We of the Archdiocese of Hartford have been especially graced by the Installation of a new Shepherd in our Cathedral church: Archbishop Leonard P. Blair. A new chapter of the history of Catholicism here has been opened, and we are all part of the process.
Theologically, the event has been replete with deep meaning. As Vatican Council II reminds us: "The bishop is to be considered as the High Priest of his flock from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way revived and upon whom it in some ways depends." Consequently, the Council went on, we should all hold in the greatest esteem the liturgical life of the diocese "centered around the bishop, especially in his Cathedral church." Indeed, the image of a bishop, surrounded by the college of priests, clergy and laity, all praying together at the altar of the Eucharist, constitutes the real and dynamic manifestation of the Church – "the principal action in which the Church collectively realizes and manifests itself." (See Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, Cyprian Vagaggini, 1976.)
The liturgy of the Installation of a Bishop reminds us that we are called to unity with God and other persons, and in and through God’s only Son, Jesus of Nazareth. St. Cyprian of Carthage, so many centuries ago, wrote that the Church "is the ‘sacrament of unity’; namely, "a people reconciled in one by the unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Hence the bishop – Archbishop Blair in Hartford – "is the external, human and immediate principle of transmission of cohesion." Chiefly, it is "from him," wrote St. Cyprian, "that the faithful who are under his care derive and maintain their life in Christ." (Vagaggini, ibid)
St. Ignatius of Antioch summoned the same theology while on the way to his martyrdom: "…one thing is necessary…that you do nothing without your bishop; indeed, be subject to the clergy as well, seeing in them the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope…" (Letter to the Trallians)
As the focal point of the Church, around whom all the faithful, clergy and laity alike meet, the bishop is called upon to teach sound doctrine in union with the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father. Indeed, preaching the Gospel is the primary role of the bishop, who is aided in this holy task by his presbyterate. As Saint Paul reminds us in the monumental Epistle to the Romans, the priest’s primary responsibility is authentic preaching, the supreme actualization of liturgical preaching, orienting toward each priest’s principal ministry, that of celebrating the Eucharist.
This prime episcopal role is symbolized by the bishop’s teaching chair, known as the "cathedra" (which explains why a bishop’s main church is described as a "cathedral"; it is precisely because it features the "teaching chair" of the bishop, reserved for his use). To emphasize the theology of authentic preaching, as vested in a bishop on the occasion of his installation, Archbishop Blair, newly assigned to the Church of Hartford, was formally led by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, to the cathedra or teaching chair.
As indicated above, liturgical preaching constitutes "the highest actualization of preaching when it is an integral part of the liturgical action" – in the words of Don Vagaggini. This is why the homily is so crucial and so spiritually powerful. (It is interesting to note that, as Cardinal Augustine Bea, the great Biblical scholar who helped organize Vatican Council II during its earliest days, the direct union between the proclamation of the Word plus its explanation, together with the sacrificial core of Mass, is a phenomenon proper to Catholicism, and is not discoverable in other ancient religions; in fact, it may very well date back exclusively to Christ’s own example, beginning with the Last Supper.)
Doubtless all the above helps explain why Pope Francis spends so much time on the meaning of the homily in his recent (24 Nov.) Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.(See Chapter Three.) The homily, he writes, "cannot be a form of entertainment," nor merely a means of communication or simply a classroom lecture. "Rather, it is a distinct genre."
In brief, liturgical preaching, supremely realized in the Mass homily, should always rest on Scriptural bases – text or context – with "words which set hearts on fire" (as Pope Francis notes).