“As of today, my family has grown substantially! To the lay faithful, religious, deacons, and priests, and all women and men of good will in Central New York, the Mohawk Valley, and the Southern Tier, it is my humble privilege to be called to serve you and to walk with you on the journey of faith, hope, and love. As you have heard since the day of my appointment as Bishop of Syracuse, I sum up this journey with the words, ‘In the Name of Jesus.’ This is the mission as a successor to the apostles I have been given and that together we share. It is about letting our neighbors, especially those who may feel they are on the fringe, unwanted, or forgotten, see and know the tender compassion of our God through each of us. Together…what we are about is ‘Radiating Christ’ and reminding ourselves and our fellow citizens of the holy ground on which all life stands from conception to natural death.
Today we begin a new chapter in the ongoing faith story of the Catholic Church in Central New York. So, now let’s turn the page with eager anticipation knowing even now that it is the hand of the Lord who feeds us and it is He who answers all our needs. In the words of St. Dominic, whose feast this is, ‘We must sow the seed and not hoard it.’ And the people said, ‘Amen.’”
In all honesty, dear diocesan family, it seems that a long period of time has passed since I spoke those words at my Mass of Ordination and Installation as your bishop a year ago. On the positive side, I am about 20 pounds lighter and feel very much at home in Central New York. On the other hand, we have faced together some pretty significant challenges: the sadness and outrage of scandal as more acts of sexual abuse by priests and church employees came to light from past decades; the test of how to best serve our parishes with a dwindling number of priests and religious; the challenge of financial reorganization; and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and the societal issues of the day.
In such moments, one could be tempted to throw up one’s hands in utter hopelessness or just run away from it all. Instead, though, I have found the past 12 months as an invitation to delve deeper into my relationship with God… with the community of the Trinity… and to rely on God like I never have before. I was especially reminded of this when reading this Sunday’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
As I think over the past year, there are many blessings I have experienced:
• Getting to know the wonderful priests, deacons, religious, and lay faithful of the Diocese of Syracuse through my parish visits
• Meeting Pope Francis twice in the early months of being a bishop
• Celebrating the Sacraments, especially Holy Mass, in our parishes
• Learning how to reach out to our diocesan family even through adverse times
• Being challenged to grow in my own understanding of the dignity of the human person and what it really means in everyday practice to hold life sacred
• Not to take myself too seriously, but to give myself the time needed daily to pray and exercise
• Going to sleep at night knowing that all is in God’s hands.
I know some wonder if that is all I learned; and the truth is, I have learned new things all the time. I am just sharing with you the highlights. The greatest lesson, hands down, is that none of this is about me. It is all about how I can radiate Christ to those I meet.
Accordingly, I have been richly blessed to have received many messages of love and encouragement during the past year; and to all who sent them in one form or another, I am most grateful! I am sure also that I have perhaps inadvertently offended or hurt someone either by something I said or wrote or did as bishop and to those persons I offer a sincere apology. My mission in life is to help people find their home in God and not alienate a person from God or His Church. Nonetheless, I know it can happen and I am truly sorry for causing anyone hurt.
I had hoped to have a pastoral letter on my vision for diocesan parish life prepared for my first anniversary of ordination and installation. Unfortunately, it did not come to pass. Maybe the delay was so I could incorporate ideas from the recent instruction from the Congregation for the Clergy, “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church.” Its title reflects a theme I have shared with parish communities and diocesan organizations over the course of the last few months: the heart of the parish is mission!
The instruction speaks of a “new phase of evangelization,” and if asked, I would say making that new phase come alive would be the main priority of my second year as Diocesan Bishop. An especially moving paragraph in this new instruction states: “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”
“You give them something to eat.” Jesus’ command to his disciples in the Gospel is one close to my heart. I think of it every time I lift the chalice my family gave me for my ordination as a priest in 1989. The centerpiece of the chalice is a node crafted in pewter representing the loaves and fish. On the bottom of the chalice are the words my parents chose to have inscribed: “Ordained to God’s Service.” These are words I seek to continue to live by in my new home in the Lord’s vineyard and as I seek to labor among you.
Permit me to close with the prayer I chose a year ago that speaks of what I see as my ministry as a bishop:
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus! Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others; the light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine: it will be You shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way You love best: by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words, but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You. Amen.