Episcopal Ordination Reflection: A Bishop’s Heart

Archbishop Chaput’s column this week is taken from the homily he delivered at the episcopal ordination of new auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley on May 30 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

As I was preparing my thoughts on the readings for today, I heard from a friend whose latest child was just born with Trisomy 18.

Trisomy 18 is a genetic condition with very serious mental and physical side effects. Most of the children born with it don’t survive for very long. For many families it can be a very hard experience. But what struck me about my friend and his wife was not how burdened they were by the news-but just the opposite.

It’s as if someone had punched a hole in the wall of their everyday family life, and instead of fear or bitterness, out poured a river of unselfish and indiscriminate and unexplainable love. My friend and his wife love their new daughter not in spite of the child’s flaws or in spite of the short time she will be with them, but because these things make every moment more precious. I’m not even sure they’re aware of how deeply they love their little girl, because you have to be on the outside of that kind of love looking in to really see how intense and beautiful it is.

This is the kind of love Bishop Conley will be called to today. The lance of a Roman soldier punched a hole in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and out poured the love that gave birth to our faith and to our Church. Bishop Conley is called to have his own heart pierced so that God’s love can pour out for the weak, the poor, the hungry, the unborn and all his people. The heart of a bishop is no longer his own. It belongs to Jesus Christ. It should burn with the love of a husband for his local Church; a brother for his priests and deacons, and a father for his people and those consecrated in religious life.

The love of mothers and fathers is both instinctive and deliberate. It’s instinctive in the sense that sometimes it makes no sense at all. It’s irrational. There’s no “gain” in loving a child who, by the measure of the world, is a failure or defective. The love of a parent is also deliberate in the sense that a mother and father will use all of their skill and all of their intelligence, and sacrifice nearly everything they have, to try secure the safety and happiness of that same wounded child.

This is how we need to read Deuteronomy today. This is what Scripture means when it says that the “Lord has set his heart on you and chose you,” even though Israel is the smallest of all nations and completely unworthy of God’s attention. There is no “rational” basis for God’s choice of Israel- or his choice of us. The only motive for God’s love is his own interior identity, the tenderness of a father’s heart; a father who treasures his children simply because he does. As St. John says in today’s epistle, “God is love,” and the nature of love is to give itself away radically. When Christians say that “God is love,” we don’t merely mean that God loves his people “a whole lot,” but rather that God himself is the essence of love, a relationship of love, from all eternity.

Christian life comes from the nature of God himself. We believe in one God who is three persons sharing one nature. This foundational belief is not just an exercise in theology. It’s central to Catholic life. The Trinity gives a framework to all Christian thought and action. For Catholics, God is a living community of love-Father, Son and Holy Spirit-and in creating us, God intends us to take part in that same community of mutual giving. All of Christian life comes down to sharing in the exchange of love within the heart of the Trinity, and then offering that love to others in our relationships.

Pope John Paul II once wrote that love is the “fundamental and innate vocation” of every human being. This vocation-or “calling”-is the heart of the Christian faith. We are created by the God who is the source of love itself; a God who loved the world so deeply that he sent his only Son to redeem it.

In other words, we were made by Love, to receive love ourselves, and to show love to God and to others. That’s why we’re here. That’s our purpose.

Love always has implications that translate into actions. “Love” is a small word, but for Christians, it always unpacks into a lot of other words: truth, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, charity, humility, courage, justice. These are action words, all of them, including truth, because in accepting Jesus Christ, Scripture says that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free (Jn 8:32) not necessarily comfortable or respected; but free in the real sense of the word: able to see and do what’s right. Our freedom is meant to be used in the service of others. And that’s why working to defend the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the unborn child, the immigrant, the infirm and the elderly is always, always an act of Christian freedom.

Through your episcopal ordination, Bishop Conley, you are to be an icon of God’s radical love through your teaching, your leadership and your fatherly tenderness to God’s people.

In the Gospel today, Jesus says, “I give praise to you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, you have revealed them to little ones.” Jesus himself is the first among “the little ones” to whom the Father reveals the “hidden thing” that guarantees all human happiness. The hidden thing is this: The more fully you give yourself away in love, the more fully God’s love replenishes itself-and you-with greater love. As God loves his Son; as Christ loves his Church; as my friend and his wife love their imperfect but beautiful little girl; so you are called to love God’s people: unconditionally.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” As we continue our celebration of the Mass, we ask God’s blessing on Bishop Conley that he will love and lead God’s people with “a bishop’s heart,” the heart of a father, the heart of Christ himself, who is love incarnate and the Word of God made flesh.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

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Charles Joseph Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. is the ninth and current Archbishop of Philadelphia, serving since his installation on September 8, 2011

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