Wednesday, October 03, 2007

At Long Last, "Magic City" Gets its Baker

Talk about things you couldn't make up if you wanted to....

Once upon a time, long before all this, I got to know the unexpected, very sweet, very generous kindness of the then-newly-named bishop of Charleston, Robert Baker. And at his installation today in Birmingham -- the long-awaited coda to the longest vacancy of a US diocese since 1814 -- that kindness manifested itself yet again, and in a rather shocking way.

Saying that the long-empty cathedra was "very comfortable," among those greeted by the new head of Northern Alabama's diocese of 100,000-plus (and one Very Important Apostolate) was Sr Mary Catherine, Mother-Vicar of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and, ergo, second-in-command to Mother Angelica. Much of the cloistered Poor Clare community showed for the liturgy, which packed the 900-seat St Paul's Cathedral and an overflow hall in its adjacent center.

And, gratefully, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb's missing pallium has been recovered.

A native Ohioan yet, as he puts it, "a Southerner by choice" -- below is the fulltext of yesterday's homily given by the longtime prelate who's neither the butcher nor the candlestick-maker.

[Disclaimer: much as your narrator would wish otherwise, its opening words are accurate.]
I am happy to be the new Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama. No more rumors. No more Whispers in the Loggia!
[Again, yes, he actually said that.]
I thank Archbishop Sambi for his presence today, representing our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. I appreciate, Archbishop, your arrival here in Birmingham, one day after the installation of Archbishop O’Brien in Baltimore and your kindness in making it possible for me to be installed on the Feast of the Guardian Angels. I was ordained a bishop in 1999 on the Feast of the Archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. So I am fortunate to have the Angels looking out for me full force today. I pray to the Angels twice a day to help me in my ministry as a bishop, and they never fail me. Thank you Archbishop Sambi, for letting all of us honor them with this installation ceremony on their feast day.

Archbishop Sambi, I join all in the Diocese of Birmingham in pledging our loyalty and devotion to our Holy Father, grateful for the wisdom and courage he has demonstrated as Vicar of Christ and Universal Shepherd to the People of God, and I offer him today my personal prayers and my faithful support in my ministry as Bishop of Birmingham.

To you, Cardinal Rigali, I express my thanks for your presence and your prayers for me. All of us extend our greetings and good wishes to you and to all in the great Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

Greetings and thanks to Archbishop Lipscomb, my Metropolitan Archbishop, for installing me in that chair that has lain vacant for quite a while. It won’t be long until it will get its fair share of usage once again.

And to the previous occupant of that chair and distinguished former Bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, Bishop Foley, I join everyone here in saying thank you for your devoted leadership of the diocese long after the official time for retirement. You must have wondered. Is anyone ever going to succeed me? Well, finally you have a successor and one who is grateful to be your successor. I thank you again for your warm and gracious welcome to me from the first day I arrived.

To my brother bishops, abbots, chorbishop, priests, deacons, religious men and women in the consecrated life, seminarians, members of lay organizations, devoted lay women and men, leaders of faith communities, representatives of city and state government, welcome, and thank you for your presence and your prayers for me. I look forward to working closely with all of you in the days ahead. Please continue to keep me in your prayers and I will, all of you.

Quiero dar la bienvendida a los hermanos y hermanas de descendencia Hispana/Latina. Hoy el Señor, a través de su siervo, Benedicto XVI, me ha elegido como Obispo para pastorear y guiar al pueblo católico de la Diócesis de Birmingham.

Considérenme, mis hermanos y hermanas, no solo su pastor, sino su hermano y compañero de damino hacia la Tierra Promietida.

Deseo ardientemente crear una relación armónica y cercana con el pueblo Hispano?Latino proveniente de tantas ricas y diferentes culturas que comparten, entre otras cosas, la devoción a Maria y el idioma español.

Mis hermanos, ustedes son una benediction, no solo para los Estados Unidos, sino para nuestra Diócesis. Continúen viviendo sus valores, sus devociones y tradiciones. Son su riqueza. Oren por sus lideres y por los que vienen después de ustedes.

Que el Señor nos conceda la gracia de saber vivir la mission que nos fue encomendada en el Bautismo y que Maria, madre del Dios por quien se vive, nos cofije con su manto y nos guíe como estrella hacia su hijo Jesús.

