Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"Our Sorrow and Shame Do Not Define Us"


21 MAY 2019

I arrive at this almost indescribably humbling moment in my life and ministry filled with deep gratitude, immeasurable joy and unwavering confidence that the Risen Lord who has guided my every voyage will remain beside me as I begin my service to the people of God in the Archdiocese of Washington as a fellow believer, friend, and pastor.

In December 1983, in a side chapel of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, I made a solemn promise to live in union with and in obedience to the one who occupies the Chair of Peter. I happily, readily, resolutely renew that promise today as I accept the appointment of Pope Francis to the extraordinary See of Washington.

Over the years I have come to know personally and to admire deeply the three men who have taken Peter’s place within the Church during my life as a bishop. These sentiments of affection and loyalty are borne of first-hand experience, fostered by the warmth and wisdom of these three pontiffs, each distinct yet bound together by faith and genuine love for Christ’s Church – each bearing unique gifts that have enriched us as a universal Catholic family.

Pope Francis has now summoned the Church – and by that I mean all the baptized – to leave our comfortable confines and to encounter and welcome the poor, the marginalized, and the neglected, and to place them at the very heart of Christ’s Church. Beginning today, that is my task here in the Archdiocese of Washington. I thank the Holy Father for that righteous challenge – more an opportunity – and I pledge my loyalty, respect, and fraternal affection to him once again. I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with him as he governs and guides Jesus’ Church as a man of uncompromising faith and intractable joy. Pope Francis usually concludes his messages with the fervent request that we pray for him. I assure him of my prayers each day and I ask all of you to keep this remarkable shepherd in your prayers as well.

The Holy Father’s representative in the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, without diminishing his solemn ambassadorial responsibilities has also become a friend to our nation and a brother to the bishops of the United States. I am grateful to him as well for his guidance, his humanity, and his pervasive, infectious spirit of hope. Not only do he and I share our Church’s common mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Joy, we now also share this wonderful city, and we treasure both more than simple words can express.

Cardinal Wuerl has been and remains a cherished friend and episcopal colleague now for many years. He is, above all, a true Christian gentleman, and I thank him publicly and sincerely for his warm welcome, his gentle demeanor, his support and his affirmation.

I greet and thank the distinguished guests from the President’s Office and all of the public and elected officials here present. I warmly welcome our Ecumenical and Interfaith colleagues and friends whose attendance reminds us all of the vitally important and mutually enriching work of ecumenism and interfaith collaboration.

The laity, religious, and clergy of the Archdiocese of Washington have provided me an affectionate and embarrassingly gracious welcome. I have already come to admire and respect them as a true family of faith committed to their local Church and to their neighbors, willing and even anxious to work together to bring the Good News to the larger community and the world through word and deed. I look forward to deepening my closeness with and my love for them.

We stand at a defining moment for this local faith community – our hearts filled with hope and eagerness. The storied history of this great Archdiocese is a gift to the Church in the United States. Our recent sorrow and shame do not define us; rather, they serve to chasten and strengthen us to face tomorrow with spirits undeterred. Together, we implore the Holy Spirit to fortify us with the grace, perseverance and determination that only Christ Himself is able to provide as a gift of His Presence, Peace and Promise.

As we heard proclaimed in today’s Gospel, Jesus spent considerable time around fishermen, and with good reason! In them he found people who knew the value and the satisfaction of hard work and long days, and they didn’t shy away from either. He wisely chose His first disciples from among those who made their living on the sea, selecting individuals adept at handling their boats and nets certainly, but also at using their wits and their wherewithal to secure their often elusive daily catch. He recognized their fierce tenacity to get the job done and eventually redirected their focus from fish to families.

Jesus’ first disciples were obviously accustomed to the vicissitudes of their maritime way of life. Yet, they were not so stalwart that they were not frightened when the sea, as it so often did, began to churn. They had both a healthy respect for and a genuine fear of the power of the wind and water that pounded them. When conditions were calm, they felt secure. When the squalls came and they no longer felt in control of their situation or their surroundings, they became afraid. Life on the sea continues to serve as a worthy metaphor for us – as people of faith.

