Tuesday, February 14, 2006

"To Serve and To Give"

Later today, with a Vespers service for clergy, the festivities begin for the installation of George Hugh Niederauer as the eighth archbishop of San Francisco. The celebration will climax, of course, with the liturgy at 2pm local time (2200GMT) on Wednesday.

Word from the West is that the archbishop-elect arrived in his new See five days ago and is settling in. Given his record as one of the American hierarchy's most cultured minds and noted preachers, we await what will certainly be a blockbuster homily on Wednesday.

In the meantime, however, Niederauer did have some very salient things to say when preaching his farewell Mass in Salt Lake City's exquisite Cathedral of the Madeleine a week ago.... Some snips:
Suffering is an ancient theme in Sacred Scripture. Our first reading from the Book of Job is a cry about the human condition: “Man’s life on earth is a drudgery, his days those of a hireling. His days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.” Several years ago I awoke one morning about 3 a.m., and I was wide-awake. I decided to work on the homily for the following Sunday. These were the three readings. Suddenly Job’s words leaped out at me: “If in bed, I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ Then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.” I thought, “Well, Lord, sometimes you can speak to me very directly!”

Jesus met all kinds of suffering in his ministry, and he reached out to all of it with his healing touch. We still find that suffering all around us, and in our own lives as well: worry and anxiety about physical, mental, and emotional illness; poverty and anxiety about jobs; domestic violence and divided families; public fears like crime and drugs; and private fears like loneliness, misunderstanding, and bitterness.

What is God’s answer to all that suffering? Does God even have an answer? God’s answer is not a theory or an argument. God’s answer is so personal it is a person – Jesus, His Son. Suffering is not sent into our lives from God, special delivery, for our sins. That much is clear from the teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to us to share our suffering, and our dying, and to overcome them in resurrection. Then he shares that victory with us.

Because Jesus lived, and because of what he taught, suffering cannot sum up a life any more than pleasure can. Jesus lived a brief, homeless, poverty-stricken life and died violently in excruciating pain, but he did not die a failure: His love for the Father and for us overcame the worst that sin and death could do to him, and we share in his victory. That’s the Good News. By contrast, King Herod lived a life of wealth, pleasure, and selfishness, but he didn’t die a success. When we stop to think of it, we would not choose to share forever in the eternal result of King Herod’s earthly existence....

Even though we will be parting soon, the call from Christ that we answer together is not finished by any means. Jesus calls each of us to proclaim and witness to the Good News our whole lives long. In our second reading, from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, we can see why St. Paul is such a hero, such a model for all who witness to and proclaim the Good News. Listen to Paul’s understanding of his call and his work: “Preaching the gospel is not the subject of a boast; I… have no choice. I am ruined if I do not preach it.”

And the whole purpose of Paul’s preaching and witness is to win others over to following Jesus Christ: “I made myself the slave of all so as to win over as many as possible. To the weak I became a weak person with a view to winning the weak. I have made my self all things to all men in order to save at least some of them.” What is in it for Paul? Life with Christ forever: “I do all that I do for the sake of the gospel in the hope of having a share in its blessings.”

“I have made myself all things to all people.” What a challenge that is to you and me, living as we do in a “me-centered” culture! No wonder Father Robert Barron of Mundelein Seminary says that the mark of a mature disciple is that he or she agrees and understands when Jesus says to them, “Your life is not about you.”

Like Paul, you and I are called to be all things to all people. We meet this challenge in our lives all the time. Sometimes your challenge is to become “young with the young,” and that means experiencing the uncertainty, the insecurity, the feeling of being untried and unproven, of not wanting to be examined and judged and evaluated, but rather to be heard and understood.

At other times, we meet the challenge to become “old with the old,” to experience a sense of fragility and sometimes of loneliness, of wanting to be listened to and not ignored, of wanting to be respected for the past and to be included in the present and the future. Christ calls us to be all things to all people whenever we meet the homeless; or those who speak another language or come from a different background; or those close to us who struggle with life’s pains and difficulties.

Bringing the good news to all those human situations is what Jesus came to do. It is now what he sends us to do. Jesus challenges us to follow him, to give our lives away in loving compassion. The details, the specifics, the circumstances don’t matter that much, and neither do our struggles, our failures, our need to start over again and again. But giving ourselves away in love does matter. The giving away is all that matters finally.

Not only the four gospels got that right. Nearly 50 years ago Oscar Hammerstein got it right very simply in the lyrics of “Sound of Music:” “A bell is no bell till you ring it/ A song is no song till you sing it/ Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay/ Love isn’t love till you give it away.”

We Christians can let Christ give himself to others through us in Salt Lake City or San Francisco or all points of the compass, north, south, east, and west. On this last Sunday together, let us commend each other to God in Christ, who can go with me, and stay here with you, and be everywhere for good. May our Savior and Lord guide us in giving ourselves away in loving compassion, again and again, until we are finally filled with the love of Christ, that is beyond all understanding.
And, lastly, speaking of Salt Lake, this snip of an interview the new archbishop gave to the Salt Lake Tribune is notable:
Tribune: Would you want to see a Latino bishop here?

Niederauer: I think that would be a good thing. I'm not trying to have any allusions that I am going to be a bishop maker. In the practice of the church, the previous bishop does have some input in terms of explaining the needs of the diocese, etc. but you don't make the decision.

Tribune: But you have some friends in Rome...

Niederauer: There you go...