Canon lawyer Fr. Brian Nelson reflects on the law at annual Red Mass homily
Fr. Brian Nelson apologized to those at the Red Mass who expected Bishop Carl A. Kemme to be the main celebrant.
“He had to go to Hawaii,” he said.
After a pause and some laughter, he added: “Just in case you’re not aware, he’s there to be a part of bringing back the remains of Fr. Kapaun for the liturgies next week.”
Because of that, he said, “You’re stuck with me.”
Fr. Nelson delivered his homily Thursday, Sept. 23, to the 17 judges seated in the front rows of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita and to the lawyers and other guests attending the annual event.
He explained that he was the judicial vicar for the diocese – something, he said, most people have no understanding about. Then he explained that he’s the chancellor of the diocese – something else people know nothing about. “So, I stay with ‘I’m the pastor of St. Mark’s (in Colwich).’ People at least have an idea what that is.”
Fr. Nelson said he didn’t have an appreciation of the law or of the Red Mass until he was sent to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to study canon law.
While there he was a priest in residence of a nearby parish with a pastor who had been an attorney for the Justice Department for 25 years. “He referred to himself as a recovering attorney,” Fr. Nelson said.
In his first week of residence there, while having dinner the pastor said: “Now, Fr. Brian, remember that law is a way of thinking.”
Fr. Nelson said he didn’t think about it much at the time but he has reflected on those words ever since.
Law must serve a purpose
Those who work in the various aspects of the law, he said, find it “easy to simply see it as an end in itself. Law is more. It has a purpose. It must serve a purpose.”
Fr. Nelson shared what St. John Paul II wrote in 1983 about the necessity of law. After quoting the document, Fr. Nelson said St. John Paul II provides multiple purposes for the law in the context of the church but that all can relate to it in one way or another.
It leads to truth, he said. “Ultimately, we believe that Jesus has revealed this truth to us in the expression of those two fundamental laws of love of God and love of neighbor.”
Jesus in the day’s Gospel, Fr. Nelson said, goes on to say that he will give us an advocate.
“Which is why we are here this evening,” he said. “We celebrate this Mass with the Holy Spirit with the recognition that it is God’s gift to help us serve and to live our own expression of those two great commandments.”
Fr. Nelson said there is a great lack of understanding of the law, the lack of understanding of the nature of our relationships with one another, and a lack of who we are in relationship to society.
Those who are given over to the practice of law need to be guided more than just by their intellectual abilities or their legal prowess, he said.
Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance
“We have to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We have to entrust ourselves to the one who has given us all. The one who has enlightened our minds and our hearts,” Fr. Nelson said. “To allow ourselves to think not just with the law, but with grace.”
All have received gifts from the Holy Spirit, he said.
“Each one of us must take on that way of thinking. The way of thinking that leads us to fulfill a mission entrusted to us by the Lord, for the love of him and of in service of his people. We must form our minds and our hearts to consider how the spirit will help us fulfill that mandate to the Lord.”
He closed by urging those attending to work in their profession for a more just society.
“And so, let us with the people of Israel standing there before the Lord, saying ‘Everything the Lord has said, we will do.’ We will live our lives in service of something great.”