We have been tossed about by an unusually turbulent moment in our own faith journeys recently and for far too long. Waves of unsettling revelations have caused even the heartiest among us to grow fearful and perhaps even, at times, to want to panic. We too, like those frightened disciples tossed about by the wind and the waves have cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ questions to them are also meant for us: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

The disciples must have felt instantly embarrassed and even shamed by the Lord’s scolding that day. In their anxiety they had discounted that Jesus was literally in the boat with them. The very One who had fed the multitudes with so little, restored sight to the blind, raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. That very One was in the boat with them and, with a phrase, in a breath, He calmed the wind and the sea and He restored their composure.

While I know in my heart – and I believe that you know in your hearts as well – that Jesus is in the boat with us during tempestuous times, I confess that I don’t possess the words to put every soul at ease, to assuage every fear, to lessen every pain. But I do remind you – even as I sometimes have to remind myself – that He is here. He is here when the seas are calm, and He is here during every moment of uncertainty, anger, fear, and shame. He invites us to place our trust in Him – not in trite and easy answers or programs – but in Him and Him alone. He will calm and steady His Church not through any single minister. Rather, He wants nothing more than for us to trust Him to bring us back safely to shore and even be bolstered by the trials that we have endured. And He always does.

If indeed we are to trust more in Him and less in ourselves, we must admit our own failures. We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest. The entire Church must recall that we all belong to Christ first and foremost. Our dignity is not to be found in numbers, influence, or possessions – but in Him who remains with us even during the most turbulent moments of life.

I wholly take to heart Saint Peter’s admonition to the early presbyters not to lord it over those entrusted to them, but to be an example for their people. The example that I wish to set forth for you is that of a man filled with the faith, hope and joy of knowing Jesus Christ is in this boat. I want to be a welcoming shepherd who laughs with you whenever we can, who cries with you whenever we must, and who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed.

I began this, my first homily as the Archbishop of Washington by acknowledging my gratitude and my hope. I discovered those virtues in the lives of countless people who are so dear to me. I give praise to God for my parents, Ethel and Wilton, who cooperated with God in giving me the breath of life. May they now enjoy the fullness of life. I pause in sheer appreciation and deep admiration for my beloved grandmother, Etta Mae, a woman who may have lacked any academic degrees but whose heart was filled with love, wisdom and common sense which she generously shared with my two sisters – Elaine and Claudia – and me. A brother could not have better or more loving sisters than do I.

The long list of my friends, neighbors, teachers, and mentors is too lengthy to even attempt to share. Many of them were priests and bishops who shaped me and witnessed before me what true priestly ministry could and should be.

The people of Chicago still claim me as one of their own and I gladly, proudly accept that designation. My faith family in the Diocese of Belleville helped me to discover that, tended gently with loving care, the seeds of the Church like the seeds of the earth grow hearty and strong in a variety of settings – urban, rural, and small town. The people of Southern Illinois helped form me in every facet of my episcopal ministry; indeed, it is quite simply where I learned to be a diocesan bishop, and they remain a part of every good thing I do.

And then there is the Church of Atlanta – the blessed community where I discovered southern roots, traditions, and love that have assisted in preparing me for this moment. I assure them all that there will never be a day when Georgia isn’t on my mind.

Finally, to my brother bishops, so many of whom honor this local Church by their presence and who strengthen me by their prayers and fraternity, I offer them this closing word of gratitude and respect. For nearly thirty-six years I have been a member of this episcopate, during which, like you, I have witnessed great joy and profound sorrow. I thank you, dear brothers, for your kindness and your support, which spurs me on to love and lead this new faith family with enduring devotion.

I did not begin this homily with those expressions of gratitude and love for fear that I might not be able to conclude without, well, losing it.

Today, my old and new friends, my family, my brothers, we begin a journey together on undeniably choppy seas. We are informed by Christ’s reprimand of his disciples that their fear and uncertainty were not products of the tumult around them, but of an inexplicable lack of faith in the One Who was literally right beside them. When Jesus Christ, with a phrase, in a breath, finally leads us out of this storm of our own making, may He not feel compelled to admonish us for exhibiting a collective lack of confidence in Him, but rather to be proud of the undaunted, uncompromising faith that we never lost, for the gospel makes it clear – and I believe, and you believe – that “the One whom even wind and sea obey has never left our side!”

Be assured of my prayers for you even as I ask for yours for me. May God bless our Archdiocese of Washington!