date might not spur your memory, I suspect you found yourself on April 15, like I did, watching what we all understood at the time to be an historic event playing out in front of our eyes. I’m referring of course to the dramatic fire that engulfed the 800+ year old Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. I was actually traveling at the time and found myself at O’Hare as the news broke. Several bystanders joined me in watching the images on the airport television. The fiery inferno, the billowing smoke, and eventually the toppling of the spire coupled with the commentary suggesting that by morning perhaps all would be destroyed reminded many of the way we all felt on 9/11. Though of course, thankfully without the loss of life. My sister-in-law sent a message to our family group text saying she was getting her hair done at a salon in Phoenix as the news coverage began. Many of the women there stopped to watch the fire engulf the church on tv. Several got emotional, she said. One began to cry.
I remember a priest friend describing his own reaction. He said: “at the risk of sounding silly, I sat there in the rectory watching the news with tears streaming down my face.” He couldn’t help, he said, thinking that this was a metaphor for the state of the Church. Not a few people have remarked similarly, admitting that the burning cathedral reminded them of the present condition of western civilization more broadly. This same western tradition that inspired the building of Notre Dame, now seems in serious decline, as the rise of postmodern ideologies call into question everything from the family, to faith, marriage, gender, justice and work — even the idea of human nature and truth itself. These fixed ideas that have shaped much of the world for millennia, we are now told, are merely social constructs. They are artificial tools and narratives, devised by mostly by white men, to oppress and coerce minorities, women, and the weak, they say.
Everything is in flux. Or so it seems. Or worse– like Notre Dame Cathedral, far too much today seems to be on fire. Especially the important things, the things that matter.
But, we also know what happened next. Notre Dame Cathedral, while badly damaged, largely survived. As one commentator put it, while the wooden ceiling was destroyed, the stone foundation, like ourselves, the living stones of the church itself, held firm. Miraculously, the main structure of the building was still in tact, several of the prized rose windows, the organ, and many of the art treasures were preserved or successfully removed. And of course, a heroic fireman and Catholic chaplain raced into the building during the fire and rescued the priceless relic of the crown of thorns, and successfully removed the Holy Eucharist as the flaming embers fell down from the roof. With the Eucharist in hand, he reportedly paused and offered a benediction, asking Our Lord to look after his house.
When it comes to the work of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, I admit, I am often tempted to focus my attention on the “Catholic” and “Citizens” portion of its name, and less on the Illinois part. I need not remind you tonight of the challenges we face here in the Land of Lincoln. Woe is us. We are, I suppose the “Job” of states. But it’s helpful to recall that the plight of Job was the result of a contest between God and Satan. A test of Job’s fidelity. Our plight too, which on the surface appears to be imposed by politicians and evil men posing as caretakers of women’s health. But like Job, as scripture tells us, “we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers of wickedness.”
The answer then to our seemingly intractable political and cultural circumstance is the same answer given by the Church from the beginning — prayer, fasting, and saints. This does not mean surrender. For fight on, we must. But the Church teaches that suffering is redemptive. Every pain we endure with love, every cross borne with resignation, benefits every man, woman, and child, not just in Illinois, but in the Mystical Body of Christ.
And thus, as Catholic citizens living in Illinois, perhaps we’ve in fact been given a special grace. Like the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the walls, and even the roof of our state seems to be falling in.
But viewed through the lens of the divine plan — perhaps we ought not to merely accept our predicament, but to embrace it. We too can be cultural fireman of sorts. With the help of Our Lady, we must risk the dangers of fighting the flames that engulf us, and protect the treasures worth protecting. We must put the Eucharist at the center of all that we do. And above all, don’t forget to stop, offer a benediction, and ask Our Lord to look after his house.