By Bishop Wilton Gregory
At the November Bishops' Meeting in Washington DC
My brother bishops, my sisters and brothers in Christ,
In a few short weeks during the season of Advent, we shall listen again to the opening words of the 40th chapter of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet is speaking in the name of God to the people of Israel who have long been in exile in Babylon. The Israelites are broken and afraid; they are dispirited and uncertain of their future. They needed a word of hope. Isaiah steps into their midst and declares in God's name: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God."
The times in which we live are likewise characterized by fear and uncertainty, and there are many reasons for this anxiety. The signs of the times are painfully obvious:
-- We live at a particular moment when our nation is faced with war, and terrorism has become an unwelcome guest.
-- A weakened economy has many of us question if we will have enough to provide for ourselves and our loved ones.
-- The scandal of poverty and disease is ever more prevalent in our country and around the world.
-- In our own church, as well, we have had to face the criminal and sinful sexual abuse of children and the mismanagement of those violations by some church leaders.
Like the Israelites of old, we too need a word of hope. We need the word that God spoke through Isaiah: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God." But we also need to know what we are seeking.
The comfort that God has in mind for his people is not what the word "comfort" often implies: a life of passive ease. On the contrary, the comfort that the Lord is offering is a life of complete and active engagement with God in Jesus Christ. It is a matter of letting go of the slavery of our earthly desires and dreams, and letting God's plan and dream for his people take hold of us. It is a matter of allowing ourselves to be formed as the people of God by pursuing, with God's grace, the call to holiness that each of us has received from God. In the end, it is a matter of engaging in deep communion with God so that we will be nourished into an ecclesial communion that has as its mission the proclamation and living out of the Gospel of Christ.
My brother bishops, the word of the Lord, as prophesied by Isaiah, sums up profoundly the mission that has been given to us by God as bishops. We bishops, by the grace of our sacramental consecration, are the authentic bearers of that mission and the message it contains. Like the apostles whom we succeed, we have been sent to announce God's word that genuine comfort in human life can only be found in communion with him. Our duty, put simply, is to make our own the word of the Lord announced by Isaiah and embraced by John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry:
"A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the wasteland a
highway for our God!" (Is 40:3)
Without this word, no true comfort can be known; no genuine comfort can be obtained. It is our mission to speak this word and to let it become the word that fashions a people of God in Christ.
The Threefold Office and Ministry of the Bishop to Teach, to Sanctify and to Govern
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke simply, yet profoundly, of the ministry of bishops. According to the council, bishops are chosen by the Lord to lead the faithful, "presiding in place of God over the flock whose shepherd they are, as teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and officers of good order" ("Lumen Gentium," 20). My brother bishops, to the degree that we fulfill this mission that God has given us, to that degree will God's people know and experience the true comfort that God wishes for them.
As teachers, we bishops are first evangelizers. We are to proclaim Jesus Christ to those who don't know him; we are to bring the fullness of Christ's truth to those who have been baptized in his name; and we are to help all men and women of good will to see that only the light of Christ can fully reveal the truth of the world in which we live. By bringing our sisters and brothers to Christ, the council tells us, we help them to recognize "the divinely revealed way to give glory to God and thus attain to everlasting happiness" ("Christus Dominus," 12). What greater comfort could ever be proclaimed or received!
In a special way, following the example of the Divine Teacher, we bishops have an obligation to bring the Gospel of Christ and his comfort to the poorest and the most marginalized in our society, to those for whom anxiety and fear are only too familiar. Fulfilling that mission, thank God, has been a preoccupation of the work of our conference throughout our history. Last June we gave over the whole of our assembly to addressing the needs of those who, tragically, have been victims of sexual abuse in the church; and we put in place measures to ensure the greatest protection of our children in the church. With the help of the very fine work of the recently established mixed commission, we look forward to strengthening that work. As I have said repeatedly since our groundbreaking work in June, we will not step back from our compassion for those who have been harmed, or from our determination to put into place policies that will protect children.
There are other important ways in which we will engage God's mission of bringing healing and comfort to those who have been marginalized during our deliberations this week.
Anxiety sometimes pervades the family, which is the microcosm and the foundation of society-at-large. It is particularly poignant when those we usually depend on for comfort arouse fear and intimidation instead. On our agenda is the revision of our 1992 statement "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women." The statement is addressed to abused women and their abusers, and to pastors and pastoral staffs. It describes the nature of domestic violence; contains updated statistics and resources related to domestic violence; and repeats emphatically the message we proclaimed a decade ago: Violence against women is never justified.
