Building Communties of Faith
(Homily given at Solemn Vespers Service for the success of the Fourth Diocesan Synod, June 29, 2014, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, in St. Augustine Cathedral.)
My Sisters and brothers in the Lord,
Each was a formidable figure; perhaps a towering figure. Each was unique in his own gifts, talents, faults and failures, and yet each was chosen by the Lord for a particular task: to bring forth the work of the Gospel and to help found the Church of which you and I are now members.
First there was the fisherman, in whose roughness the Lord discerned a great love; a man who when fully converted could be trusted to the end. To him were given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and to him was given the task to be the leader of the Apostles, and a symbol and sign of unity for all believers.
His counterpart was as different from him as night is from day: a well educated, eloquent rabbi who was convicted with all of his heart and soul in the covenant given to Moses; a man whom we know from Sacred Scripture devoted his life –at least after the rising of the Lord– to stamp out what he saw as heresy and an abomination of that which his ancestors had passed on to him. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles and a fearless disciple of Christ.
My friends, as we gather this evening on the Solemnity of Peter and Paul—the two great Princes of the Church we are invited to reflect upon a very basic question. Each of these saints has more than one feast day on the Church's annual calendar; each is honored with dignity and respect: why is it, then, that on this day, the Church asks us to honor them, to ask for their intercession and to be inspired by their examples, side by side
It seems to me –as Mom used to say– the more things change the more they stay the same. Because, my friends, these two remarkably different men were literally placed side by side, because the Lord asked them to do in their age what the Lord is asking us to do in our own time. For they were asked to listen carefully to one another and to listen carefully to the discernment of the Holy Spirit that was –and is– alive in both of their hearts.
They were challenged to overcome not only the natural differences that existed between them but even, one could say, the theological differences that existed between them as they struggled in the Council of Jerusalem to discern whether the Mosaic Law needed to be applied to the converts to the faith.
Because they listened carefully, prayed deeply; discerned wholeheartedly, and were open to the power of the Holy Spirit, they were able to build a bridge between the two of them in Christ; a bridge that was not made by their hands or efforts, but a bridge that was constructed by the very life and grace of the Risen Spirit. And because they were servants to the Truth, and servants to the Lord, and not servants to themselves, we honor them as the greatest of the Apostles, and the foundation upon which you and I and generations before us and generations to come will stand on their mighty shoulders. And as they did, you and I must do.
That is why we are here tonight. For we have begun, my friends, an extraordinary journey of faith: listening, prayer and discernment. I have had the privilege to sit at seven different listening sessions but, my friends, the listening is not over; it is only beginning. I have the privilege to join you and lead you on this extraordinary synodal journey, so that you and I together could listen carefully to each other; begin this great discernment with the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit who is alive in every single one of us; to be able to build more mighty and formidable bridges between ourselves and those we long to join us in worship and prayer, so we might live the Apostolic spirit of Peter and Paul; and so that we might, in our own age and time, as they did, rise to the challenges before us.
My friends, I am grateful for your honesty. I am grateful for your great love for one another and the Church. I am grateful for your willingness to walk this journey, and I ask that in the months ahead, as the synod unfolds, that you and I together, as sisters and brothers, will have the same humility that Peter and Paul had, and the same commitment to Christ, so we will work not for "my agenda" or "your agenda," but with humility witness to the Truth who is Jesus Christ the Lord, present in the credible witness of the Church which is here in our midst. For the challenges are many, but every single one of those challenges is an opportunity for growth; it's an opportunity for conversion; it's an opportunity for you and me to allow the Holy Spirit to change the face of our diocese, and the face of the world.
I have prayed long and hard over what I have heard, and after much reflection, I am going to ask the synodal delegates to devote themselves to four over–arching themes. A principal goal is to design a pastoral plan that will allow us to strengthen the bridges of faith and charity that exist at the heart of the Catholic community.
The first theme is this: I will ask the synodal delegates to devote their time and study to help empower the young Church. And I use that word "empower" deliberately. For you and I have heard that our young people –who are not just the future of our Church, they are present in our Church, here and now– that they are eager to take up the challenges of our time and to make a positive difference in the Church and in our world. We saw that they remain idealistic and generous and open to listening to the Truth. They desire to have a challenge in which they can believe and devote themselves to, and give their all in response.
To empower the young Church, my friends, means to give young people the faith in ways that they can understand; to allow catechesis to evolve so that they can hear and act on the salvific message that comes through Jesus Christ. It means to give them an opportunity to discover their gifts and talents and give them the venues by which they can use those gifts and talents not for themselves but for others. It also means, my friends, that we as a community must rededicate ourselves to the basic, core commitment that we have made to keep all our young people safe, so that they may grow in holiness, wisdom, and faith.
Young people told us in those listening sessions that too many of their friends do not believe what they believe. Too many do not share their conviction and desire to be members of our community of faith. So I will ask the synodal delegates to dig deep, and hard, and learn from our young people some of the ways by which we may reach out to their fellow sisters and brothers. For the young are not spectators in this process. They are full participants in the synodal process. The young may have the answers that we have been looking for. We must empower the young Church.