I want to welcome our brothers and sisters of Hispanic/Latino descent. Today, our Lord, through his servant, Benedict XVI, has chosen me to shepherd and guide his Catholic people in the Diocese of Birmingham.

Consider me, my brothers and sisters, not only your pastor, but your brother and companion in this journey to the Promised Land.

I firmly desire to develop a loving and close relationship with the Hispanic/Latino community coming from so many rich and diverse cultures that share, among other things, the devotion to Mary and the Spanish language.

My brothers and sisters, you are a blessing, not only to the United States, but for our Diocese. Continue to live your values, your devotions and traditions. They are your wealth. Pray for your leaders and those coming after you.

May our Lord grant us the grace to live the mission received in our Baptism and may Mary, mother of the God for whom we all live, keep us and guide us to her son Jesus.

It was an honor to serve the wonderful people of South Carolina for eight years, and now I am honored to serve in the northern part of the State of Alabama. I have gone from one corner of SEC sports territory to another over the past eight years. Actually longer than that. For 29 years I had been a priest of the St. Augustine, Florida Diocese, and I was once assigned to the parish serving another SEC rival. When I mentioned the name Florida you should know whom I’m talking about. As you can imagine, I will be following the SEC sports programs with even greater interest than before.

My dear friends, I want to highlight the fact that the feast of the Guardian Angels is a special day for me to begin my ministry as Bishop of Birmingham. The angels play such a great role in our lives. And they become real to us as we remember them in prayer, as we do today.

Angels and shepherds, you know, have a lot in common. They both play the role of guardians and guides. The Latin word for shepherd is pastor, and that is a title for bishops and priests. It is a title that has stood the test of time, even though we in the United States do no live for the most part in a culture with actual shepherds, herders of sheep. On the Western Plains they existed decades ago. In the Holy Land they can still be seen on the countryside. Shepherds guard and protect their flocks, as the angels do.

The word shepherd or pastor now is pretty much limited to the one who is given the care of a parish or diocese, in the spirit of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Recently I was watching live coverage of the pope’s visit to Loreto, Italy, with thousand of young people present for his outdoor Mass. It was televised on EWTN early one morning – and I want to add that I am so grateful to the Eternal Word Television Network for carrying live so many papal events, and I am grateful for their kindness in carrying live this installation Mass today. It is an example of the importance of the media in helping us share the message of the Gospel and discover the message of Christ and help shape the culture we live in. Thank you, Good people, at EWTN for this great service to the church and the world!

In the crowd at the Mass in Loreto was a young man with a banner that read in Italian, “Lui ci ha amato e ha guardato.” “He has loved us and protected us.”

The banner didn’t say who the “Lui” or “He” was. It could have referred to Jesus Christ. It could have referred to the Holy Father. Either way, it’s the same. A shepherd loves and cares for his flock protecting them from harm. In fact it is inevitable that one who loves someone also looks out for that person’s good, going out of his or her way to be protective of that person. Parents, mothers and fathers, have a natural caring and protective instinct on behalf of their children. And that’s the way it should be. That is an integral characteristic of love. That is, in fact, how we define the word love.

So yes… “Lui ci ha amato e ha guardato.” The Good Shepherd is one who loves us and protects us. And yes, our Holy Father does the same, and all pastors of their people have that role as well. Young people know that. They sense that fact. And they appreciate that fact. They and we look to our Holy Father in his shepherding role to love us, care for us, and protect us from spiritual harm. That is his role.

That is the role of a shepherd. That is the role of a pastor. That is the role of a bishop. That is the responsibility also of a shepherding church.

A shepherd first of all loves the flock. He begins by getting to know his flock, his people. We cannot love someone we do not know. After knowing a person, we proceed to love that person. What a beautiful portrait Jesus gives us of the shepherd who knows his flock by name, and they know him, and follow him. He is not like the hireling, just doing his job for money. He will lay down his life for his flock. That’s how much he knows them, and loves them.

Pope Benedict in his great reflections on charity says that the Church exists to educate people in love and to bring them to spiritual maturity. The Church exists to help people discover concretely in everyday life the meaning of the word love, to help people arrive at mature love. That is a principal task of the Church and our Holy Father says that the Church exists to help us discover the meaning of love.

