On this the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Patron of this parish Church, we give thanks to God for the favor shown to our Diocese and this pioneer parish of Volusia County by Pope Benedict XVI in raising this beautiful and historic church to the status and dignity of a minor basilica.
Several months ago, after seeking the concurrence of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I petitioned the Holy Father through the Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship that this parish church which has served Daytona Beach and greater Volusia County for more than a century and has seen new parish communities born from it be given this honor. And I must add, your pastor, Father Bob Webster also enthusiastically agreed with this initiative and ably prepared all the documents that had to be submitted to support the petition. And I also see as they nod their heads that the former pastors, Msgr. Matt Connolly, Father Heslin and Father Ruse also concur. And given the speed with which the Holy See responded to my request, I am sure that the founding pastor, Msgr. William Mullally, must have put in good word for us upstairs.
Father Webster, this is certainly quite an honor for you on your 12th anniversary as this parish’s pastor. You felt very proud when 10 years ago this building after a renovation that you oversaw was finally consecrated, today must be an equally joyful one for you.
And it is certainly an honor for this parish that this year celebrates its 125th anniversary. It is also an honor for our Diocese that composes nine counties here in Central Florida – an honor that comes in the midst of our first diocesan Synod, Starting Afresh from Christ. As a Basilica, St. Paul’s is granted the right to bear the Coat of Arms of the Vatican City on its façade and the crossed keys of St. Peter on all its furnishings and liturgical vestments. In this way, the link of the people of this parish but also by extension of all the people of the Diocese of Orlando with the successor of St. Peter is made even stronger.
As I said, this honor comes during our first Diocesan Synod which has as it purpose a pastoral revitalization of our diocese so that all of us, priests, deacons, religious and laity, can respond to the challenges of evangelization in this new century. And that revitalization can only happen “cum Petro et sub Petro”. In naming St. Paul’s a Basilica, the Holy Father honors this local Church; but it also affords all us in the diocese the opportunity to affirm our loyalty and fidelity to the Successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI.
As I wrote in my pastoral letter last month, “Spirituality in our Catholic tradition is more than just narcissistic navel gazing or an over-simplified sentimentalism that reduces spirituality to a one-time acceptance of Jesus. It is not a self-absorbed seeking after self-fulfillment found through esoteric teachings or practices. Christianity’s invitation is to look outwardly and beyond – to a “New Advent” of the God who calls us to a ‘personal encounter with him’ and to a dialog of love which invites us to conversion and submission to his will. Authentic spirituality for the Christian is not so much our search for God but God’s search for us.”
Today’s Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul makes this point more succinctly and more eloquently that I could.
Paul’s entire life can be explained in terms of one experience – his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus. In an instant he saw that all the zeal of his dynamic personality was being wasted, like the strength of a boxer swinging wildly. We don’t know if he had even seen Jesus in the flesh but he certainly had acquired a zealot’s hatred of all that Jesus stood for. It wasn’t enough that he had held the garments of those who stoned Stephen, the first martyr; he took it upon himself to harass the Church “…entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment”. But now he himself is “entered”, possessed, all his energy is now harnessed to one goal – to be a slave of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation, an instrument to help others experience the one Savior.
This beautiful and inviting church – and I am speaking not only of the physical stones that make up this building but also of the living stones that make up this parish community – is situated not on the Road to Damascus but on U.S. 1; but along this road, this church must also be an instrument to help others experience the one Savior of all mankind, Jesus Christ. Here, where his Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments are celebrated, God continues to call us to a “personal encounter” with him. Here in communion with the brethren, here in quiet prayer in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament, we can allow ourselves to be found by God.
If Paul’s entire life can be explained in terms of that one experience on the Road to Damascus, his entire theology was determined by one sentence: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Jesus was mysteriously identified with people – with those people that Saul had been running down like criminals. Jesus was the mysterious fulfillment of all he had been blindly pursuing. Too often today, we hear people say that they love Jesus but not the Church. But, the Church is the Body of Christ –united to its head who is Jesus. You cannot accept Jesus and at the same time reject the Church which is his Body. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” These words are a reproach to the unconverted Saul; but to Saul who became Paul – and to all of us who share Paul’s faith in the Church founded on the Rock who is Peter,- these words become our consolation in the midst of every sort of trial. They echo Jesus’ our words of farewell to his apostles: I am with you always.
Once converted, St. Paul’s only work was from then on, in his words, “to present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working in me”. It wasn’t easy for St. Paul, the Pharisee turned apostle; and it hasn’t been easy for this parish that bears his name. For 125 years, this parish – its priests, religious and people – have labored and struggled. In fact, when Msgr. Mullally built this present Church some 79 years ago, it cost $275,000 – not a whole lot in today’s dollars –but it took 40 years to pay down the debt.
But in the words of St. Paul: it was his power, Christ’s power, working in them. It’s never been easy; but that same power continues to work through you, through all of us, as together we face new challenges in this parish’s third century. “To present everyone perfect in Christ” continues to be the reason for this parish’s existence, for its school’s continual work in the education yet new generations of youngsters. “To present everyone perfect in Christ” is the purpose of every ministry undertaken in this parish – and in all our parishes and throughout our diocese. It is the purpose of our diocesan synod and its hope for a true pastoral revitalization of our parishes, schools and other institutions.
Like St. Paul, as we respond to that Great Commission – to preach the gospel to every creature, we must continue to labor and struggle. But tonight, we remember all those whose past and present labors and struggles here have won the recognition of the Holy Father in his designation of this parish church a minor basilica – and we celebrate.