One of the hallmarks of our conference's work has been our commitment to refugees and to migrants. Since 1975, the Catholic Church in the United States has witnessed to Christ's loving welcome and comfort by processing and settling 25 percent of the total number of refugees who have come to the United States from all corners of the world. In an unprecedented effort, the bishops of Mexico and we have chosen to address the particular situation of the migration that is taking place along our border. In the joint statement, "Strangers No Longer," which both of our conferences will review this week, we reaffirm the church's teaching on the rights of migrants; we highlight the need for the pastoral accompaniment of those who migrate; and we call for greater advocacy on their behalf.
The scandal of poverty continues at home and abroad. It is easy to become discouraged since victory over it always seems just beyond our reach. And yet Christ's example is one of tireless care for the poor and those in need. In the statement before us this week, "A Place At The Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and Respect the Dignity of All God's Children," we emphasize the role each of us has and which all of us together must undertake to bring God's comfort and relief to the poor.
The 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade has been disastrous for our nation. Based on a complete disregard for human rights and enshrined for almost 30 years in false logic and rhetoric, that decision, more than any other in our recent history, has been responsible for blinding our national conscience to the truth about our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The statement before us this week, "A Matter of the Heart," reflects on the impact of Roe vs. Wade, calls again -- in the name of truth and justice -- for that ruling to be overturned, and expresses the gratitude of the bishops to all those who have kept the truth about human life alive. Our prophetic persistence in preaching the Gospel of Christ on this issue cannot but allow falsity to give way to the truth, and truth to bring rightful comfort to the unborn.
As sanctifiers of the people of God, we bishops are called to act as "priests of sacred worship." Having gathered the community of the church to Christ by the preaching of his Gospel, we bishops are called upon to provide for the true nourishment and comfort of God's people by uniting them more closely to the Lord Jesus through the sacraments which communicate "the riches of Christ" ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," 947).
While each of the sacraments offers a specific sanctification and nourishment both to the member of the church who receives it and to the whole church herself, the sacrament of the Eucharist holds a pre-eminent place. In the words of St. Leo the Great, embraced by the council, "the partaking of the body and blood of Christ does nothing other than transform us into that which we consume" ("Lumen Gentium," 26). In the Eucharist the church shows forth most fully the holiness and the unity that she has in Christ, because there she becomes most like Christ himself. It is in the Eucharist that the disciples of Christ most fully experience communion and are fortified to take up the Lord's mission of announcing the Good News.
Sadly, however, the unity and communion that Christ makes of his church in the Eucharist are not perfectly mirrored in the daily experience we have with one another. Often enough in our history, but especially in our present time, unfortunately, we have witnessed greater fracture and discord than unity. This year, as we have sought to address the problem of sexual abuse in the church, we have experienced serious fractures between bishops and the faithful, as well as between bishops and priests. We have also witnessed divisions among priests and among the faithful in determining the best way to respond to this tragedy. Moreover, we bishops ourselves have not been immune from disagreement and discord on this matter.
Given that we are a eucharistic community in Christ, we cannot and must never allow the particular positions that we have taken on such a serious issue or even the mistakes that we have made in understanding and addressing it to destroy our communion with one another in the Lord. The communion that we have in Christ is God-given; it is, moreover, the essential foundation of our life of holiness, our life of fulfilling the Lord's mission of witnessing to and preaching the Gospel. Whatever the differences we have experienced with one another this year, it is essential to our life in Christ that we address them appropriately and reconcile fully with one another. In doing this we bishops should remember that, as the sanctifiers of God's people, we are God's agents of reconciliation and bear the principal responsibility here.
As bishops, we should have no illusions about the intent of some people who have shown more than a casual interest in the discord we have experienced within the church this year. There are those outside the church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the church espouses, and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the church cannot and will never condone. Sadly, even among the baptized, there are those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas. One cannot fail to hear in the distance -- and sometimes very nearby -- the call of the false prophet, "Let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock." We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.
