JUBILEE OF BISHOPS
HOMILY OF ARCHBISHOP RE
Friday 6 October 2000
My dear Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate,
1. As pilgrims among pilgrims, we too, the shepherds of God's people, have begun our Jubilee by passing through the Holy Door of this basilica,
omnium ecclesiarum mater et caput. From the apse mosaic, Christ looks out upon us with strength and with compassion. We know that we belong to him by a special title. We are his: Christi Iesu ministri! We trust in the abundant grace that he pours out upon us in this Jubilee event which celebrates the 2,000th anniversary of his birth. We are here above all to confirm our faith in him: in him, the only-begotten Son of God, and Son of the Virgin Mary. He is our salvation and our hope. He is the "focal point of the desires of history and of civilization", as the Council reminds us, he is "the joy of all hearts" (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 45). For this reason we feel an ever greater need of him.
The prophet Ezekiel announced to us - in the first reading - God's decision to become the shepherd of his people: "Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out" (Ez 34: 11).
We must never forget this fundamental truth: prior to us, the Shepherd is and remains God. Our trust is in God. Our strength is Christ who continues to pasture his people, and who firmly steers the Church through the vicissitudes of history: "Behold, I am with you always, yes, to the end of time" (Mt 28: 20). This conviction of being sustained by God has always strengthened those sent out by him. Jeremiah, at the moment of his vocation, was seized with fear, but God's promise at once reassured him: "I am with you to protect you" (Jer 1: 8). Similar words are addressed to St Paul: "Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you" (Acts 18: 9). He whom we are called to represent is here with us, he is alive, and he not only accompanies us, he goes before us on the paths of history in the strength of his Spirit.
This conviction, however, should not lead us to underestimate our own responsibility. So the same passage from Ezekiel reminds us, placed as it is in the context of a fierce denunciation of evil shepherds: "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves!" (Ez 34: 1). We are familiar with St Augustine's commentary on this passage in his Sermon on the Shepherds: "We will have to give an account to God firstly of our lives as Christians, but then we will have to answer in a particular way for the exercise of our ministry as Shepherds" (CCL 41, 529; Sermon 46, 2).
3. The Gospel we have just heard presents Christ, the Good Shepherd, as the supreme model: he who "knows" his sheep, in an intimate, loving relationship, but above all, he who gives his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10: 11-16).
Here this evening, under the gaze of the Good Shepherd, we come to submit ourselves to his questioning. Our ministry, my dear brothers, calls us to be living signs of Jesus Christ. In our capacity as Christi Iesu ministri we are called doubly to that holiness which is the common vocation of all the baptized.
So let us allow Christ to examine us, in this penitential celebration, on our spiritual and pastoral dedication, addressing to each one of us the same question which he put three times to Peter before entrusting him with the pastoral care of the Church. "Do you love me?" (cf. Jn 21: 15-17). That question, no doubt, had a particular resonance for the first of the Apostles, but we can discover in it the profound logic of all pastoral ministry. Every time Christ entrusts "his" sheep and "his" lambs, he asks for this testimony of love. Pastoral ministry is about love, as Augustine emphasized, in his commentary on this Johannine passage: "Sit amoris officium pascere dominicum gregem" (In Johannis Evangelium 123, 5). And St Thomas Aquinas echoes the same idea: "There is no other way of being a good shepherd than to become one with Christ and his members through charity.
Charity is the first duty of the good shepherd" (Commentary on St John's Gospel, 10: 3).
The fact that Jesus asks Peter this question about love after his fall is somehow consoling for us: it tells us that Christ is capable of unlimited trust, undeterred even by human weakness and betrayal. If we today, then, bring before him the burden of our inadequacies, we do it knowing that he will invite us to rededicate ourselves with enthusiasm to the task of love he has assigned to us.
If this is the case, then our preaching becomes "prophecy", a faithful echo of the Word of God, lending wings to the souls of our hearers, and at the same time shedding light on the events of history. Ours is no longer - if it ever was! - an age of empty rhetoric. So Paul VI reminded us: "The men of our day are more impressed by witness than by teachers, and if they listen to these it is because they also bear witness" (Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 41). Our words must be alive. So often we have been struck by the fascination aroused by the words and the presence of John Paul II: even among the young, as we saw during the great gathering at Tor Vergata, exceeding all expectations. Certainly, this Pope has an extraordinary charism to speak to the masses as few others can. But his experience as a universal itinerant preacher, able to speak directly to the heart, challenges us to give ever new dynamism to our own magisterium, remaining anchored in the Word of God while attending also to the language of our audience.
