In this new year, the 2015th year of Our Lord, may our archdiocesan family of faith and each of us individually be blessed with all the good things that are truly important in God’s eyes.
I want to thank the many people who sent me Christmas and New Year’s greetings. Although I cannot acknowledge them all in writing, I have read your cards and notes and am grateful for your thoughtfulness, prayers and support for me as your archbishop.
The new year reminds us of the passing of time, of the unfolding of history through the ages. History is a great teacher and a source of wisdom. I remember reading an interesting history of Christianity in North Africa at the end of the Roman Empire, with a lot of lessons for today. North Africa was heavily Christian before the Muslim conquest, and it produced great saints and martyrs like Saint Augustine, Saint Cyprian and Saints Perpetua and Felicity.
When we read Saint Augustine, we may imagine him presiding serenely over his Diocese of Hippo Regius. The reality is not so serene. When Augustine was named bishop, faithful Catholics were outnumbered by a break-away dissident church known as Donatists. When the Roman emperor tried to settle the division at a council in the year 411, there were 286 Catholic bishops in attendance and 284 Donatist bishops.
Augustine also had to deal with the powerful New Age-type movement of his time, Manichaeism, which promised “to free the spark of light in human beings and so deliver them from matter and darkness.” There were also major theological controversies and disciplinary problems among the clergy. So let’s not think that dissent, division and turmoil are something new or unprecedented in the life of the church.
A great lesson from Saint Augustine is that we should not build our faith on Christ’s all-too-human representatives, the clergy. He insisted that Christians avoid two opposite extremes: leaving the church because of the scandal provoked by unfaithful shepherds, on the one hand, and putting trust in good shepherds instead of Christ, on the other.
He writes: “Whatever we are like, your hope must not be in us . . . Your hope must not be in our humanity. Whether good or bad, we are ministers. If we are good, we are faithful ministers and truly servants. Pay attention to what we administer. If we are bad, we do not cease, for that reason, to be a dispenser of the gospel. That is why Jesus says: ‘Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.’”
When we clergy are true to the promises of our ordination, when we teach what the church teaches, when we live by a high standard of right conduct and good example, when our own comfort and convenience take second place to the needs of the flock, then we are good shepherds despite all of our human imperfections and sins. If we betray our high calling, however, then we will have to answer before the judgment seat of God.
Like every bishop, I sometimes receive letters of complaint about this or that priest, and I seek to address the situation appropriately, as best I can. I also receive letters praising our clergy, which is always gratifying to hear. Being a faithful steward is not always easy in today’s demanding and unforgiving world. But then, think of what Saint Augustine faced so long ago.
The Catholic faithful have an obligation in charity to speak personally and respectfully to a cleric with whom they believe they have some grievance. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is always the charitable thing to do, and this benefit should not be denied to the clergy, whose words and actions are subject to interpretation by a wide variety of people. Sometimes it is just a misunderstanding; other times not. What is important is that we love, respect and pray for all our priests. I want to commend to you the following beautiful prayer that Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is said to have prayed every day:
“Eternal God, Look upon the face of Your Christ, and for the love of Him, Who is the Eternal High Priest, have pity on Your priests. Remember, O most compassionate God, that they are but weak and frail human beings. Stir up in them the grace of their vocation which they received by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands. Keep them close to You, lest the enemy prevail against them, so that they may never do anything in the slightest degree unworthy of their sublime vocation.
O Jesus, I pray to You for Your faithful and fervent priests; for Your unfaithful and tepid priests; for Your priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields; for Your tempted priests; for Your lonely and desolate priests; for Your young priests; for Your aged priests; for Your sick priests; for Your dying priests; for the souls of Your priests in Purgatory.
But above all, I commend to You the priests dearest to me: the priest who baptized me; the priests who absolved me from my sins; the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me Your Body and Blood in Holy Communion; the priests who taught and instructed me or helped and encouraged me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way, particularly [name a particular priest of your choosing here]. O Jesus, keep them all close to Your heart, and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity. Amen.”