Saturday, April 25, 2015

Most Rev. Raymond Roussin, SM: A Good Shepherd

For five years, Archbishop Raymond Roussin was our archbishop. But he almost became our fellow parishioner, since he had decided to live in retirement in the rectory here at Christ the Redeemer.

His suite had been painted and his moving-in date was set, but just a few weeks before his arrival he had a significant medical setback and the doctors determined he needed more care than we could provide.

It didn’t surprise me that the archbishop wanted to stay here. He had shown a warm personal interest in the parish while still in office, choosing to celebrate the Easter Vigil with us in 2008, the year he asked his coadjutor, Archbishop Miller, to preside at half of the Holy Week liturgies.

I remember very well that Easter Vigil. It was my first as a pastor, and anything that could go wrong, did. Archbishop Roussin never missed a beat, and was gracious from start to finish.

You might wonder why I’m reminiscing like this if you haven’t yet heard that our archbishop emeritus died on Friday after a long illness. But his death is not the main reason I am speaking about him this morning; it’s his life that makes the late archbishop the perfect starting place for my homily—because today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and Raymond Roussin was a good shepherd.

To be precise, he was a bishop in the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd: a man whose life followed the pattern Jesus presents in the Gospel today.

The Lord tells us several important things about a good shepherd: he knows his flock and they know him; he holds his ground when the flock is threatened; and he seeks out sheep from other sheepfolds, so there can be one flock.

To all of us who belong to the flock of Christ, these are comforting words; to all who lead the flock of Christ they are challenging words.

Yet it’s quite clear that these qualities are not at the center of what Jesus tells us about himself as the Good Shepherd. He tells us the most important thing at the beginning of this passage, in the middle, and at the end. What matters most is that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

In fact, in this short text we hear Jesus speak of laying down his life five times.

Pictures of the Good Shepherd are often sentimental, showing Jesus holding a little lamb in his arms or carrying one on his shoulders. The truth is, there’s nothing sentimental about today’s Gospel, because a better illustration is the cross, on which Jesus lay down his life for the sheep.

Christ is speaking plainly about his passion and death when he says “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd suffers for his flock.

Suffering was at the heart of Raymond Roussin’s ministry as a bishop, almost without a break. When first named a bishop, he was called upon to close down the small diocese to which he was sent. We never spoke about it, but it cannot have been easy.

From there he went to the Diocese of Victoria. He was hardly settled when its financial crisis exploded, threatening the Church on the Island in many ways. His patient leadership kept things afloat, but all the while there were people publicly accusing him of being the cause of the problems he had only inherited and sought to resolve.

At last an appointment to the Archdiocese of Vancouver, recognition it seemed of his faithful service and a community that faced no major problems. But within a short time, he began to experience symptoms of depression that required him to seek help.

I was part of the discussion of whether or not the archbishop should go public with an illness that still makes many people uncomfortable. As is well known, he decided to keep no secrets from his flock, and in speaking out about his depression he encouraged thousands who had felt their depression meant there was something wrong with their spiritual lives.

After treatment for depression, the Archbishop returned to work, but it was clear his health was not what it should be. Eventually, the Holy Father appointed Archbishop Miller to work alongside Archbishop Roussin, and he succeeded him early in 2009.

If this were the whole story, it would be enough to compare Raymond Roussin not only to the Good Shepherd but to the suffering servant of whom the prophet Isaiah called “a man of suffering, acquainted with grief.”

But, sadly, it was not the whole story. Although details of the diagnosis were never shared, the late archbishop was found to suffer from a neurological illness that incapacitated him in recent years and which, by the end of his life, had taken his power of speech.

How much his sufferings as a bishop contributed to his physical condition will never be known; but the only conclusion I can reach is that this was a man whose life was received by God the Father as an offering for the flock of Christ.

If that were the end of the story, it would be enough to inspire us to be thankful. But, happily, it is not the end of the story. Jesus says clearly that he has the power to lay down his life, and the power to take it up again.

That is the end of the story of the Good Shepherd—the Resurrection. Easter. And that is where the story of the humble and holy and long-suffering Archbishop Roussin must end, too: not with the crosses he bore, but with the hope he treasured and which is now fulfilled.

What would his life and death be without the paschal mystery? A long Good Friday without Easter. But the Lord who called him to lay down his life for the sheep shared with him the power of his own Resurrection.

I hope my words this morning don’t come across as a eulogy. They’re not even adequate for that purpose. This is a homily, not a eulogy. What I’m saying applies to all who suffer and especially to all who suffer greatly.

All of us celebrate Easter, but the Christian who lays down his or her life by the patient endurance of  suffering experiences it in a particular way.

In an article in the current issue of Restoration, the Madonna House newspaper, Father David May offers several features of the love of the Risen Lord that he showed to his disciples and longs to show to us. Three of these things help us understand the power Easter can have in our lives, and the power it certainly had in Archbishop Roussin’s.

The first is that Jesus “walked the length” of his disciples’ sadness. He took no shortcuts on the road to Emmaus. He didn’t interrupt but let them experience and pour out their sorrows. When they’d finished, he “poured into their thirsty hearts the words of truth.”

Having himself “suffered to the end the way of the Cross, Jesus spoke with the knowledge of experience” of both “the meaning of suffering and of its true outcome.”

If we embrace our suffering and allow Christ to raise us with him, we too “can walk with patience and sure hope the length of the road” with others who suffer.

A second feature of the love of the Risen Lord is that “he absorbed bitterness, grief and skepticism with patient understanding.” Here Father May could be describing Archbishop Roussin no less than Jesus; this is exactly what he did many, many times in his ministry as a bishop: more than once I was privileged to witness him absorb the bitterness of others with unflinching patience.

Jesus let Thomas express his doubts and fears, and then answered with the proof of suffering: “Real suffering! Real wounds.” Jesus, of course, was the “man of sorrows,” of whom Isaiah spoke, and understood the grief behind Thomas’ outburst.

Finally, the Risen Lord spoke a word of peace to Thomas and the other disciples huddled in the Upper Room. “Shalom! Peace!” he proclaimed to them, in the face of the near-despair of the doubting apostle.

He spoke that word of peace in response “to every hard question that can be asked, every burden of despair a human being can know, all the disappointment of lost dreams and failed promises that can make life a burden,” Father May eloquently writes.

He spoke that word of peace as a one-word summary of the hope and power that his Resurrection has brought to suffering humanity.

And now, we pray, he speaks it eternally to Raymond Roussin, his beloved brother, his suffering servant, and our good shepherd.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Msgr Greg for all you said about the Good Shepherd's ministry, about Fr May's reflections and about a dear friend, Abp Roussin. May the Lord grant him a merciful judgment and eternal life to the full.