Mass Celebrating Retirement of Bishop William C. Newman, September 21, 2003
My sisters and brothers in Christ!
Let it be known that when a priest or bishop retires from the active priestly ministry, he enters into another phase of his priestly life – highlighted by “administrative downsizing.” He gives up his administrative tasks but retains, as long as he can, his pastoral works.
The retired priests of the Archdiocese of Baltimore offer proud testimony to that fact and I am proud to join them. Recently, in his typical Irish humor (a few generations removed) Bishop Fran Malooly called the retired priests the glue that holds all the scheduled weekend Masses in the Archdiocese together. A bit of a tacky compliment, I would say. (Couldn’t resist.)
Initially I stated that a priest’s retirement is defined partially by “administrative downsizing.” Please note I stressed “administrative downsizing” not “homily downsizing.” Only kidding!
Unfortunately, it seems as though our human nature has a penchant to seek the first place at table. It seems it wants to the “Top Gun,” to be number 1, numero uno. We even manufacture Styrofoam hands with the index finger pointing up signaling we are number one waving it in the face of our competitors. Raven fans do it. Bucs fans to it. Forty-niner fans do it and even the Redskin fans to it boasting about their first two victories of the season.
All this boasting by human nature is what Jesus had to put up with in the gospel today. Jesus must have been completely exasperated with his team of apostles. He could not have been more blunt or forceful in predicting His passion, death and resurrection as He was on this occasion. “The Son of Man,” he said, “is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after he will rise.” Jesus could not have said it anymore directly and clearly.
But His words went right over their heads and never had a chance to get into their hearts. They just did not get it. As if nothing was ever said or heard they nonchalantly continued on their journey to Capernaum but not without arguing among themselves who was the greatest. Though it is not part of this passage Mark tells us a little later on that James and John had the ignorance to pursue a request that in Jesus’ glory they may sit one at His right and the other at His left.
In a parallel text Matthew gives the James and John request a much more intriguing dynamic. Enter the mother of James and John. Mom is the ambitious one but she does not argue with Jesus about it. Being the pushy mother that she apparently was, the brothers’ mother became assertive with Jesus: “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
Each of us knows our own mom the best. But I am glad my mother’s approach to the qualities of ambition and industry in her children was dramatically different from the apostles’ mother.
My sister, Maryalma (Sister Pierre in religious life) tells the story of a conversation she had with our mother many decades ago. It seemed that my mother was perturbed with some of her lady friends. She complained to Maryalma: “All they do is brag about their children.” To which Maryalma replied, baiting my mother; “You mean to tell me, mother, you don’t brag about us children.” “That’s right,” she responded, “Your father and I raised you up to stand on your own two feet so your behavior will have to do all your bragging for you.”
In today’s gospel Jesus calls His disciples to be industrious not ambitious. Industrious in advancing His Father’s Kingdom not ambitious for the greatest place of honor in the Kingdom.
In a way Jesus took a unique human strategy to call His disciples back to the real world, to transfer their personal energies from argumentation and ambition to a productive, industrious behavior in behalf of the Kingdom.
Instead of lecturing them about their pettiness and lack of understanding, Jesus told them to make room in their lives for children and their childlike behavior. He simply took a child in His arms and placed in their midst by Jesus signaled the need for a major priority in the lives of the disciples, in the lives of all Christians. And that priority was the virtue of personal humility.
Can you imagine trying to impress children with credentials we use to impress each other? They could not care less about our college degrees, our professional honors, the automobiles we drive, the wealth or positions we hold. Almost twenty years ago when I was named a bishop on of my priest friends wrote a congratulatory note in which he included the caution: “Remember, Bill, there are 500 million Chinese who couldn’t care less.”
What does impress children is the warmth and sincerity of a loving person. They are impressed with the person who can smile with the eyes as well as the mouth. With the person whom they can believe and depend on. With the person from whom they sense real interest and genuine love. And as important as that kind of person is to children, so they are to us. Their very presence helps us to balance our pride and brings us closer to God. They teach us how to be humble before God and one another.
Jesus knew what he was doing. He put a child into the center of the disciples’ lives and quickly they realized how silly were their attempts to feel important. The truth of the matter is that we have no importance, except in the eyes of our Creator God who loves us, and in the lives of the people who need us and to whom we have been called to serve.