Thursday, May 29, 2008

In the Rockies, Conley Friday Dawns Early

Having passed its halfway point in the fields of Iowa, the Festival Express (17 days, five ordinations, two installations... and a Ted with a Golden Jubilee) now heads Westward... where a little piece of Rome'll be making a cameo appearance at its next destination.

On paper, it might simply be the ordination of an auxiliary bishop of Denver, but tomorrow's rites elevating James Douglas Conley -- longtime Vatican official, beloved pastor in his native Kansas, cult figure, college chaplain, proud citizen of Jayhawks Nation, convert -- to the episcopacy are looking to be the one event of this traveling circuit most eagerly followed by the folks in the Pope's backyard.

For a decade, after all, the 53 year-old bishop-elect worked among them, manning the English desk at the Congregation for Bishops -- a job that led Conley's principal consecrator to crack that the ordinand "has a lot of experience making bishops, but no experience being one." Of course, that'll change after tomorrow's afternoon liturgy at Denver's Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, when the born Presbyterian received into the church when he was 20 becomes, as Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. put it at a Vespers service earlier tonight, "not only a preacher and teacher of Jesus Christ, but a successor of the Apostles and an icon of Christ Himself."

Given the crush of family, friends and co-workers past and present -- all led by his mother -- attendance in the 800-seat cathedral for tomorrow's Ordination Mass will be by invitation-only. Held in one of the Mile High City's larger churches, tonight's service, however, were open, and at this hour the prayers continue with a public adoration vigil stretching through midnight in the Christ the King Chapel at St John Vianney Seminary.

The long-awaited successor to now-Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio, who was plucked from the Rockies in late 2004, the incoming auxiliary is only the fifth the 400,000 member Colorado fold has received in its 140-year history as a local church. (On Monday, Gomez will preside over his second episcopal ordination: that of his new auxiliary, 41 year-old Oscar Cantu.)

Having chosen John Henry's Newman's motto as his own and with tonight's Vespers opening the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Conley's homily tonight intertwined the calendar with his new office, adding in the figure of his historic mentor to boot:
I first encountered the Sacred Heart of Jesus nearly 30 years ago, shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church. I had just graduated from college and had spent the following winter at a Benedictine monastery in France, trying to figure out just what God wanted me to do with my life. After a wonderful extended pilgrimage with these holy monks of Saint Benedict, two of whom are with us this evening, I had pretty much discerned that I did not have a vocation to be a monk. So I left the monastery to visit and pray at some of the famous Catholic shrines in France.

I had heard about the apparitions of the Sacred Heart to Saint Margaret Mary, and so I set out on foot with backpack in tow, for Paray le Monial. I ended up hitch-hiking most of the way, and I arrived at the little French village in the late afternoon in the pouring rain. I had not made any prior reservations, of course, and so I did the logical thing. I knocked on the door of the Rectory where the parish priest lived. He was a kind old priest, and he told me that there were some empty rooms over in the old seminary which had since closed down.

He gave me a key, and I made my way over to the seminary. I found one of the rooms and changed out of my wet clothes. The room was very old, but it was warm and dry. There was a small wooden desk against one wall, and so I sat down and began to write a letter to my mother.

I pulled out the desk drawer, and the only thing in it was a small crucifix -- this crucifix. I took the crucifix in my hand and turned it over. And there on the back of the crucifix, in French, was engraved a date. The date was June 6, 1878. I thought nothing of it until I realized that the present date was also June 6 -- of 1978, exactly 100 years later to the day, from the date on the back of the crucifix!

I didn’t have a clue as to the date’s significance, but I did know that the crucifix was meant for me – and so I took it with me and have kept that crucifix to this day.

For me, this story from Paray le Monial, the home of the Sacred Heart and the coincidence of the date on the back of the crucifix, was an affirmation that Jesus loved me, that he laid down his life for me and that his guiding hand was with me, even though I didn’t know where he was leading me. It came at a time in my life when I wasn’t sure where to turn to next. It gave me the confidence to forge on, in faith and in trust, knowing that God was watching over me and guiding me and that I was on the right path.

