In a small office of the Capitol, General John Kelly was sworn in to be the new head of Homeland Security. He placed his left hand on a Bible, held by his wife, and raised his right hand and repeated the oath as it was administered by Vice President Pence.
But as he finished, before anything else, General Kelly paused and did something exceptional.
He blessed himself.
He made the sign of the cross.
And then he shook the hand of the vice president, who congratulated him.
It was a small moment, lasting just a few seconds. But it said so much—and in three significant ways.
First, it served to remind the world that we are still fundamentally a nation of people who value religion. We profess faith. We believe.
The sign of the cross is something that has almost become routine at sports events—it’s seen as either a good luck charm or a hastily acted gesture of gratitude for a touchdown.
But here, I think, it was something else.
It was a kind of witness. And it said something vital about who we are as Americans.
At a time when Christians around the world are being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, executed, we are blessed to live in a country where priests and ministers and rabbis publicly pray for our president before he takes the oath of office—and where an important figure of government blesses himself after being sworn in.
Earlier today, Fr. Antonin told me he is always surprised at how much religion plays a role in our inaugural ceremonies. You never see that in the Czech Republic, he said. You don’t even see it in Poland. But here, it remains a part of our tradition and our culture. It still means something.
We can’t take this lightly or take this for granted.
Secondly, what General Kelly did said to anyone who saw it: I am a Catholic. I am Christian.
In the gospel we just heard, Jesus said to a group of fisherman, “Come after me.”
Yesterday, a civil servant said, “I will. I do. I am one of his followers. I’m with him.”
I’m sure the general knows as well as anyone: it is not easy to live out one’s faith in the public square. I’ve learned that myself. Speaking as someone who worked as a member of clergy among the most secular of professions, the news media, I can say it brings its share of challenges.
But what General Kelly did was a sign that he intended to try—and that, with such a public expression of faith, he intended to be held accountable to his God.
Of course, the sign of the cross is just that—a sign—and it is an empty one without action the seeks to fulfill Christ’s great commandment of love. Which brings me to the final point.
It is this: what General Kelly did stands as a challenge to all of us. If we have answered Christ’s call to come after him, if we are baptized into the faith and commissioned to bear witness to the cross—the same cross that General Kelly used to mark himself—what are we doing about it?
How are we following Christ?
How are we witnessing our faith in the public square?
How are we preaching mercy, repentence, resurrection and hope?
How are we reflecting the light of Christ?
How are we showing the face of Jesus to the world?
This is part of our call.
Following Christ means more than walking in his footsteps along the Sea of Galilee. As those first apostles he called discovered: it means living like him. It means loving like him. Sometimes, he even means suffering like him.
But day by day, it also means seeing those whom others so often ignore. It means respecting life, all life, at every stage. It means seeing the inherent human dignity of every person, and understanding that every person is made in the image and likeness of God.
Friday, Pope Francis sent a congratulatory message to President Trump. Along with warm words and prayers, the Holy Father said this:
“May America’s stature,” he wrote, “continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door.”
Lazarus, you’ll remember, was the poor man who suffered outside the lavish home of a rich man. Given what we know of those who are taking power in Washington this week, I’m sure the comparison was not a coincidence. But beyond that, the Holy Father raises an important question for all of us.
How are we caring for the Lazaruses around us? The poor, the outcast, those in need? How are we treating the small, the defenseless, the weak?
These are important reflections for all of us who claim to come after Jesus. But they are also a challenge for all those who will be serving in Washington, as well.
This weekend, and in the weeks and months ahead, let us pray for our nation’s leaders—President Trump, Vice President Pence, the cabinet, all our elected officials.
And let us pray that all of us who profess ourselves as Christians—who are claimed by the cross—will remain steadfast in our faith, in our witness, and in our hope.
May we always continually answer Christ’s call to follow him with joy and with courage, so that we may always profess all that we do in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
You can watch General Kelly’s swearing in here.
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