The Bishop: Teacher of the Gospel on Behalf of Communion

Homily – Ordination to the Episcopacy of the Most Reverend Michael Barber as the Fifth Bishop of Oakland
Cathedral of Christ the Light
May 25, 2013

“So, what do you think of the new Pope?”  This seems to be a question we are hearing repeated frequently ever since the election of Pope Francis.  And our new Holy Father has certainly given us much to think about – and not just think, but to do, to respond in kind.  He is calling us to reexamine our lives, calling us back to basics, to reflect more deeply.

Perhaps most striking of all is Pope Francis’ style of preaching: so direct, so down to earth, getting to the heart of the matter in such a pastoral, personal way.

The Pastoral Ministry of the Bishop
I would cite as one of many examples a homily he preached last month on the very same Gospel reading we just heard proclaimed.  This was at a Mass he celebrated at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls on his first visit to that basilica as Bishop of Rome (April, 15 2013).  He said that when Jesus asked Peter three times to feed his flock, he was asking him “to feed it with his love.”

But first, let’s back up here.  Remember the scene: Peter had gone out fishing with the other fishermen-apostles, and swam to shore from the boat when he saw the Lord standing there.  They had gone out fishing.  They returned to their old lives and livelihood.  And this, even after having experienced the risen Christ.  Apparently, it did not fully register, it did not yet make a difference in their lives; up to that point, everything was still the same.

No, the life-changing encounter with the living Lord transforms one completely.  This was certainly the case for St. Peter, whose life was definitively changed after this last encounter with the risen Lord, his three-fold profession of love making up for his three-fold denial of his Lord before the Crucifixion.  If we read a little further on in John’s Gospel we will see that this meant for Peter exactly what the Lord had foretold: when he would grow old someone else would dress him and lead him to where he did not want to go, to the point of sharing with his Lord the very same death.  We hear echoes here of the call of Jeremiah, who came up with his own excuses for resisting the call to be the Lord’s prophet – that call which would entail so much suffering for him – with vain protestations of his lack of qualification.

This, too, was not lost on Pope Francis, who adds:

These words are addressed first and foremost to those of us who are pastors: we cannot feed God’s flock unless we let ourselves be carried by God’s will even where we would rather not go, unless we are prepared to bear witness to Christ with the gift of ourselves, unreservedly, not in a calculating way, sometimes even at the cost of our lives.

None of us is qualified; it is the Lord who qualifies the one whom He calls, provided, like Peter, the one called professes love for Jesus “more than these,” all the way to the end.  For the bishop, this call to lay down his life for the ministry Christ entrusts to him finds a particularly pre-eminent expression in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel.  And so it is that in the Rite of Ordination, after professing his resolve to fulfill all of the duties to be entrusted to him in general, the first of the many specific duties which the one to be ordained resolves to fulfill is “to preach the Gospel of Christ with constancy and fidelity.”  Likewise, after the laying on of hands, the Prayer of Consecration is prayed with the Book of the Gospels held open over the head of the ordinand: the bishop is always under the Gospel, whose chief herald he now becomes.

In the face of opposition, of hostility, of calumny, even in some cases of persecution, this will require heroic virtue, it will require great strength of resolve to preach the truth with charity, in deed as well as in word.  Bishop Barber has already proven himself worthy of this, he has proven his constancy under fire, literally as well as figuratively.  Pope Francis challenges all of us entrusted with pastoral ministry to do the same.  He says that Peter and the Twelve proclaimed courageously and fearlessly the Gospel they had received.  He goes on to say:

And we?  Are we capable of bringing the word of God into the environment in which we live?  Do we know how to speak of Christ, of what He represents for us, in our families, among the people who form part of our daily lives?  Faith is born from listening, and is strengthened by proclamation.

These are words very appropriate to the times we are living in now, and it is where the bishop is called to live poverty as a virtue most of all: the poverty of complete self-disinterest, of being “carried by God’s will even to where he would rather not go.”

The Bishop’s Ministry of Communion
This may seem daunting, but the Rite of Ordination provides another valuable lesson here.  After the laying on of hands, the Prayer of Consecration and the handing over of the episcopal insignia, the new bishop is escorted to the Cathedra to assume the office of bishop of the diocese, but not as if led to where he does not want go, as if to say, “okay, once you sit down you’re on your own!”  It is significant that immediately after this there takes place the fraternal kiss of peace with the concelebrating bishops.  So quite the contrary: the bishop is not alone, he is ordained into a College, a reality signified – yes, certainly by all of the bishops present laying on hands – but also by that fraternal kiss from his new brother bishops immediately after the action by which he assumes the pastoral care of his diocese.

True, the bishop alone in his diocese has full responsibility and authority for the pastoral governance of his diocese, but he is also part of a College, and he exercises his ministry within the communion of the College of Bishops.  This ministry in communion, though, is not limited to those most solemn forms of collegiality, such as in an Ecumenical Council.  There are many other less formal ways that collegial solidarity is affectively exercised.  This has certainly been the case for me: I can say that I have been bolstered and strengthened in my own episcopal ministry by my brother bishops who are more well-seasoned in this life than I; I have greatly benefitted from their wisdom, experience, fraternal and spiritual support and sound pastoral counsel.  So, dear Michael, know that you are not alone: you have our support, as we will count on yours.

But you are also supported from within: you are coming to a very vibrant diocese, one that understands that the life of faith is not confined to the four walls of the church building, but rather one where God’s people know how to put faith into action in creative and collaborative ways.  Lethargy has no home in Oakland, and we know that under your leadership it will not have a chance of finding one!

All of this points to what, really, is ultimately the defining purpose of the ministry of bishops: to preserve communion, to preserve the communion of the Church across time and space.  As a successor to the apostles, the bishop guarantees communion with those who have gone before us in faith, to the very foundation stones of the Church, safeguarding the handing on of the deposit of faith in tact from one generation to the next.  And as a member of the College of Bishops, the bishop is the link of communion between his local Church and the universal Church, for he shares communion with, and under, the head of the College, the Bishop of Rome.  At this point I would like once again to express our gratitude to our Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Viganò, Pope Francis’ representative to our country, for his participation in this Episcopal Ordination.  Your Excellency, your presence here today is a reminder to us of the communion we are to preserve with and under our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the pastoral care that he has for the universal Church, and that the bishops throughout the world share with him.

The ministry and very presence of bishops in the Church, then, is to guarantee the continuity of the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

Bishop-elect Barber, we rejoice with you today as the Lord calls you to serve his Church with greater sacrifice, and we rejoice with the whole Church of Oakland as she receives you as her shepherd.  Loving the Lord more than “all these,” may you, like him, lay down your life for your flock: for the prophetic proclamation of the Gospel, for the sanctification of Christ’s people, and for the greater glory of God.