September 3rd marked the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the episcopate. Ten years ago last Monday Archbishop Favalora – and his co-consecrators, Archbishop McCarthy and Bishop Roman – ordained me and Bishop Gilberto Fernandez in the Miami Arena in the presence of some 11,000 people. I thank the Archbishop and Bishop Roman for being here today at this Mass of Thanksgiving. Also, I acknowledge and thank for their presence here this evening our Bishop Emeritus, Bishop Dorsey, Bishop John Noonan, auxiliary Bishop of Miami, Bishop Guy Poulard, Bishop of Jacmel in Haiti and Bishop Miguel Balaseso from the Galapagos Islands. I thank the priests who come from Miami and my brother priests of this Diocese who joined with me in concelebrating this Mass. And also I am grateful for all of you, parishioners of St. James Cathedral and all of you who serve the Diocese as volunteers or employees who have come this evening. Also, present here are my sister, my niece and her family, my Aunt Mary and her son and granddaughters, my cousin Caroline.
A few days before I was ordained Princess Diana was killed in a tragic accident and a few days after my ordination Mother Teresa went home to God. It is hard to believe that all this happened a decade ago. My first six years as a bishop, I served as an auxiliary bishop in Miami, the last four here in Orlando first as coadjutor and then as ordinary of this wonderfully vibrant local Church.
September 3rd also has special significance to my family: it was on that day in 1947 that my parents were married. Had they still been alive my ordination as a bishop would have fallen on their 50th wedding anniversary. I can only thank God for them – and for the Catholic faith they handed on to me.
September 3rd is also the feast day of a holy Pope and doctor of the Church: St. Gregory the Great (540-604 AD). Born in Rome, Gregory lived in times no less chanllenging than our own yet he proved to be a true shepherd by carrying out his office, helping the poor, spreading and strengthening the faith. His example and witness inspire bishops even with today’s challenges to approach the great responsibilities placed on us with certain equanimity. Pope John Paul II wrote in Pastores Gregis: “Spiritual realism enables us to see that the Bishop is called to live out his vocation to holiness in a context of difficulties within and without, amid his own weaknesses and those of others, in daily contingencies and personal and institutional problems. This is a constant feature of the life of pastors, as Saint Gregory the Great acknowledged when he admitted with regret: ‘After having laid upon my heart the burden of the pastoral office, my spirit has become incapable of frequent recollection, because it remains divided among many things. I am obliged to judge the cases of Churches and monasteries; often I am called to involve myself in the lives and actions of individuals … And so with my mind pulled and torn, forced to think of so many things, when can it recollect itself and concentrate totally on preaching, without withdrawing from the ministry of proclaiming the word? … The life of the watchman must always be on high and on guard’.” (#23)
I think every bishop – and indeed every pastor of souls – can easily identify with Pope Gregory and how the demands of his office weighed heavily upon him. And we all fear the fate of the tower builder in Jesus’ parable we heard in today’s gospel: “…and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’”
St. Paul says: “For if I preach the gospel that gives me no grounds for boasting. Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9: 16) In commenting on today’s gospel passage and its hard sayings on the cost of discipleship, the same Gregory the Great said: “In this world let us love everyone even though he be our enemy; but let us hate him who opposes us on our way to God, though he be our relative (…). We should, then, love our neighbor; we should have charity towards all – towards relatives and towards strangers – but without separating ourselves from the love of God out of love for them”.
God does not call necessarily the wisest, or the strongest or the most qualified. He often chooses those held to be weak in the eyes of this world so as to astound the strong. But he demands a wholehearted – and not merely a half-hearted – response. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
To celebrate 10 years of service as a bishop is certainly an opportunity – one that should not be passed up – to thank God who called me in spite of my unworthiness and to thank all of you, the Catholic people of first the Archdiocese of Miami and now the Diocese of Orlando for your continued support of my ministry, for all that you do with me in promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ and especially for your prayers. Like Gregory and others who have served as successors of the Apostles, a bishop is never alone as he seeks to respond to his vocation to be a “servant of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the hope of the world”. We can and do count on the extraordinary graces of the Lord Jesus who remains ever close to us. And as I reflect on my 10 years as a bishop – and now 31 years as a priest – I become ever more keenly conscious of the fact of how your prayers and your collaboration have made it possible for the Lord to work through me – often times in spite of myself – to teach, lead and sanctify that portion of the Lord’s flock entrusted to me. To celebrate 10 years is also a time for some introspection, for a frank and somewhat painful examination of conscience and to ask God’s forgiveness for my sins and my failures as a Christian and as a bishop. May the Lord sustain me – with the help of your prayers – that I might always give myself wholeheartedly – and never half-heartedly – to his service.
There’s the story about a bishop – let’s say his name is John (the fact that there are two bishops here named John is only a coincidence) but anyway this bishop one day called in one of his priests for correction because of a bit of liturgical innovation.
It seems that the good priest instead of simply praying in the Mass “for our Pope, Benedict, for our Bishop John, he was taking some liberties with the formula by saying “for our Pope Benedict and for our Bishop John, your unworthy servant.”
“Father”, the bishop said, “You got to stop doing this”. The priest said,” What’s the problem, you say it”. The problem is the bishop replies, “when you say it you mean it.”
Well, last week while in the Holy Land, I celebrated Mass at a chapel called, San Pietro en Cantagallo, St. Peter’s where the cock crowed – and where Peter then wept bitter tears for having denied the Lord.
And just after the consecration, a rooster crowed. I don’t know if it was real rooster or a recording. But let me tell you, I was taken aback and when I got to the part, “and me your unworthy servant” I was certainly conscious of the truth of that statement. And let me tell you, I don’t forget that I am indeed an “unworthy servant” – and when I do, a letter will usually arrive at my office from someone or another who is upset with me for something I wrote in the paper or with some decision I made, and they will tell me in so many words how unworthy a servant I am.
The only consolation for me – and for anyone of us – bishop or priests – who carry this great treasure of our priesthood in vessels of clay is to remember that each one of us – reaching back to Peter and the apostles – stands in a long line of “unworthy servants”. Hopefully we may always remain conscious that we are “unworthy servants” because in this way we can also learn how to be “humble servants”.
Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est: “In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: ‘The love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Cor 5: 14). #35 Deus Caritas Est.
As the protagonist of Bernanos’s novel, “The Diary of a Country Priest”, says: It is all grace. The author of the Book of Wisdoms describes the work of that grace when he writes: “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”
Please pray for those gifts of the Holy Spirit for me your shepherd so that I may lead you along those straight paths.