“We Must be Good Shepherds to One Another.”
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
125th Anniversary Mass Homily
Cathedral of St. Peter
April 29, 2012
Good Shepherd Sunday (Acts 4:8-12, 1 John 3:1-2, John 10:11-18)
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Peace be with you!
Our story began with these words:
“Having in mind the greater good of souls and the progress of religion in the Province of Chicago, the Bishops of the aforesaid Province have proposed that since the Diocese of Alton in the United States is sufficiently large, it be divided into two parts and the other part be erected into a new Diocese….Moreover, it is our wish that the City of Belleville be constituted the See of the Bishop of the new Diocese and that the Diocese take its name from this city.”
With these words, His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII erected the Diocese of Belleville one hundred and twenty five years ago on January 7, 1887. We gather this afternoon in our historic Cathedral, one hundred years after a terrible fire nearly destroyed it, to celebrate our Quasquicentennial and give thanks to God for the joys and blessings of the past century and a quarter.
On this historic occasion, we have received the personal greetings of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI and our Metropolitan Archbishop, Francis Cardinal George. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Apostolic Nuncio writes, “The Holy Father gladly unites himself with you… in giving thanks to Almighty God for the abundant blessings of these past 125 years, especially for the zeal with which the Gospel has been proclaimed…As Supreme Shepherd of the Church, he is always spiritually close to all of his children…he is particularly mindful at this time of those in your Diocese who have been victims of recent devastating tornadoes.” Cardinal George writes, “I have personal experience of the faith of the Church of Belleville because, as you know, I studied at St. Henry Seminary during my years of preparation to become a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I have been praying for the communities that suffered so much devastation from tornadoes in early March. I was saddened by the news that a number of people lost their lives and hundreds more had their homes destroyed in the area of Saint Mary Parish in Harrisburg, and that the members of Saint Joseph Parish in Ridgway lost their historic church.”
Jesus of Nazareth is the reason why the Diocese of Belleville exists. Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, is the reason why the Catholic Church exists in southern Illinois and around the world. Jesus Christ and the Good News of His life, teachings, wondrous signs, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, which we are celebrating, are the reason why the seeds of the Catholic faith were first planted in the hearts of the people of this community on December 8, 1698, when a missionary priest, Father Jean-Francois Buisson celebrated the first Mass ever offered in the area of our Diocese on the banks of the Mississippi River. More than 300 years later, His Holiness, Blessed John Paul II used Father Buisson’s chalice when he celebrated a Pontifical Mass at America’s Center during his Apostolic Visit to St. Louis in January of 1999. In a few moments, the concelebrating priests and I will consecrate the wine for this Eucharist in that same historic chalice! I invite you to view the early history of the Diocese in the “new” stained glass windows of the south nave of the Cathedral.
By the time Leo XIII established Belleville as a Diocese 125 years ago, the faith was flourishing. Your first Bishop, the Most Reverend John Janssen guided the Diocese through the dark days after the fire left this cathedral in ruins. It is Bishop Janssen’s Crosier, or shepherd’s staff, given to him by the priests of the now suppressed Diocese of Alton, Illinois 125 years ago, that I use at this afternoon’s Mass, as I continue the ministry of the Apostles in your midst, as your eighth Bishop. Through all of these years the members of this diocesan family have had a common goal: To learn their faith, to love their faith, and to live their faith.
The past 125 years have been a remarkable history of individuals, families, neighborhoods, towns, and farming communities striving to live out their baptismal commitments to “put on Christ.” The powerful presence of the Holy Spirit working in the sacraments has renewed and transformed generations of Catholics by Divine grace. Our history, like the history of any Christian community, has been the history of people struggling to live by the light of Christ when it is much easier to ignore that brilliant and challenging light. But if Christ can be called the sacrament of the encounter with God, then the Church can be called the sacrament of the encounter with Christ, and each of us can be called the sacrament of the encounter with the Church. Therefore, the most important part of our history is the history of tens of thousands of families living out the dramas of their lives each day, nurtured by the Word of God, fed by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and purified of sin in the sacrament of reconciliation. The deeply spiritual history of a pilgrim people living their faith amid so many great sorrows and exquisite joys is beyond the reach any individual memory. Our true history is much more than a list of names of men and women, places, buildings and projects. It is the history of bishops, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and all of the People of God getting up each morning discovering their faith anew and making a fresh commitment to love God with all of their hearts and to love their neighbor as they love themselves.