5. Do you love me? This loving identification with Christ has another privileged locus for us Bishops in the munus sanctificandi that we exercise in persona Christi when we celebrate the sacraments. We know that the Church has defended the ex opere operato efficacy of the sacraments against those who would link validity to the holiness of the minister. It was a way of affirming that Christ is present in the sacraments and that he operates over and above the fragility of the minister. Nevertheless, it is equally evident that the holiness of the minister is the most natural condition for the celebration of the sacraments. Pastoral experience points to a mysterious influence mediated by the witness of the minister when he offers an example of intimate participation, profound involvement, and total coherence of faith and life. Holiness is something that the People of God recognize almost instinctively, and they thirst for it. As we celebrate our penitential liturgy today, we may ask ourselves to what extent we approach our sacramental ministry with ever greater wonder, placing ourselves in the presence of the Mystery accomplished in the liturgy, recognizing in humble adoration the holiness of God, while enjoying that trusting intimacy that is the fruit of a profound relationship with Christ.
I have no need to remind you of what you live out every day, of the various aspects of this ministry and the many virtues which must accompany it, from wisdom to fortitude, from openness to prudence, from attention to little things to the long-term vision which harmonizes contrasting elements and plans for the future. All the same, I think it could be useful to focus above all on the paternal quality with which all this should be lived.
We must take care, my dear brothers, never to be reduced, so to speak, to "managers" of our pastoral concerns. The "good shepherd" and the "manager" are two quite different things!
We must be Shepherds with big hearts, like St Paul who wrote to the Thessalonians: "We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us" (1 Thes 2: 7-8).
This is the vocabulary of charity, or rather, let me say, of tenderness. St Paul, though no stranger to the vigorous language of firmness and severity, knows how to balance it with this extraordinary register of humanity, sensitivity, delicacy. In a Bishop there has to be a gift of self, made with his whole humanity. And it must obviously be made for everyone. If any preference is allowed him, it must be for the weakest, the poorest, those with no one to depend on. And his must be a truly universal heart, reaching out beyond the Christian community. In the life of St Ambrose, we read that his death was mourned by all, not only by Christians, but also by Jews and pagans (Cf. Paulinus of Milan, Vita Ambrosii, 48), an experience repeated a thousand times over in the lives of the saints. In our own time, it is striking how Bl. John XXIII, with his great humanity, was attractive to all, believers and unbelievers alike. Even those far-removed from the faith can be profoundly touched when a Shepherd speaks words and makes gestures which come from the heart, or rather from a heart modeled on that of Christ.
7. In our penitential liturgy, we must not overlook that other important dimension of our mission, by which, instead of being isolated from one another within our particular Churches, we are bonded together through our collegiality in the life and the concerns of the universal Church. And so, from being Shepherd-fathers, we become Shepherd-brothers, called to live our collegial communion "affectively" and "effectively". We must live it in our relationship with the Holy Father most of all, and with all our other brothers in the Episcopate. Our fraternity must lead us to make our own, with a keen sense of mission, the needs of the Church throughout the world. Perhaps even more importantly, it requires us to be concretely attentive to the concerns of neighbouring Bishops, so that we may live to the full the demands of communion, seeking always, within the limits of legitimate diversity and proper autonomy, meeting-points, common orientations, for the good of God's people. The words of Christ apply equally at this pastoral level: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them"(Mt 18: 20).
Let us make this a life-giving experience, opening ourselves to the gift of inner consolation which we must be able to pass on to others, if we are to be authentic "evangelizers", heralds of the "Good News". Every day we receive a thousand requests. We often have more to do with difficulties and problems than with pleasant things. In any event, we are frequently called upon to console those who feel crushed by their cross, and for them we have to be a Simon of Cyrene. So let us take on Simon's role with joy, as St Paul said: "We work with you for your joy" (2 Cor 1: 24). May our Jubilee, in this special year that heralds a new millennium, so rich in opportunities and challenges, bring us above all a resurgence of inner joy in our renewed relationship with Christ, so that the community entrusted to our care may find in us a joyful "Simon of Cyrene".
May the Mother of God, who 2,000 years ago offered to the world the Word made flesh, guide our steps and lead us to her divine Son. In him, "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph 1: 7).
May Our Blessed Lady help us to make Christ the centre, the light and the driving force of our lives as Pastors of souls.