Tomorrow evening Pope Francis will arrive in Mexico City to begin a seven day apostolic visit to our neighbors to the south. What will he say? What will he do? Like you I have no crystal ball. But if there is any truth to the adage that “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior” then we know. We are in for our own journey of faith and challenge as we listen to and watch this amazing Bishop of Rome in our midst. He is nothing less than a living parable. He talks the talk but also, more importantly, he walks the walk. Like the pope, each of us is called to be “talkers” and “walkers” but no one is more responsible to say and do what is right, day in and day out, than a bishop. On this ordination day Bishop Kelly, allow me to offer these thoughts on what the life and ministry of a bishop could (dare I say “should”?) be under and with Pope Francis. I do this in light of the readings just proclaimed, the ceremony of ordination that will unfold and in light of the exciting ministry that awaits you.
Mission to the Afflicted.
The section from the prophet Isaiah just proclaimed should sound very familiar. These same verses are part of what Jesus said as he began his ministry in the gospel of St. Luke (4:14-21) which was the gospel we all heard three week-ends ago. He applied this self-description to himself:
To bring glad tidings to the lowly,
To heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to prisoners.
Jesus then said to those in the synagogue “where he had grown up” that “this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21).
This is the same kind of ministry Pope Francis exemplifies for us. How often does he say that the church is not a hotel for the rich but a hospital for the poor? Or that sacraments are not for those who are spiritually well but for those who are spiritually infirm? Or that the sacrament of Penance is not for the sinless but to remind us that we, the pope included, are all sinners?
The words of the prophet Isaiah are used today as part of your job description, Bishop Kelly. These words are proclaimed here today in this diocese of Dallas where, like Jesus in Nazareth, you “have grown up.” Your service as chaplain and pastor is well known and fondly remembered. You are very respected by your peers. You have been very helpful to the priests in your service as Vicar for Clergy. Dare I say please never forget where you came from! Be a servant – leader bishop and be a co-worker in this vineyard in the diocese of Dallas with clergy, lay ecclesial ministers and all the flock of Christ in our midst.
Please be particularly attentive to those on the margins, on the periphery and make them the heart and soul of your ministry. For Pope Francis what seemed like the center is now the periphery and what seemed like the neglected periphery is now center stage.
The periphery has become the center and the center has become the periphery. Or as we pray in the Magnificat daily:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things.
The Word of God.
St. Paul reminds us today that we must be “strong, loving and wise” (2 Tim. 1:7) as we exercise our ministry in the church. It also means that we realize and internalize the words from both Isaiah and St. Paul that this ministry is of and from the Spirit. It is always the Lord’s work, not ours.
In a few moments I will present you with the Book of the Gospels, that same book that was given to you at your ordination as a deacon. It is this same book from which the gospel is proclaimed week in and week out. That same book was placed in the hands of all the other clergy present here whose particular charge is to proclaim the Word by word and deed. Our job is to “give voice to the Word. “Or as Pope Francis’ patron saint famously said “preach always and sometimes use words.”
Please continue to heal and reconcile with your words and with your actions. But do to not be afraid to challenge and upend customary expectations. This is something which Pope Francis does regularly. It is something we preachers need to imitate.
St. Paul’s urgent appeal to Timothy is never to be ashamed of our testimony to the Lord and to take whatever hardship this will require. Those words sound easy. But fulfilling them is not. Why else would the author to the Letter of the Hebrews feel compelled to say:
God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates and divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart. (4:12)
With the pope’s extraordinary example I urge you to make sure that the word you hear, appropriate and preach is precisely a word that penetrates well-worn patterns of behavior and action. – First your own and then those of others.
We must give voice to a word that challenges as well as consoles.
We must give voice to a word that disturbs as well as comforts.
That is our responsibility under and on behalf of the Word. If we do not attend to the paradoxes and challenges of the Word of God it ceases to be a two edged sword and becomes nothing but a butter knife: useful to spread butter on a roll or icing on a cake but not able to penetrate anything so that it can heal it from the inside.
Year of Mercy
The prophet Isaiah announced a “year of favor from the Lord” (61:2). Jesus in Luke’s gospel recounts the same “year of favor from the Lord” (4:19). Pope Francis announced this as a Year of Mercy. And you, Bishop Kelly, are ordained during this extraordinary year of mercy.
