As we have gathered on September 11th, let us pause to remember those who died some eleven years ago in New York, at the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Let us pray for their eternal repose, for family and friends who grieve to this day, and for an end to terrorism and violence on every side …
Well, gentlemen, it’s nice to be with you. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit with you in small groups soon after I arrived and now it is a joy to be with so many of you for the Convocation. This is a first opportunity for me to say to such a large group of priests how grateful I am for the very warm welcome I have received from you and from the people in the parishes and schools that I’ve visited thus far. To quote Robert Frost, ‘I have many miles to go before I sleep’ but the first few miles have been very enjoyable. Let me say how happy I am to be among you and to serve as your Archbishop!
I’d like to say a word of thanks to Fr. Ron Knott for being with us. The priests of Bridgeport were lucky enough to have him at their Convocation so I was very happy to learn, Ron, that you’d be at ours. I might mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that when my Dad worked in an office in downtown Louisville, he’d stop in for noonday Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption where a certain Ron Knott was the celebrant and the homilist. He would always tell me what a good homilist Fr. Knott was and the clear implication was to go and do likewise!
All of us are aware that we are beginning a Year of Faith. It is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In a few weeks, a world-wide synod on the topic of the new evangelization will begin and from that gathering the Holy Father will provide an exhortation for the Church. A few months ago, Pope Benedict wrote a beautiful letter to the Church inviting us all to walk through the door of faith, to be refreshed and renewed in our faith and our desire to bear witness to it. Just as Pope Paul VI did in 1967, so Pope Benedict asks us to set aside the year ahead as a time when we rededicate ourselves to the task of preaching and bearing witness to the Gospel in a manner that engages our culture convincingly and lovingly.
By the way, all this is taking place in my first few months as your Archbishop. That has given me food for thought as I pray about the ministry entrusted to me. As I wrote in the Review, the Year of Faith isn’t a gimmick but a new beginning. It isn’t as though we are to be concerned about the faith this year and then next year it’s on to something else. The Year of Faith is a new beginning for a task that is fundamental. I am reminded of Pope Paul VI’s comment that evangelization is the deepest identity of the Church. It isn’t something that the Church does, rather, the Church’s identity and life is completely bound up with preaching the Gospel and bearing witness to it. So, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about this in the context of our gathering.
II. Toward a Unified Presbyterate
A principal focus for our gathering is our unity as a presbyterate. The unity of bishop with priests, priests with their bishop, and priests unified among themselves. Of course, this isn’t the first or the last talk you’ll hear on the topic and experience teaches that even with God’s grace surrounding us, penetrating us, and leading us – maintaining and strengthening our unity as a presbyterate is hard work. It has to be intentional. We have to pray about it and invest in it and sacrifice for it. It is my task and it is yours – a shared task – something we do together or not at all. And Fr. Knott will help you and me to think about this in very real terms.
But what does unity in the Presbyterate have to do with the new evangelization? You and I don’t have to be Raymond Brown to figure this one out. All we have to do is reflect on the Lord’s prayer to the Father, “ … may they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, that they also might be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn. 17:21). The thumbnail exegesis is that you and I are drawn by the Holy Spirit into the unity of the Father and the Son, into a union of truth and love that precedes us and brings us together, uniting us in a bond stronger than the sum of our frailty and sinfulness. It is in living and manifesting this unity that people are attracted to Christ. Tertullian’s apologetics hinges on the phrase, “Look, see how these Christians love one another!” (Apology 39:4) In our fractious and badly divided culture, in a culture of suspicion, where people are talking past each other with slogans and sound bites, perhaps what might open them first and foremost to the Gospel is our unity. Blessed John Paul II spoke of “a charity that evangelizes” – (Ecclesia in Europa, no. 33) and so our love for each other, our concern for each other’s well-being, our thoughtfulness and respect for one another – isn’t just for the sake of easing tensions or making life a little easier (those are the side benefits) – but rather for the sake of evangelizing— which is not merely something we do but rather who we are as ministers of the Gospel and stewards of the mysteries of Christ. We must be together on the path of a charity that evangelizes. This has nothing to do with the old musty clerical culture of the past, but rather a healthy open-handed and open-hearted love for one another that bears witness to the Gospel we preach and the sacraments we celebrate that looks to the unity of all the members of the Church … that stands as a living invitation to unity for all.
St. Paul would pull us in the same direction. In Ephesians he urges us to tend to the unity of the Body of Christ. “I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility & gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5). In the very next lines, St. Paul will go on to speak about a diversity of gifts and surely we can look around this room and see a diversity of gifts and by the way a diversity of age, of thought, and of style, a diversity of ministries, a diversity of parishes, a diversity of personal challenges, as well as a diversity in the ways in which we were formed for priesthood at various periods in the life of the Church. It does no good for me to stand here before you to urge lockstep uniformity. Even I would find that pretty boring! After all, we’re not robots or automatons! I hope it will do some good for me to suggest, however, that we keep our eye fixed on that unity that precedes and surround us, that unity of faith and love expressed in the teaching of the Magisterium that has the power to draw us together in spite of ourselves, that unity which makes the Gospel of life and salvation convincing to those who might be looking for that love which helps them make sense of life, that gives them hope, that goes beneath the surface and deals with the transcendent dimension of their existence.
III. An Evangelical Style of Life
Well, if it’s the case that evangelization is not just something we do but rather at the heart of our identity and if it’s the case that evangelization hinges on our unity, then that has a lot of implications for you and me and how we live. I remember the first time I read Pastores Dabo Vobis, the exhortation of Pope John Paul II on the priesthood and vocations. I was surprised by the parallel he drew between the diocesan priesthood and consecrated life. He urges us as priests to a life of authentic chaste celibacy, to a life of simplicity, and to a life marked by obedient love.
