In the Collect (Opening Prayer) of the Mass texts for the 11th Week in Ordinary Time, the Church prays, “that in following your commands we may please you by our resolve and deeds” (Roman Missal). As I was reminded by the Gospel reading at our recent Ordination Liturgy, taken from John 15:9-17, as disciples of the Lord Jesus our greatest commandment is to “Remain in my [Jesus’] love” (Jn 15:9b, 10a). How, then, do I do so in my life as both a disciple and a bishop?
For me, the answer to this question is to be found in both my personal resolve and in my daily living and ministry to keep God’s ultimate commandment as pronounced by Jesus, God’s Word made Flesh: “Love one another” (Jn 15:17). I confess that in my short time as a bishop, I have come to know it as no easy task. Like the original Apostles, I find myself trying to walk with Jesus in the midst of some formidable storms — staying the course between bolts out-of-the-blue which express a plethora of personal views and opinions, along with the thundering speech which often accompanies such expression of views, trying to drown out one’s “opponent.”
The word “opponent” is not one I would have thought of in terms of believers trying to live as disciples of Jesus. Yet, one looks with growing alarm at how within the Church today there appears to be warring factions. Some may respond to such an observation that from time immemorial it has been that way. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make it right if as Christians we keep missing the mark set before us by Jesus to love one another.
That is why I feel that as Church — whether at the parish level, the diocesan level, the national level, or the global level — communication and dialogue is necessary. In the encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), Pope Francis writes:
“Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground: all these things are summed up in the one word ‘dialogue.’ If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. There is no need for me to stress the benefits of dialogue. I have only to think of what our world would be like without the patient dialogue of the many generous persons who keep families and communities together. Unlike disagreement and conflict, persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines, but quietly helps the world to live much better than we imagine” (#198).
In my own pastoral service, I am striving to nurture our local Church in discipleship and in the following of God’s commandments by inviting us to be better listeners to one another. To listen doesn’t mean that things will necessarily change to accommodate the speaker’s point of view. There are such things as the Magisterium, canon law, the needs of the whole diocesan Church, and a bigger picture than the one viewpoint being expressed. Nevertheless, dialogue permits understanding and knowledge — two of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit — to be at work amid the conversation. It allows a common ground to be a person’s faith in God and love for His Church. Such holy ground allows the faithful to enter the conversation not as opponents but as truly who they are: sons and daughters of God.
The recognition of this holy ground on which all life stands as sacred underpins my desire for visiting parishes, dialoguing with parishioners, meeting with the Diocesan Pastoral Council on a regular basis, and having conversations with various groups and individuals. These meetings have been held to offer me a chance to listen to Catholic faithful about subjects such as parish planning and parishioners’ needs and concerns, racism in the Church and society, the role of women in the Church, adherence to the Church’s magisterial teaching, LGBTQ+ questions, and the need for more listening and consultation in our diocesan Church. Of course, the last subject has led me to announce the convening of a Diocesan Synod whose preparatory phase will begin this fall 2021.
I share this experience with you to show how we can all grow in fostering greater respect and unity in our local Church. What is most important is how we treat one another as children of God, especially in the respect we give to each other.
Beginning next week on June 22, the Catholic Church in the United States will observe Religious Freedom Week 2021. Interestingly, its theme is taken also from Fratelli Tutti: “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community” (#116). Each day during the week, the Catholic community is invited to pray, reflect, and act to promote religious freedom. The focuses are:
• June 22: Adoption & Foster Care. Pray that children waiting to be placed in a loving home and the caregivers who serve those children will find strength and support from the Church.
• June 23: Catholic Services During the Pandemic. Pray that God would continue to grant Catholic institutions the wisdom and courage to serve a world suffering the effects of the COVID pandemic.
• June 24: The Equality Act. Pray that the dignity of all people will be respected in our country.
• June 25: Church Vandalism. Pray that Christian witness in the face of attacks on our churches will convert hearts to faith in Jesus Christ.
• June 26: Catholics in Nicaragua. Pray for our Catholic sisters and brothers who are suffering in Nicaragua.
• June 27: Conscience Rights for Healthcare Workers. Pray that governments would respect the consciences of all people who care for the sick and vulnerable.
• June 28: Christians in Iraq. Pray for Christians in Iraq, and that people of all faiths in the land of Abraham may live in peace.
• June 29: Free Speech. Pray that Christians will have the courage to speak the truth with kindness and clarity, even in the face of adversity.
Together, let us think, act, and pray as a community of believers who truly seek to remain in Jesus’ love and to love one another in word and in deed. I invite the faithful of the Diocese of Syracuse to join me at a Eucharistic Holy Hour to begin this week of prayer on Tuesday, June 22, at 5 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. I hope you can join us in prayer!