Last week I wrote my column from my desk in Rome, Italy. This week I am back at my desk in Syracuse, N.Y., and it is good to be home! That is not saying that I did not enjoy my time in the Eternal City, where previously I spent two years back in the late ’90s working on my licentiate degree in Canon Law. It was nice to see the sites of a city I am quite familiar with and to pray again in some of my favorite places.
Of course, the high point of my week was on Thursday when the new bishops met with Pope Francis. Before our meeting, we concelebrated Mass together at the Altar of the Chair at St. Peter’s Basilica, with Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, leading us in prayer. After that, we headed out of the back door of the Basilica into Vatican City and were led to the Pauline Chapel (next door to the Sistine Chapel), where together the bishops prayed the Rosary for the intentions of the Holy Father and for our local churches. We were then taken to see the Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) Chapel, commissioned by St. John Paul II and filled with beautiful mosaics. I could have spent hours in there contemplating its various images! [See photos below.]
After a few minutes in this beautiful space, we were escorted down a long hallway with curtained windows. I realized at that point we were walking through the Hall of Benediction. The windows I observed were those overlooking St. Peter’s Square and the door I glimpsed was the one onto the balcony where the pope makes his first appearance as the Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor. I couldn’t at that moment help but think that I was walking on the pathway of history — and if the stone under my feet could speak!
Our passage led us into the Clementine Hall, where we were seated and momentarily joined by Pope Francis. He looked good but still a bit weary from his latest journey to Africa. After words of greeting spoken by Cardinal Ouellet, Pope Francis addressed our group. His theme was the “Closeness of God.” In Italian, the word for closeness is “vicinanza”; close to it is another word, “vigilanza,” meaning “vigilance.” Together these words summarize the Holy Father’s charge to the world’s new bishops: the need for the bishop to be close to God; and in turn, to bring God to the people and the people to God. This occurs through the vigilance of prayer and of true listening to God and neighbor, or as the pope summarizes it, “real availability.”
A particular section of His Holiness’ address that has given me much food for thought is this one:
“Even in our poverty, it is up to us to see that no one perceives God as distant, that no one takes God as a pretext to raise walls, pull down bridges and sow hatred. …We have to proclaim with our life a different measure of life than that of the world: the measure of a love without measure, which doesn’t look to its own profit and its own advantage, but at the boundless horizon of God’s mercy. … God surprises us and often loves to upset our agenda: Prepare for this without fear. Proximity knows concrete verbs, those of the Good Samaritan (editor’s emphasis): to see, namely, not to look the other way, not to feign anything, not to leave people waiting and not to hide problems under the carpet. Hence, to make oneself close, to be in contact with people, to dedicate more time to them than to one’s desk, not to fear contact with the reality, to know it and embrace it. Then, to bandage wounds and take charge, to take care, to spend oneself (Cf. Luke 10:29-37). Each one of these verbs of proximity is a milestone in a bishop’s journey with his people. Each one is asked to get involved and to dirty his hands. To be close is to identify oneself with the People of God, to share their sorrows and not disdain their hopes. To be close to the people is to trust that the grace that God faithfully pours on us, and of which we are channels, also through the crosses we carry, is greater than the mud of which we are afraid. Please, don’t let fear prevail at the risk of the ministry, retreating and keeping your distance. Your Churches mark your identity because God has joined the destinies, pronouncing your name together with theirs.”
Pope Francis then went on to tell us new bishops that the thermometer of closeness is our “attention to the least, to the poor.” He encouraged pastoral visits, which I am happy to say will begin in earnest this weekend when I spend it with the parishioners of the Cathedral parish and next weekend with the parishioners of Christ Our Hope Parish in Boonville, Forestport, and Otter Lake. These will be followed in weeks to come with weekend visits to other parishes of the diocese.
Finally, the Holy Father said that the aforesaid closeness must be shown to the priests of the diocese who are on the front lines of caring for God’s flock. I will have the chance to do this for a first time this coming week with both the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Syracuse at the annual clergy convocation in Alexandria Bay. To our convocation we will welcome a Syracuse native, Father Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV, who will give the priests and deacons of the diocese presentations on “Discernment in the Daily Life of Diocesan Priests and Deacons: A Path to Spiritual Freedom.” In light of Pope Francis’ words to me last week, I see this as an excellent topic to help all ministers of God’s People to reflect anew on what “real availability” means in priestly and diaconal service.
When I greeted Pope Francis one-on-one after his address to the new bishops, I brought him the greetings of the Diocese of Syracuse and in turn, he simply asked me to please pray for him, which I assured him we do already. This week and in the weeks ahead, I ask you in your charity to join me in keeping this promise of prayer, not just for Pope Francis, but also for our priests and deacons, for Bishop Cunningham, and for me “the new kid on the block.” Know we will do the same for you! Let us together enjoy the beauty of the autumn season ahead! Have a great week!
When in Rome
Bishop Douglas J. Lucia shared these photos taken at St. Peter’s Basilica (right) and the Redemptoris Mater Chapel (left) during his recent training in Rome, Italy.