A year ago, on the first Tuesday of June (June 4 to be exact), I was here in Syracuse for the announcement of my appointment as the 11th Bishop of Syracuse and my first news conference. I remember beginning to read my prepared statement to the press assembled when the room began to fill with the sound of bagpipes and the tune of “Amazing Grace.” I probably should have taken this as a sign for the days ahead and that my new ministry would heavily rely on God’s grace!
In my statement that June day, I remember saying that “I am here to serve the people of the Diocese of Syracuse, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.” In the questions that followed, I recall talking about a “learning curve,” but also the great desire of making our parishes “more welcoming” places in which all could find a “home.”
I would compare the learning curve more to that of running the rapids in a kayak in a heavy spring runoff: challenging and unpredictable… yet exhilarating. Syracuse is my home and I love visiting our parishes, meeting people, and getting to know the wider community. Although COVID-19 sure has put a crimp in my ability to do so, it has caused me to focus on outreach even more and in ways I never expected to use, such as Zoom virtual conferencing or a live-streamed Mass.
I care deeply about our community and share the sadness and outrage of its members in light of the unimaginable and appalling death of George Floyd last Monday, May 25, in Minneapolis. The fear of dying because of the color of one’s skin, along with the loss of human dignity and civil rights, is a wake-up call to all men and women of goodwill. The ensuing protests should shake us out of our slumber to be attentive to Jesus’ own question in Luke 10:29, the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “And who is my neighbor?”
I have been reflecting on this question in these days and see that my next year as Bishop of Syracuse must be devoted to working with others in eradicating the sin of racism and its inequity from our society. It echoes the line in the First Letter of John: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).
To turn away from sin means conversion of heart and behavior. And I know it starts with me and my own interactions and involvement in the community. In truth, the coronavirus pandemic has imparted many lessons but two that are particularly important to me: (1) How much my actions affect others; and (2) we are all in this together or we sink.
I leave you with my statement from Pentecost Sunday, which is a rallying cry for respect for life and a call to love others as God loves us:
The events of the past 24 hours in the City of Syracuse and across our nation are expressions of sorrow and frustration. Sadness at an unconscionable act that took the life of a young man in middle America despite the valiant attempt of other citizens to intervene. The scene now embedded in our consciousness cries out with the words of the Lord in Genesis 4:10 — “What have you done? Listen your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” At its heart is a central teaching of God’s law of love that all life is sacred from conception to natural death; and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Lv 19:18, Mt 22:39, Mk 12:31, Lk 10:27).
Herein lies also the frustration experienced as well: Why doesn’t life matter? Whether it is the life of the unborn child in the womb, the life of a brother or sister who may have a different skin color than us, the life of someone who is elderly or terminally ill, the life of a shopkeeper or public safety officer, the life of someone whose beliefs are different than ours, and the list could go on. Unfortunately, frustration can cause us to strike out at one another like Cain did to Abel. Such behavior is often accompanied by words like: “I don’t care.”
During this time of pandemic, it has been shown repeatedly, that what best defeats COVID-19 is our conscientious adherence to practices that are considerate of our neighbors. The same could be said today of the malaise in our country when it comes to truly caring for one another. I grant you that I wonder how many wake-up calls it will take to get our society back on track when it comes to the precious gift that is human life.
Nonetheless, the time to act is now! As we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, let us pray that the Lord’s law of love will not be something we have just memorized. Rather, may it be written on our hearts and in our daily actions. I ask that out of respect for one another no more property or businesses in this city and in Onondaga County be damaged, but instead we work peacefully together to support one another and put an end to injustice and racism.
Come, Holy Spirit! Enkindle within us the fire of God’s love! Amen.