As administrators of the church, the council exhorts us bishops to keep the model of the Good Shepherd always before us ("Lumen Gentium," 27). Like the Good Shepherd, we are called to know and to love those entrusted to our care. The council tells us, moreover, that we are responsible not only for attending to the needs of the faithful, especially of those who are lost or marginalized; we are also responsible for recognizing the "duty and right" that other members of the church have "to collaborate actively in the building up of the body of Christ" ("Christus Dominus," 16). The mission given us by the Lord is one in which all members of the church have a proper share. That is especially true of those who are related to us in ministry by sacred ordination. It is also true of the religious and laity.
When I think of those in my own diocese who assist me in fulfilling the mission that the Lord has given to me, my heart's eye turns toward all of my brother priests. The priestly vocation puts a man in contact with people in places where comfort is needed, at times when one of our brothers or sisters needs someone who can act "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ. The priest finds himself beside the hospital bed and at the graveside, in the office with the troubled married couple, in the confessional with the penitent weighed down by sin, and with those who face unexpected tragedy.
Priests were among those who quickly came to the scenes of torment that most of us saw only on television on Sept. 11. On that first terrible day and on the following days, there were many stories of the rescuers themselves -- firefighters, police officers, emergency workers -- gravitating to this priestly presence for prayers, words of consolation, or simply to shed tears with someone whose vocation personifies God's mercy and tenderness.
Each priest brings his own individual gifts and talents to the mission of making Christ present. Each excels at different and particular aspects of our multifaceted vocation. But every priest knows that being present for those in need is fundamental to acting "in persona Christi."
Priests today too often are being unfairly judged by the misdeeds of other priests, men often long departed from ministry or even deceased. One can hardly talk of the priesthood today without mentioning that some priests and bishops have seriously failed to live up to our vocation. Whenever I am listening to or reading a story about the good work of priests, I have gotten into the habit of anticipating the "but ...," which will lead into some tale of malfeasance.
Well, this morning there is no "but." We need to pay more than lip service to the truth that the overwhelming majority of priests are faithful servants of the Lord. I am proud to be part of and to lead the presbyterate of the Diocese of Belleville -- as I know each bishop here is in his own diocese. I pray that I am worthy of my priests. The people of Belleville esteem their priests, and I am sure the same is true of every diocese. If it were not, I doubt if after such a year as this, the priests of our nation could still affirm such a high level of satisfaction with their vocation as they did in a recent poll -- a result that remains consistent with previous findings. God bless our priests! They have surely blessed us!
At the direction of the Second Vatican Council, the permanent diaconate has been restored as a vital ministry in assisting us bishops in the mission of the church. By sacred ordination and their exercise of "the ministry of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity," deacons have a special relationship to us in fulfilling our responsibilities of bringing the knowledge and genuine comfort of Christ to the people of God.
As bishops, we need to attend, thoughtfully and constantly, to the way in which the council exhorted us to give both the religious and laity their rightful place and share in the mission of the church. Much of the council's intention has been identified and codified in church law. Religious and laity assist us well in our chanceries and tribunals, and on our diocesan financial and pastoral councils. We should continue to encourage our pastors to ensure that their gifts are well recognized and called forth in their parishes. The opportunities for the laity to assist us are great and we need to seize upon them in order to fulfill effectively the mission the Lord has given us.
As president of our conference during the past year, I have been particularly privileged to witness the extraordinary contribution of the religious and laity at the national level. I think first of the very talented lay men and women who serve us at the conference in Washington, Miami and New York. I include here my own faithful lay colleagues in the Diocese of Belleville. I also acknowledge the very gifted laity who serve at our Catholic national organizations in the areas of health, disabilities, education and social services. In a special way, I want to express my thanks to the members of our recently established National Review Board for the generosity and expertise that they bring in assisting us in the protection of our children.
Recommitment to our Mission
When the Lord gave Isaiah his mission to comfort the people of Israel, God gave Isaiah a revelation. He said to him:
"Do you not know
or have you not heard?
The Lord is an eternal God,
creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint nor grow weary,
and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny.
He gives strength to the fainting;
for the weak he makes vigor abound.
Though young men faint and grow weary,
and youths stagger and fall,
They that hope in the Lord
will renew their strength,
They will soar as with eagles' wings;
They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint." (Is 40:28-31)
My brother bishops, my brothers and sisters in Christ, with God's strength and encouragement let us embrace the hope that is put before us; let us walk together in our communion in Christ; and let us give ourselves completely to the mission that God has given us: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God."
God bless each and every one of you!