Every time we look at a crucifix or a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we should be convinced that God loves us. He sent his only son who died for us to save us. He continues to draw us into the love of his Sacred Heart. He beckons us to lay down our lives in service to the Lord and to each other.

And this is the vocation of a bishop, to lay down his life, like Jesus the Good Shepherd, for the good of the flock entrusted to his care – to love his people, with the heart of the Good Shepherd.

In doing so, in the words of Saint Paul from tonight’s reading, the bishop sanctifies himself and the church, “making her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort.”

John Paul II once wrote that while it is an honor to be called to the episcopate, a bishop is not chosen “for having distinguished himself among many others as an outstanding person and Christian... the honor comes from his mission to stand at the heart of the Church as the first in faith, first in love, first in fidelity, and first in service.”

He goes on to say that because of this role: “a bishop is called to personal holiness in a particular way so that the holiness of the Church community entrusted to his care may increase and deepen”....

How does one do this? I have chosen for my episcopal motto “Cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). This isn’t an original quotation. I stole it from my mentor, the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great 19th century English convert to the Catholic faith. My first encounter with Newman was during my sophomore year in college when I had to write an essay on an English prose writer, and I chose Newman. It wasn’t even a religious essay. My mom typed the paper for me. I’m not sure she remembers that. But it began for me a life-long love affair with Newman that continues to this day. In fact, tomorrow, May 30, will mark the 161st anniversary of Newman’s ordination to the priesthood which took place in Rome on May 30, 1847. For me, this is another sign of Newman’s influence in my life.

But that line, “heart speaks to heart”, was not even original to Newman. He borrowed it for his motto when he was named a cardinal in 1879, from a letter written by the great 17th century spiritual writer and Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales.

These words “heart speaks to heart” can first be understood as the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Heart of God, speaking to our heart, calling us to holiness, leading and guiding us to the Father.

But “heart speaks to heart” can also describe a type of pastoral charity where an individual leads another individual to God, through love and kindness. One heart at a time, person to person, heart to heart.

Newman believed that, next to the power of supernatural grace, the greatest influence over the human soul is the example of goodness in another person.

We might think of the people in our own lives who have shaped us the most. Perhaps our parents, a teacher, a priest, a good friend, someone we wanted to emulate. This happens every day. It is through friendship that we are moved to rise above our own weakness, our own vanity and pride, to embrace holiness and virtue, to strive for goodness, truth and beauty. I think we have all experienced this in our lives.

And ultimately, it is the example of love and virtue in Jesus, the friendship of the soul with Christ, that draws us to want to lay down our lives for our beloved, to do great things, to love in a heroic way.

In his address to young people and seminarians at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, on April 18, Pope Benedict spoke these words to the young people: “I urge you to deepen your friendship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Talk heart to heart with him”.

Even though Newman was a great believer in a faith rooted in dogmatic principles, he writes that no one ever died for a proposition, but thousands have laid down their lives for a person, the person of Jesus Christ.

This is what a bishop is called to do, to lay down his life for his flock. Like the good shepherd, a bishop must lay down his life for his people.
In his own reflections on the episcopacy penned earlier this week, Chaput pointed to the figure of the early doctor of the church St Athanasius, known in his time as "Athanasius contra mundum" -- "Athanasius against the world."

"He never gave up," the archbishop wrote. "He always had courage. He had the truth, and the truth won. And in the end, he became one of the best-loved bishops and greatest Doctors of the Church—and the Catholic faith we take for granted today, we owe in part to him.

"That’s the vocation of a bishop. That’s the vocation Bishop-elect Conley will take up on behalf of God’s people. But that’s also the vocation of every Catholic believer fully alive in Jesus Christ."

Assisting the Denver prelate at tomorrow's ordination will be the bishop-elect's boyhood friend, Bishop Paul Coakley of Salina, and Conley's now-former ordinary, Bishop Michael Jackels of Wichita.

The new bishop will celebrate a public Mass of Thanksgiving in the cathedral Sunday morning.

PHOTO: Brian Brainerd/Denver Post