March 4, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Bishops are servants of unity in the Church

(Listen to the archbishop read this column)

March 2, 2011, will mark the annual ordination anniversary of Bishop Christopher J. Coyne. Not entirely by coincidence, March 2 also marks my annual anniversary of ordination as the Bishop of Memphis 24 years ago.

As for me, so for Bishop Coyne that date is packed with life-changing meaning.

It is awesome to join the college of bishops in succession to the “apostolic college.”

As I noted during the ordination on March 2, when we ordain a successor of the Apostles, we cannot help but think of the original Twelve.

They poured out their life’s blood for love of Jesus Christ and the community of believers. Their intriguing, checkered lives are wonderful testimony that God does great things for us despite the poverty of our humanity.

Speaking about the office of a bishop in his apostolic letter on priestly formation, the late Pope John Paul II quoted St. Augustine, who was speaking for bishops at a celebration of the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul centuries ago.

St. Augustine said: “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.”

In a secularized world that believes only in what it sees, by our consecration and by what we do, Bishop Coyne and I are witnesses to mystery. The very life and identity of a bishop—and of priests—are rooted in the order of faith, the order of the unseen and not in the secular order of values.

And so in a secular society, the challenge to be a spiritual and moral leader is great. Above all, this means our very life testifies that our human family needs God in a world that would often believe otherwise.

We 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.

Bishop Coyne, myself and priests of this archdiocese will be servants of unity in a divided world. By God’s grace, we build unity and communion in two ways—unity in the faith of the Church, and unity in the charity of Christ.

A bishop is a humble servant of unity in the Church. Without humility, one does not serve. Without humility, one does not build community.

In a world where so many people do not know Christ, Bishop Coyne joins me as a teacher in the person of Christ the Teacher.

Like the Apostles, by episcopal ordination we are charged to be a living sacrament of the Paschal Mystery, to be a humble servant for the unity of the Body of Christ, and to be a Teacher in the Person of Christ, the Head of the Body of the Church. What a marvelous way of life and ministry! And so we celebrated Bishop Coyne’s ordination with profound joy.

When we say a bishop 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. Right 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 a bishop and priest is rooted in the mystery of Christ. It doesn’t work to try to explain or understand our Church or the Eucharist or the other sacraments or priestly ministry or priestly identity apart from the mystery of Christ. And so we are often misunderstood.

Bishop Coyne joins me and our priests as a servant of the unity of our archdiocese. The single driving motive for our call to ministry in the Church is love of Jesus, and love of him moves us to a pastoral love for the many. Love of God and belief in his care are the motives that lead us to want to serve and not be served. The pastoral love of Christ in us serves unity and communion in our Church in a divided world.

We bishops, with our priests, serve the unity of our faith, and so we join all bishops and the Bishop of Rome in the official teaching mission of the Church. It is our responsibility to see that the treasure of our faith is passed on to future generations.

Bishop Coyne will hear me say over and over that our first duty is to be men of prayer. If we are faithful in prayer, everything will be OK, and we will persevere in faith with peace and joy. †

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