The pope made the startling statement in outlining what this Year of Mercy was intended to be by saying that “Jesus is the face of God’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus n. 1). Why say it? Jesus came to put a face on God and that face is mercy. One of the first instances in the gospels where the mercy of the risen Christ is given is today’s gospel from John (21:15-17). The incident is best understood against the fact that Peter had betrayed Jesus three times. Today’s gospel overturns the betrayal with a threefold dialogue ending with the instruction to “feed,” “tend” and “feed” the sheep. Pope Francis used the example of “sheep” and “shepherds” when early on in his papacy he encouraged us ordained to “smell of the sheep.” He urged us to “stay close to the sheep.” He said as much to us American bishops when he spoke to us at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington in late September (Sept. 23, 2015). I know you will continue to stay close to the members of this diocese of Dallas. After all this is where you grew up!
But allow me to suggest that the “sheep “shepherd” analogy only goes so far. That we shepherds tend the flock by word and deed, to the point of the sweat of our brow and even the shedding of our blood is what this means. But when it comes to the “sheep” we need to remember that humans are not animals, certainly not sheep! All the baptized are fellow believers in the church who are thinking, praying, acting agents who are never to be patronized, presumed upon or not regarded as collegial fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard. To be a “shepherd” means to take responsibility seriously, to act in fidelity on behalf of this diocesan family, to seek out the lost, to welcome accountability of our actions, and to collaborate and to dialogue with everyone. “Dialogue” is a word the pope uses very often. It is something he exemplifies daily by word and action. When archbishop Fulton Sheen retired from serving in the diocese of Rochester, New York he gathered the priests one last time. He gave his farewell talk and began by apologizing for the times when “I monologued,” he said “instead of dialogued.” Good advice for us all. Be a good and faithful shepherd. But remember that all the faithful are intelligent co-workers, with whom we dialogue, not over whom we monologue.
We who are asked to show mercy in a particular way during this “Year of Mercy” must realize that mercy has been shown to us and continues to be shown to us. We give what we have received and continue to receive. This resonates with Pope Francis’ message for this Lent subtitled “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt. 9:3). It also resonates with what many of us read yesterday in the Office of Readings in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy of the Hours – Isaiah chapter 58. That same chapter is read continuously tomorrow and Saturday at Mass. This chapter from Isaiah gives us the terms of the kind of fasting the prophet tells us that God wants. It is the kind of fasting Pope Francis says and lives. It is a feast of unleashing mercy and a fast when we feed the hungry.
Joy of the Gospel
As is well known the first document (fully) authored by Pope Francis is entitled “the Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium). In it he outlines a number of things about his understanding of his ministry and our ministry with him, especially to the poor. For me, it is very telling that the title of the document emphasizes joy, which joy, I think, we all see in the life and ministry of Pope Francis. It is a quality we should never lose.
The story is told of a priest at a street corner in Los Angeles who looks up and sees that the famous comedian Bob Hope is about to cross the street toward him. The priest stays in place and is thrilled to be able to meet Bob Hope. The priest crosses the street; and puts out his hand to shake Bob’s hand and says “I am honored to meet you Mr. Hope. And I want to thank you for bringing joy into the lives of so many people.” Bob Hope shook the priest’s hand, arched his thick eyebrows, looked the priest in the eyes and said “and I want to thank you, Father, for taking the joy out of people’s lives!”
I suspect that sometimes in the church it can seem like that. Under and with Pope Francis it is never like that. Bishop Kelly let it never be that way in your life and ministry as a bishop.
Like you, I have no crystal ball and so cannot predict what the pope will say and do in Mexico during the next week. But if I were a betting man I would say that:
He will engage in ministry to the afflicted in a particular way;
He will preach the word of God by words and deeds;
He will remind us again and again of God’s unfailing mercy;
And he will do it all with a serenity of spirit and the joy of God in his heart and in his manner.
To the Corinthians St. Paul said “be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
I would say to you Bishop Kelly, be an imitator of Pope Francis as your role model as he imitates Christ while he serves as nothing less than a living parable among us.