Archbishop Gregory Aymond delivered the following homily Jan. 7 at the opening Mass at St. Louis Cathedral for the Tricentennial of the City of New Orleans.
We are very grateful for the GPS as a great invention, so we don’t get lost as much as we used to. I’m not sure if the Magi had a good sense of direction or not, but we do know from the Gospel account that they followed the star. They persevered. They had a very long journey as they followed that star. And when they finally found the Christ child with Mary and Joseph, they did not arrive empty-handed but had gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
May I suggest, though, my sisters and brothers, that this feast has even a deeper meaning than the Magi finding the Christ. It’s not just what the Magi did. The question that we need to ask today is, what did God do and why did he do it? In leading them by the star, God showed them his Son. He made his Son known to them. That is what the word “epiphany means” – to show or to make known. And it was God’s intent through that story, through the Magi, that the savior, the messiah of the world, would be known ultimately by the whole world.
Apparently, it is that same God who also wanted his Son to be known in New Orleans.
Yes, as we celebrate this Tricentennial, we recall with great appreciation that even before the founding of the city, the Catholic Church had a presence. God planted the seed decades before the founding of the city as missionaries came. They came to evangelize and to celebrate Mass.
Then it was in 1718, as we know, that Bienville founded the city, and a Catholic priest arrived with him. And on that very day, they marked the spot where the church would be built in order to continue celebrating the Eucharist and the work of evangelization. They marked that spot. What is the spot? Right here, where we gather today, 300 years later. Bienville and the missionary priest said, “We must build a church right here.”
The history of the Catholic Church and the history of the city of New Orleans cannot be separated. They are very much intertwined and have been for 300 years. It was only nine years after the establishment of the city that the Ursuline nuns arrived from France to do ministry here. They took charge of the royal hospital. They opened a school for girls. And they showed tremendous care for the poor and for the needy. The sacred site where all of that took place, close to the founding of the city, is only a few blocks away from us right now on Chartres Street.
My sisters and brothers, those of us who appreciate and are familiar with the city and its great history know that there were very blessed times. We also acknowledge that there were times of discouragement and challenge – when there were fires and floods and hurricanes and epidemics and, in 1815, the Battle of New Orleans, which we thankfully won. But when we look back over these 300 years, in the good times and in the challenging times, we are well aware that God walked with us. He walked with the citizens of this city in the joyful times and in the times that presented new opportunities.
Not only did our God walk with us in those times, but we also know that we could lean upon the prayers of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. And through the 300 years, the church grew and is truly alive today and blessed to be able to contribute whatever we can to this great City Of New Orleans.
As we look at the history, we come to realize that through 300 years, God used ordinary people with ordinary gifts to do extraordinary things to make Christ known and to share his ministry. These people through the 300 years have helped to shape the city into what it is today, and we cannot possibly recall the hundreds of thousands of people who have given up themselves in order to do so. But we can remember by name several saints who walked the streets of this city, and we remember them today. They walked the streets of this city.
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne sailed to New Orleans in 1818 and opened a school here and in other parts of the United States. Venerable Mother Henriette Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 and is on her way to canonization. Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos died from yellow fever in 1867 because he caught the disease as he was ministering to those who were sick and dying. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini visited New Orleans in 1892 and opened a school and an orphanage to care for those who were in need. St. Katharine Drexel founded Xavier University in 1915. And most recently, in 1987, Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans. And he spoke here to thousands of people and stood outside the cathedral greeting people. This great saint, John Paul II, truly walked the streets of our city.
And so, we look back today with great appreciation to these ordinary people with ordinary gifts who did extraordinary things for God and for the city of New Orleans.
We also recall throughout this history of 300 years the significant ministry of women religious – their contribution to education, health care, social services and the pouring out of themselves to lead and to serve God’s people. All of these people together have shaped the city and the church into what it is today.
Look now to the future
My sisters and brothers, it is our privilege today and during this Tricentennial year to remember that we stand on their shoulders, but even more importantly, we stand on their hearts. The ministry that they began 300 years ago continues today through priests and deacons, women and men religious and countless lay ministers. That ministry of 300 years ago started right here at this cathedral and continues.
And so as we open this Tricentennial year, we certainly give thanks to God for the past. We are grateful for the great City of New Orleans and for its history. We are grateful for the influence that the Catholic Church has had in the development of this great city. That is the past. But let us not forget, as we celebrate this Tricentennial, that the future is in our hands. Yes, the future is in our hands. We must be zealous and enthusiastic and evangelize like the founding mothers and fathers. Yes, the future is in our hands. We are ordinary people with ordinary gifts who can do extraordinary things for God and for our city.
How do we do those extraordinary things? When we live our faith daily and we grow in a deeper and more intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus. We are ordinary people with ordinary gifts, with extraordinary love. When we invite others to know Christ, by our example and sometimes by our words.
We can do so when we are active in our parishes and make the local church alive and vibrant. We can do as the founding mothers and fathers did through the 300 years when we show Christ’s mercy to others and are never stingy with his mercy. And when we care for the poor and the forgotten, those who live on the edges of society. And we can do so as we look to the future when we continue to realize that there is a new Battle of New Orleans among us as we speak against violence and murder and racism that divide our community. Yes, those are ways in which we can give of ourselves as ordinary people with ordinary gifts doing extraordinary things for God and to build up the city.
And so as we begin this Tricentennial we realize that it’s not enough to recount the past. The present and the future is in our hands. For the past, you and I gather today to give thanks to God. But for what lies ahead and for what we are called to do – we trust in his love.