Sunday, July 15, 2012

New Bishop, Old Challenges

A priest friend of mine in Ireland called yesterday to tell me that a priest friend of mine in Edmonton had been named a bishop. Who says the Church isn’t universal!

The news meant that I had bishops on my mind as I started to work on my homily. Of course it’s not much of a jump from the call of the humble prophet Amos to the appointment of bishops, who at least to me seem to get younger all the time. And the sending-out of the apostles in today’s Gospel makes us think of their successors.

Although in some ways the office of a bishop today seems very different than the mission of an Old Testament prophet or the work of the twelve Apostles, in essential ways it remains the same. There are scholarly bishops and simple bishops, quiet and outspoken bishops, friendly and gruff bishops, but all of them have this in common: a call to preach the truth.

In fact, an older bishop once told me the fundamental qualification to be a bishop was a willingness to suffer for the truth.

Amos is a great role model for bishops. Poor Amos is a “bad news” prophet. God does not ask him to make people comfortable but to disturb them with his message. His preaching was “radical,” which is to say he cut to the roots of Israel’s life.  There was nothing superficial about it.

At the same time, Amos did not have his head in the clouds, preaching an impossible dream. One scholar says that “Amos accepted the reality of historical changes” and “had political and international affairs at his finger tips.” Like Amos, a bishop must wisely adapt God’s Word to present circumstances, while preserving it faithfully.

Amos challenged and criticized his community, but he was no mere hothead. He didn’t throw out the baby out with the bath water. Despite his fiery style, he was rooted “in Israel’s traditional institutions and memories.” Even though he denounced those who worshiped insincerely, he respected liturgy and knew its importance. In this, too, he serves as a model of a prophetic bishop. (Carroll Stuhlmueller, "Amos," The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 487-495.)

He paid the price for his uncompromising preaching, much as many bishops have over the centuries and will continue to do in the future. We need to reflect long and hard on Cardinal George’s comment “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

Today's Gospel passage may seem less immediately connected to the ministry of bishops today. Yet it, too, is a model for their ministry. The cost of legal judgments, both just and unjust, has left many bishops almost as poor as the Apostles, and they need to imitate the trust the first bishops showed in Providence. 

They must proclaim a message of repentance—no more welcome today than two thousand years ago. And they must cast out demons by their leadership, and by their preaching and teaching—the demons of the modern world that threaten their flock each day.

Let us take our responsibility seriously when we pray for our bishopand all bishopsin the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. But so that we don’t get too serious, let me end with the story of the prominent archbishop who visited New York for the first time.

When a reporter asked him “will you be visiting any nightclubs in New York” he decided to show his innocent character by replying “Are there any nightclubs in New York?” He realized the power of the media when the next day’s headline read “Archbishop’s first words: Are there any nightclubs in New York?”

So Bishop-elect Gregory Bittman has many challenges ahead of him. But God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” will provide all he needs, and more.

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