June 4, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Identity of a bishop is rooted in the mystery of Christ

In mid-July, as archbishop it will be my honor to ordain Bishop-designate Timothy L. Doherty as the new bishop of the Diocese of Lafayette in Indiana.

A bishop is ordained as a successor of the Apostles. It is amazing to realize that apostolic succession continues into our day.

When we ordain a successor of the Apostles, we cannot help but think of the Twelve Apostles. They poured out their life’s blood for love of Christ and the community of believers. Their checkered lives are wonderful testimony that God does great things for us despite the poverty of our humanity. My predecessor, Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara, used to say, “Isn’t it marvelous how much good God does in spite of our own selves?”

Speaking about the office of a bishop and a priest in his apostolic letter on priestly formation, the late Pope John Paul II quoted from St. Augustine, who was speaking for bishops at a celebration of the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul centuries ago: “We are your shepherds, with you we receive nourishment. May the Lord give us the strength to love you to the extent of dying for you either in fact or in desire.”

We are sometimes asked, “What is it like to be a bishop these days? What does it take?”

A bishop has to be strong. A bishop is a martyr, not in the “poor me” sense, rather in the original sense of the Greek word—he is a witness like Peter, saying with his very life, “You are Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

In a secularized world that believes only in what it sees, by his consecration and by what he does, a bishop is a witness to the mystery of God. The very life and identity of the bishop—and of priests, too—are rooted in the order of faith, the order of the unseen, and not in the order of secular values.

And so, in a secular society, the challenge to be a spiritual and moral leader is great. Above all, this means a bishop’s very life testifies that our human family needs God in a world that would often believe otherwise. Bishops and priests are visible sacraments of the priesthood of Jesus Christ in a world that needs to see and hear and touch Jesus, and is no longer sure that it can.

Secondly, in a divided world, along with the priests of the diocese a bishop is the servant of unity. We build unity and communion in two ways—by fostering unity in the faith of the Church and proclaiming unity in the charity of Christ.

A bishop is a humble servant of unity. Without humility, one does not serve. Without humility, one does not build community. In a note for my silver anniversary as a priest, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote, “Be humble like Mary, and you will be holy like Jesus.”

Thirdly, in a world where so many people do not know Christ, a bishop is the chief teacher of the diocese in the person of Christ the Teacher. And so, like the Apostles, by episcopal ordination a bishop is charged to be a living sacrament of the Paschal Mystery of God, to be a humble servant for the unity of the Body of Christ, and to be Teacher in the Person of Christ, the Head of the Body of the Church.

When we say a bishop or priest is first and foremost a witness to Mystery, we say he must be able to live the Paschal Mystery in such a way that he leads the people of God to participate in it. That means many things. Bishops and priests realize that at the heart of the Paschal Mystery stands the Cross of Christ.

The identity of the Church is rooted in the mystery of God. The identity of the community at prayer is rooted in the mystery of God. The identity of the bishop and priest is rooted in the mystery of Christ. We cannot explain and understand the Church or worship or priestly ministry or priestly identity apart from the mystery of Christ. This is not the secular way so we are often misunderstood.

The single driving motive for the call to ministry in the Church is love of Jesus Christ, and love of him moves us to a pastoral love for the people of God.

Love of God and belief in his care for our human family is the motive that leads us to want to serve and not be served. The pastoral love of Christ in us serves unity and communion in the Church in a divided world.

The life of a bishop can be a daunting challenge. The grace of God strengthens him today as it did the original Twelve Apostles. †

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