As we give thanks for 125 years of history and as we strain forward for a glimpse of the unknown future of the next 125 years, we realize that we are putting out into the deep. But as we move into our future, the one thing that we know for sure is that our ongoing spiritual growth and renewal of faith must be our foundation. We celebrate our jubilee on this Good Shepherd Sunday when Jesus encourages and challenges us saying, “I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them…I am the Good Shepherd and I know mine and mine know me.” With these words Jesus gives each one of us the encouragement we need to live by the Gospel in the face of the many difficulties we may encounter as mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, parishioners, coworkers, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and as Bishops. We can be confident that Jesus really does know us – better than we know ourselves - and invites us to enter a personal relationship with Him through scripture reading, prayer, the sacraments, and through our fellow Catholics in his Mystical Body. When we are bound in loving friendship with Christ, we can pray as the psalmist prayed in every circumstance, “The Lord is my shepherd and there is nothing I shall want!”
St. Peter, the patron saint of our Cathedral and of our Diocese, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to each one of you and to me this afternoon when he says to the leaders of the people, “If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you…should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean…there is no salvation through anyone else.” (Acts 4:8-10) As we go forward as members of our 117 parish families, and as the Diocese of Belleville, we must take courage and do everything in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean. This is not an abstract spiritual statement. St. Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles, proclaims a practical, down to earth, this world spirituality, with eternal consequences. When you worry about our nation at war, a worldwide economic crisis, a world that does not respect the dignity the human life of every person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death; when you face personal difficulties such as unemployment, failing farm crops, serious family conflicts; when you are confronted by inner demons that lead to the abuse of food, money, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or sexuality; when you are laid low by life-threatening health concerns, spiritual discouragement, the feeling that God has abandoned you, St. Peter is telling you and he is telling me, do not attempt to face these obstacles alone. Face them with courage in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean!
St. Peter is serious! As we as a Diocese continue to face the emotional, financial, and spiritual consequences of allegations that members of the clergy have abused children, the declining numbers of priests and the urgent need for ongoing prayer and work for vocations, the large number of parishes and the need to implement our Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring, as we confront laws and mandates from the state and federal governments that would override our most fundamental right as American citizens, a right enshrined in the United States Constitution, namely the right to religious liberty, the right to live and act in accord with the clear teachings of the Catholic Church, we cannot become timid and fearful. In the name of Jesus the Nazorean we are called to commit ourselves to a fortnight of prayer and study devoted to our religious freedom from June 21 to July 4 in union with the our brothers and sisters all over the country. While we have no right to expect special privileges, we cannot allow representatives of the civil government to dictate to us what it means to be Catholic Christians. With humility, acknowledging that we are all redeemed sinners, we must take up the courage and confidence we need to say and to do exactly what our rightly formed consciences dictate, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean.
What is true for you is also true for me. Each day of my life and ministry as your Bishop is filled with so many joys and blessings – so many reasons to be filled with great hope and optimism. Each day is also filled with challenges and difficult decisions concerning the pastoral life of this local church. What can I do to nurture vocations to the priesthood? Should I approve the proposal for a new church? Should a Catholic school that has been in decline for decades be closed? Where is the best place to assign a particular priest? How do I strengthen the Catholic identity of The Messenger, our diocesan newspaper? What should I do if a priest’s words or deeds are contrary to the clear teachings and disciplines of the Church? What should I say when untrue, slanderous things are said about one of my priests, or about me, or our Holy Father?
Clearly, I must remain faithful to the mandate given to me by the Church and by St. Peter’s Successor, the Bishop of Rome when I was called to serve as a Bishop. In quiet prayer in the Sancta Trinitas Unus Deus Chapel in my residence, I discern the course of action I should follow before God, after various forms of appropriate consultation. Then, with a serene and peaceful heart, I do what I believe Christ and His Church calls me to do. I am confident of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence, even if my decisions are imperfect. Recently, I received a letter from one of you after a completely inaccurate account of a certain event appeared in the secular media. You wrote, “Excellency, you need to know that for every five people who presume to sit in judgment of your work, there are five hundred faithful parishioners who are deeply grateful to you for doing exactly what you were ordained a Bishop to do, to lead us and guide us, to shepherd us as a successor of the apostles so that we may always hold and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles.” St. Peter teaches all of us that we cannot be paralyzed by the dilemmas we face in the Christian journey. We must discern, decide, and act in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean. We must have an abiding comforting trust in the truth of the words we shall soon hear in the Communion meditation, “Jesus Christ is the Way! Jesus Christ is the Way!”