Our Church teaches us that only getting to know God do we come to know the meaning of love. And love is fully revealed to us, is fully manifest to us, in the person, life, and message of Jesus Christ. God is made transparent for us in Him. Love is made transparent for us in Jesus. Getting to know Jesus is getting to know the meaning of love. Getting to know Jesus is getting to know God.

If we want to discover love, if we want to discover God, we find Him in the Lord Jesus Christ. How critical it is for us to know Him, to know all we can about Him and then to know Him personally. St. Paul said life was a waste of time for him if he did not come to know Christ Jesus, and Jesus crucified. And St. Paul knew about Him, but more importantly he knew Him personally, intimately and passionately.

Our Holy Father asks us to reflect next year on the message of St. Paul. You know, St. Paul was a shepherd in the best sense of the word, a shepherd in love with the Great Shepherd. Paul, once he came to know Christ Jesus was a drastically changed man. He lived Christ. In Him he lived, and moved, and had his very being.

The world around him settled for mediocrity. Once he discovered Christ, Paul was no longer settling for an easy life. He challenged the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Ephesians, and every community he visited to move away from mediocrity.

No one is inspired to follow a mediocre leader. Paul was not a mediocre leader or shepherd. Paul had discovered God in Jesus Christ. He had discovered the meaning of love in Jesus Christ. And there was fire in his heart. And there was fire in his message. He challenged the mediocrity of his times with the challenging story of Jesus Christ.

As Paul did, so do we find the person and message of Christ transforming our lives. In the Sacraments of our Church, especially the Holy Eucharist we find the Good Shepherd, not just as an interesting depiction of a figure from long ago and far away, but the one who is our, my Shepherd. He is the one who looks after me. He is the one who touches me. He is the one who loves me. He is the one who puts fire in my heart to share the message of His life and His love.

Lui ci ha amato e ha guardato. He has loved us and protected us.

Loving us, that Good Shepherd inspires us to love, to reach out beyond our comfort zones to love the unlovable, to feed the hungry, to care for and visit the sick, to help those who are imprisoned not just through incarceration but through the emotional and spiritual prisons people construct that constrict them in their lives, like the abuse of drugs, alcohol and sexual activity.

Loving us the Good Shepherd inspires us to welcome the stranger in our midst. The stranger who may be a new parishioner or someone of different ethnic background than one’s own. That stranger may be someone in my home I have trouble communicating with. That stranger may be the unborn infant in the womb who may be unloved and unwelcomed by a parent or parents, by the society in which we live, a stranger who gets the death sentence before breathing the first breath of life.

Are we not living in a culture and society that is a breeding ground for strangers? A good shepherd welcomes the stranger. The good shepherd helps people discover they are strangers and aliens no longer, but friends.

Loving us the Good Shepherd protects us from all evil and all harm. The Shepherd points out to us those areas of harm for us before we recklessly stumble upon them and lose our lives physically and spiritually. That is the difference between the good shepherd and the hireling.

The great St. Augustine models for us the concern a pastor should have for his parish, a bishop for his diocese. In one of his sermons he says:

“So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost. If you do not want me to suffer, do not stray, do not become lost.”

St. Augustine talks about the Church as a shepherd. He says, “Our Catholic Mother is herself a shepherd; she seeks the straying sheep everywhere, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, and binds up the injured. They may not know one another, but she knows all of them because she reaches out to all her sheep.”

St. Augustine and St. Paul were great imitators of Christ. Good and powerful pastors of those committed to their care.

Please pray for me today as I assume the mantle of shepherd of the Diocese of Birmingham. Help me by your prayers and support to model the Good Shepherd by entering more fully into His life and His love. Pray that I come to know Him better and love Him in an even greater way, so that I can daily entrust my life totally to Him.

May Mary, the Mother of God, lead me to her Son and help me lead others to Him through her prayerful and powerful intercession.

And may all the Archangels and Angels and all the Saints of our Church prayerfully intercede today for all of us here in this congregation and those united with us in prayer, as we now pray for the Diocese of Birmingham and its new shepherd the prayer to the Angels:

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side to light, to guard, to rule, to guide. Amen.
Congrats, B'ham... and, Bishop, thanks for the plug.

PHOTO: Mark Almond/Birmingham News