Growing up in a loving and devout Catholic home, while working on a dairy farm in the US state of Wisconsin, was how Cardinal Raymond Burke first learned the Gospel of Life.
The cardinal, a keynote speaker at Family Life International’s “Living the Splendour of Truth” conference in Auckland from October 5-7, replaced Dr Gianna Emanuela Molla as the speaker at the conference dinner. Dr Molla, daughter of St Gianna Beretta Molla, had been unable to travel to New Zealand from Italy because of illness.
Cardinal Burke spoke of his family lineage — Irish Catholic on his father’s side, and American Baptist on his mother’s. After meeting the future cardinal’s father, being attracted to the Catholic Faith and receiving instruction from a priest, his mother was received into
the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Burke, the youngest of six children in his family, also recalled the memory of his Aunt Agnes, his father’s sister, who had Down Syndrome.
“My aunt’s special needs instilled in all of the family a deep sense of the inviolable dignity of every human life, and in a particular way, of every human life which is in some way burdened by special needs, serious illness or advanced years.
“I grew up with a consciousness which always drew attention to those least brethren in the eyes of the world with whom Our Lord identified himself in the parable of the Last Judgement.”
It was through his father, Cardinal Burke said, that “a sound Irish spirituality permeated our home”.
Predominant in the home was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, strongly linked to eucharistic devotion and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially under her title of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Sunday Mass and Mass on holy days of obligation were central. The family regularly went to Confession on Saturday afternoons. Saturdays were regarded as preparations for Sundays, which were always days of rest.
Sunday best clothes were worn to Mass and the children were given money to put in the collection plate, so as to develop a habit of giving to the Church.
“We might have had an idea of putting something apart for ourselves,” the cardinal added with a smile, ”but that was quickly corrected”.
The family Rosary, Lenten observance and May Marian altars were all part of the Catholic tapestry of life in the Burke home.
His parents’ love for the Church and their love and respect for the priests in their local parish and for the sisters who taught in the local parish school made an impression on the future prelate.
Cardinal Burke spoke fondly of growing up on a dairy farm, and of how the work on the farm was filled with religious meaning.
“I remember as a small child, being imbued with a sense of responsibility toward those who would be eating dairy products, produced from the milk of our farm. Truly I was taught to take a certain just pride in cooperating with nature and therefore with God in providing an important source of food for others.
“Farm work, while highly satisfying, was also hard and sometimes very challenging when either bad weather or disease threatened the animals and therefore compromised the farmer’s work.
“Those very difficulties taught me the need to work hard, in order to accomplish what is good, and to be resilient in the face of adversity.
“My parents taught us children always to remember that we as farmers were working with God in a direct way and therefore to count upon his providence in all things.”
It was from this background that the young Raymond Burke learned “that all our work was seen as stewardship. . . ”.
Cardinal Burke also recalled the importance of rogation days in spring, when special prayers were addressed to God to bless fields, animals and farm instruments. Similarly, he recalled ember days in autumn, when God’s blessing was sought on the harvest “so that it was bountiful and we could collect it for our good and for the good of our neighbours”.
But tragedy was to strike the cardinal’s family — and he recalled it at the dinner when discussing making his own first Holy Communion.
“I received my first Holy Communion in the month of May of 1956, two months before my father’s death in July. He had been ill for over a year with a brain tumour, which the doctors at that time were slow to diagnose.
“He was dying at home, and was unable to go to church for the first Holy Communion. When we returned home, my mother took me to his room. He had not been able to speak much at all, for some time. When he saw me, he smiled and said clearly ‘I am very proud of you today’.
“It was very clear to me how important it was to him that I had received Our Lord in Holy Communion.”
On the sacramental theme, Cardinal Burke recalled priests coming to visit his father when he had come home from hospital to die.
“Although it was a very sad time,” Cardinal Burke said at the dinner, “Our Lord Jesus used it to teach the whole family . . . of the sacredness of human life and of its ultimate destiny with him in heaven.
“One particularly moving experience was when our parish priest, Fr Mitchell, would bring my father Holy Communion. In those days when the priest arrived at the door . . . the whole family met him with a lighted candle and led him to my father’s room. We would then all leave the room so that the priest could hear my father’s Confession. After his Confession, we would then all enter the room to be present for his reception of Holy
Communion, for which we all were kneeling.
“Somehow it was clear to me, even as a child, that it was Our Lord who was sustaining my father, and that my father in dying was preparing to meet Our Lord and to be with him.
“In the midst of our sorrow as a family, we had moments of strong grace [which] brought us peace and joy.
“All of what I have been describing was an incalculable help to me in knowing and embracing my vocation in life.
“I thank God that my parents understood their irreplaceable role in my vocation. I thank God too for parish priests who understood their irreplaceable role in fostering vocations, especially vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life.”
The cardinal went on to reflect that “Catholic home life is necessarily a sign of contradiction in today’s society”.
“We must inspire courage in Catholic couples to give the witness to the truth about marriage and family which our culture so sorely needs. We must help Christian homes to be the domestic church, according to the ancient description, the first place where the Catholic Faith is taught, celebrated and lived. The whole Church must help the parents to live generously and faithfully their vocation to the married life. We must be especially
attentive to families who are in trouble, so that even in their suffering, they may enjoy the graces of the unity and peace of the Holy Family of Nazareth.”
“It is clear that if the new evangelisation is not taking place in marriages, in the family,” Cardinal Burke added, “then it will not take place in the Church or in society in general. At the same time, marriages transformed by the Gospel are the first and most powerful agent of the transformation of society by the Gospel.”
In his keynote address at the conference, Cardinal Burke spoke on Catholic teaching on conscience “within the context of the inseparable relationship of reason and faith, and knowing the truth and incarnating it in goodness of action and the beauty of a holy life”. He emphasised “the most important and irreplaceable role of the sacred liturgy in the right formation of conscience in accord with the pursuit of holiness of life”.
“Since the sacred liturgy is the highest and most perfect expression of our life in Christ, we rightly turn to the sacred rites in order to understand more deeply the holiness of the Christian life in its every aspect. The sacred liturgy remains the essential source of our
understanding of the Faith, and of its practice in a good and holy life.”
He celebrated Masses at the conference at Epsom Girls Grammar School and at St Michael’s church in Remuera, with the liturgies celebrated “Ad orientem”, towards the liturgical East, using the English language.
In a homily on October 7, the cardinal lamented a “hardness of heart” in the world which, he said, is manifesting itself in the Church as “a great confusion” regarding sacramental life, marriage, sexual morality and sin.
“These worrisome situations, in the world and in the Church, must not become causes for doubt and discouragement,” he said. “They must not confound us regarding the love which we must have for sinners even while we abhor the sin that they commit.”
“Christ remains always true and generous in his love.”