Today, it is my happy privilege to honor you, the members of our parish communities who make the Church the Church. I honor you for being good shepherds to one another, to your parishes, to the Catholic Church and, yes, to me in the name of Jesus the Nazorean. I do not know all of you personally. However, because of my pastoral activities throughout the Diocese, visiting parishes and schools, visiting hospitals and nursing homes, celebrating Confirmations and other sacraments, reading your correspondence, and calling your families or writing to them when the dearest of the dear have died, I am grateful that I do know many of you. With some of you I have had long conversations during which we have shared major truths of our “soul-space.”
From the earliest discussions of this anniversary celebration, I insisted that the focus should be on spirituality, religious education and a renewal of faith. I am pleased that so many of our parishes are actively participating in Fanning the Flame, carefully studying the Church’s Adult Catechism. I urge more parishes to do so! I also insisted that the celebration would be local with a special focus on our parish communities. Thus, the recipients of the Jubilee Distinguished Service Awards should not be chosen by the Bishop or by the Chancery staff. They should be chosen by members of the parish communities or diocesan offices. Your fellow Catholics have selected 325 of you to receive a Certificate of Honor in deep appreciation for your outstanding service to the Church in southern Illinois. Several of you took the time to write me deeply moving letters expressing surprise to receive a personal letter from me. You wrote that you were amazed that that the Bishop himself would publically recognize what you incorrectly called your “insignificant contribution” to the life of the Church.
Last Monday, after 88 years of life, Beatrice A. Grapperhaus, known affectionately as “Bea,” died. She was a homemaker and the organist at St. Dominic Parish in Breese for 44 years. She was to be honored at this Mass. I was profoundly moved when her family called me. They wanted to know if they could still receive the award in her name. They wanted to pick up the Certificate of Honor because they wanted to display it at the Visitation last Wednesday afternoon. The family members also wanted to include this recognition in Beatrice’s obituary. My response was, “Of course, they could!” And I celebrated Mass for Beatrice in my Chapel on Thursday, the day on which the Liturgy of Christian Burial was celebrated for her. Today, I want dear Bea and all her family members and friends at St. Dominic Parish to know that, as far as the Bishop is concerned, Bea’s contribution of a long life of faith and service to the Church with her late husband, Herman, her children and her children’s children were not insignificant at all.
Beatrice, as your name which means “blessed voyager through life” attests, your contribution to the Church, like the contributions of my Mother Dear and the mothers and fathers of so many of you gathered here, has been most significant indeed!
On this day of Jubilee, I not only want to express profound gratitude to those we honor today – to the Christian Faithful, the priests, deacons, religious, the parish life coordinators, and to all the members of this local church, I also want each of you to know how I respect you, how I admire you, how I care for you, how I hope for your happiness, how I pray for your eternal happiness. Know also that I am well aware that throughout history the wolf almost always appears and seeks to snatch the sheep from the good shepherd. We do not know when the wolf will come, from which direction he will come, under what guise he will come, or for which members of the flock he will come. But this much I can assure you. If I see the wolf before he sees you, you will be safe. You will be safe.
There is something else I want you to know. Know that if I have ever done or said anything to you contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that has hurt you, I am truly sorry. And know that from my heart I ask for your forgiveness. More than this. Know that if you have ever done or said anything to me contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that has hurt me for which you are truly sorry and you have asked me for forgiveness from your heart - know that I have already forgiven you from my heart!
On this great day of Jubilee we remain aware that no one among us is perfect. The Church is a communion in Christ of redeemed sinners. Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that, by God’s transforming grace in baptism we have all been called to be saints thanks to the life-giving, sin-shattering Passover of the Lord Jesus. May the words of St. John in his First Letter, just proclaimed, renew each one of us for the unknown journey ahead, “Beloved, see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are….We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We know that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is!” (1 John 3:1-2)
This is why from this day forward you must always remember:
“You are the Spirit-filled witnesses of Jesus Christ in Southern Illinois and beyond.
Christ needs your eyes to continue to see.
He needs your ears to continue to hear.
He needs your mouths to continue to speak.
He needs your hands to continue to work.
He needs your feet to continue to walk.
He needs your bodies to continue to serve.
And He needs your hearts to continue to love.”
For you are the hope of the Church!
Praise be Jesus Christ.
Both now and forever! AMEN