I don’t think that the late Pope was confusing states of life in the Church nor do I think he was imposing a monastic spirituality upon parish priests. I think he was telling us that if we want to evangelize our lives have to be evangelical. We have to live the heart of the Gospel, the Beatitudes, in concentrated form. Chastity, simplicity, and obedient love are simply a lived summary of the Gospel. People have to see in our lives a living homily before they hear a preached homily. Indeed, anytime in the history of the Church that there has been a great flowering of apostolic activity – whether we think of the preaching of the Apostles after Pentecost or the amazing renewal of the Church’s life at Milan under Charles Borromeo or the replanting of the Church in Geneva under St. Francis de Sales … the bishop and his priests have undergo profound conversion of mind and heart, have wholly dedicated themselves to holiness of life and prayer, have opened their hearts to the life-giving truth of the Gospel. May that be said of us – of our generation – in our time and in our place! May we be evangelized ever anew so that we may evangelize ever anew.
It is the Beatitudes that offer us the way toward unity among ourselves and the way to be agents of unity in the Church. How happy I am every year to read again Pope Leo’s homily on the Beatitudes in the Office of Readings and St. Cyprian of Carthage’s reflections on the Our Father. When we pray the Our Father we are praying that the Beatitudes might come true in us. And when that happens we are unique, distinct, images of Christ to one another. We are more willing to lay aside our opinions and styles and look to the needs of others and of the whole Body of Christ. We are more willing to practice that asceticism that is required of you and me to share in the unity of the Father and the Son so that the world may believe. We are more willing to ask if we are engaging in an authentic, enriching diversity or a diversity that impedes the message of the Gospel. I think it is St. Ireneaus of Lyon who drew a compared the church to a mosaic. Acknowledging as did St. Paul the diversity of gifts that is part of the Church’s life, he compared the Church to a mosaic and observed that, absent the rule of faith, the stones of this mosaic can be arranged to form an image of a dog or a fox but only with the rule of faith does the image of the great King appear. Only when we are united as one in the faith which the Church professes does the image of Christ take shape in us not just as individuals but as a presbyerate.
And when we are living the life and sharing the faith, and when we do so in a spirit of generosity and joy, people take notice. This has a direct impact on priestly vocations – when they sense our unity, generosity, and joy among us they are more likely to open their hearts to the possibility of a priestly vocation. We open the door not only for them but for all the baptized to share in this unity of faith and love
and to actively contribute to it with their own diversity of talents and gifts which the Church needs whether there are plenty of priests or too few.
IV. Particular Aspects of the Church of Baltimore
Well, you might be getting restive long about now. A talk long on piety but short on specifics, long on bromides but short in recognizing the practical realities of daily life and ministry in the poorest urban neighborhoods in Baltimore, amid the challenges of Mountain Maryland, or the still growing suburbs.
Let me add, though, that I will welcome your questions and comments not only when I finish my talk this afternoon but also on Thursday morning. And I am grateful to all of you who took time to write to me as I was arriving here and all of you who came to the small gatherings of priests in various regions. For now, let me just say I am in a state of becoming. I am becoming more aware with each passing day of at least some of the challenges that are facing us all … challenges of which you wrote when I came to Baltimore, challenges of which you spoke when we met in groups and when I met with at least some of you one on one. The mission of evangelization is never carried on in the abstract or in some ideal world, some ecclesial utopia, where everything is nearly perfect. If only you believe that I really believe this, that’s I hope a good start.
I know that we are stretched, often it would seem, beyond capacity. For example, it is new to me to serve with brother priests who are holding down more than one parish or more than one full time ministry. I would be less than honest if I failed to say how concerned I am that you are spread so thin and that our numbers will diminish in the years ahead. I think about how taxing that is and about the need for us all not to pamper ourselves but to take care of ourselves, body, mind, & spirit, so as not to burn out. This is not to announce a program; it’s just an early opportunity for me to let you know that this concern that we share resonates in my mind & heart. I’ve been a priest 35 years and have seen in two other dioceses and now here that we priests aren’t made of stone but have many of the same needs and afflictions that beset the people we strive to serve. How important for me to be not only a bishop and a father but also a brother. And while I began my ministry at St. Vincent de Paul in Anacostia and served a very poor city in Connecticut, viz., Bridgeport, I must say I’ve been blown away by some of what I’ve seen in some city neighborhoods in Baltimore. A few days ago I attended the naming of a street after Councilwoman Agnes Welch just up the street from St. Edward’s – the 2900th Block of Mosher St. at Poplar – and it was certainly a lovely gesture to recognize her long and loving service but as I looked around me I saw such need, so many needs. It isn’t all Inner Harbor, Little Italy, and Camden Yards. I know some hard decisions were made about schools, that some hard decisions about the configuration of parishes await us, that questions of how central offices works with parishes and schools, and yes, some questions about doctrine, theology, and liturgical practice. If these things didn’t exist, I guess I’d be out of purgatory now enjoying heaven.
The point is that we don’t achieve unity and carry forward the mission of evangelization in a vacuum but in a very real world, in an Archdiocese with a beautiful history and legacy but also with a challenging future. I want you to know that I want to be here not just because of the Archdiocese’s wonderful past but above all because I want to share the future with you and I want it to be a future in which we encourage one another with the truth, light, and love of the Gospel as it comes to us through the Church, and then, united in spirit, for all our challenges, we find the right ways to carry out the ministry of evangelization with vigor, employing not only our gifts but the gifts of the religious and laity who are part of this great family of faith. Maybe all I can say is that I will resolve each day to get up, to say my prayers, to rejoice in the Lord and in you, and to walk with you every day through the door of faith, so that we may lead others rejoicing through that same door.
Thank you brothers for listening.May God bless us and keep us always in his love.