The second over-arching theme, my friends, is even broader than the first. You and I in this synodal journey must build up all communities of faith that make up our diocesan Church, and those communities are many. Let us begin with our families, for our families are the first and primary community of faith. They are the domestic Church. We heard in the listening sessions that many families are struggling mightily to be faithful to the Lord, under enormous challenges and difficulties.
In this moment of grace, we must commit ourselves in spirit and resource to help mothers and fathers to do what the Lord has asked them to do. We must reach out to all those who are caretakers of the young and families of all different shapes and sizes. Families must become places where the Spirit is alive and basic human needs are met and where families know that they are not alone in their struggles. For if families are healthy, the Church will be healthy. We must, my friends, build those communities of faith above all others.
There are other communities that also look for renewal. We heard that in the communities of faith that are our parishes –places of worship, study and fraternity many people long for more opportunities for catechesis and faith formation, and to learn how to pray, and to pray with all of their hearts. Many do not solely wish to know about Jesus but, rather, they seek to know Jesus as a living, saving redeemer.
Many long for parishes where everyone is welcomed, and everyone is known by name. That attitude, my friends, is not solely the work of parish leaders, pastors, deacons and parish staff; it is the work of every single parishioner.
We must ask a very hard question: How will it be that every baptized member of this diocesan family of faith will help our parishes to realize what the Lord wants them to be: living, vibrant places where the Lord is known, worshipped and served.
We also seek to build up our communities of faith which we call our schools. For our schools are places of academic excellence, and they are extolled for that.
They are also lauded because they are Catholic schools, not "private" schools. Many schools long for more children to have the opportunity to receive the great gift of Catholic education. My friends, I will ask the synodal delegates, in collaboration with our school leaders, to seek ways to strengthen our schools so that they retain academic excellence and grow in their Catholic identity. May the day come when every Catholic child who wants to go to a Catholic school will have the opportunity to do so regardless of their economic status.
All communities of faith that we have formed, my friends, that wish to be strengthened, that need to grow, cannot do so without the leaders who serve those communities also being given the opportunity to grow. Many of you are those leaders, and what I heard in our listening sessions is that the people of God are grateful for all that you do, and so am I.
But we must allow all women and men in leadership the time and opportunity to grow in knowledge and faith. They must be given –our priests, deacons, and lay leaders– an opportunity to grow in knowledge of the faith and to grow in love of one another. We must strengthen them in their sacrifice and help them to become ever more joyful in their ministry. Our leaders need the opportunity to grow in faith and love—and that includes me.
The third synodal theme is to foster evangelical outreach. Too many of our Catholic brothers and sisters no longer feel the need to be part of our worshipping family. They feel unwelcome. They feel as if they do not belong. And they feel that no one misses them. But we do miss them and want them present with us. The synod will be an opportunity for us to find new and creative ways to do an outreach that is evangelical meaning that it will bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to them. We will find new ways to bring to them the good news that they are welcomed, they are missed, they are invited, and I will challenge the delegates not simply to come up with programs, but to find a way to do what Pope Francis has asked us to do: to become missionary disciples, reaching out to those who are away from the Church one person at a time.
Let us pray that the day will come when our churches will be bursting once again with all of the baptized side by side, in worship of the One True God, who is Jesus the Lord. Much good is going on already in our Church, and we need to celebrate all that is being done. Let us build on the good that is already there.
The fourth synodal theme concerns the works of charity that are done so quietly in every corner of our diocese. Let us find new ways to promote works of charity and justice, to allow us to get the good news out of what is already underway: the good works of Catholic Charities and all of the parish based programs that many of you serve in quietly. The time has come for the world to know the good that happens in the Catholic Church. But more than that, we need to discover new ways to respond to the needs of all people. In a county like ours, there should be no one who is homeless; no one who is hungry; no one who is alone. That may be a lifetime of work, but that lifetime will begin in the synod. Works of charity make the community more credible, and by making the community credible, we will bring many to great faith in God who is love Himself.
So there is much to do. I hope you are excited, because I am. The synod is not going to be the end of the journey, it is only the beginning.
My friends, if Peter and Paul, in the hour of the Church's greatest need, could overcome whatever differences they had, and were able with the grace of God to build a bridge, a bridge upon which you and I stand two thousand years later, a bridge that I can assure you will stand firm until the end of time, imagine what we can do (guided by the Holy Spirit) for generations yet to come in this great diocesan Church of Bridgeport.
We have much to do. So my friends, I commend us all to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, who turned to children when she needed her work done. Tonight, Our Lady turns to us –her children– to do her Son's business. Let us roll up our sleeves. Let us take a deep breath, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us turn to each other for inspiration and encouragement and commit ourselves to do our Father's business.
To our Lord –to Jesus the Christ– who will guide us in this synod; to Him be glory and honor, now and forever.