The proper way to honor the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is to "develop our own characters according to the highest principles of our nation and religious heritage," Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said during a Jan. 18 Mass honoring the legacy of the late civil rights leader.

"We are challenged to take up Dr. King's admonition and warning that we live lives of righteousness that are capable of withstanding the withering scrutiny of public examination, as well as the even more perfect inspection of God Himself," the archbishop told the more than 300 people who gathered for the Mass.

Archbishop Gregory was the principal celebrant and homilist of the Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, the Mass is offered each year as part of the archdiocese's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. 

The event began with a praise and worship service featuring the Archdiocesan Gospel Mass Choir. Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, called the event "our time to honor (Dr. King's) life and death and all that he hoped for to come.”

Members of the Archdiocesan Gospel Mass Choir sing at the Archdiocese of Washington's Jan. 18 celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which began with praise music and was followed by a Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The Mass and celebration are held annually near Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of January. This year, the holiday will be observed on Jan. 20.

Referring to Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, in which the late civil rights leader spoke of his "dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," Archbishop Gregory said "we pause once again to recall his riveting words of a dream that challenges us all to examine the content of our own characters.”

"The meaning of that phrase, 'content of character,' is a continuing path that we must all follow," the archbishop said.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory preaches his homily at the Archdiocese of Washington's Jan. 18 Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Washington, D.C., honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. King was among the leaders who organized a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march included a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that was opened with an invocation by then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington. It was at that rally that Dr. King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech.

"That famous reference was never intended to be simply a hope or even a dream, or just a suggestion," Archbishop Gregory said. "It was a challenge for all of us no matter what our race, age or ethnic heritage. Our moral characters all need development and constant attention.”

The archbishop noted that a person's character "is the very gatehouse of the virtues we must pursue ... (and) the foundation of our integrity.”

"Dr. King admonished all Americans to yearn for the day when each of us would would be judged not by our skin color, not by the land of our origin, not by the languages we first speak, not by our age or gender or political opinion or IQ or any other defining attribute, but ultimately only by our character and human integrity," Archbishop Gregory said.

He said  Dr. King "paid the ultimate price of real leadership" in pursuing civil rights in order "to establish a society of justice wherein people would be judged by the only criteria that truly matters - the state of the heart and soul of a person - and not by mere appearance.”

Dr. King was assassinated almost 52 years ago. In late March 1968, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support black sanitation public works employees who were on strike seeking higher wages and better working conditions. On April 4 of that year, Dr. King – standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel – was mortally wounded by a gunshot fired by James Earl Ray. He was taken to St. Joseph Hospital, where after emergency surgery he was pronounced dead.

Archbishop Gregory also recalled others who either gave their lives or suffered persecution in the pursuit for civil rights, including Medgar Evers, Nelson Mandela, and the four young girls who were murdered at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sept 15, 1963.

Comparing those four girls - Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair - to the Holy Innocents who were murdered by King Herod at the time of Jesus's birth, Archbishop Gregory said their "brutal deaths were a powerful force that compelled Congress finally to take action that led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.”

Remarking on "the tragic loss of four young lives," Archbishop Gregory said "in a sense, their murder was a sacrificial offering that advanced justice for all of us.”

Archbishop Gregory gives Communion to a man at the Jan. 18 Mass honoring Dr. King.     (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The annual archdiocesan Dr. King commemoration was the first celebrated by Archbishop Gregory since he was installed last May as the archbishop of Washington, but he has a long association with the late civil rights leader.

Archbishop Gregory previously served as archbishop of Atlanta, Dr. King's birthplace. He has preached in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Dr. King and his father preached, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

At the Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, Archbishop Gregory said, "As we honor Dr. King today... we must recommit ourselves to living lives of harmony, integrity, compassion, and charity so that our own character might inspire another generation of Americans no matter what their age or background."