Bishop Baker’s Sept. 28 vesper homily
There is a story told about a bishop who was invited to give a talk at a city hall outside his diocese, and he ended up getting lost on his way there. As he was going down the street the wrong way, he met a little boy and asked him for directions to city hall. The boy told him to turn around and walk in the opposite direction for a couple blocks, and it would be on his left. The boy proceeded to ask the bishop what he was planning to do at city hall. “Oh,” the bishop said, “I’m going to give a talk on how to get to heaven. Would you like to come and hear me speak?” The boy thought for a second, scratched his head, and said in reply, “I don’t think so. You can’t even find your way to city hall.”
I was stranded a few blocks from here a week and a half ago, and happened to find Father Basil Congro coming out of St. Patrick’s, and he kindly gave me directions to the bishop’s residence. He too must have wondered — How is he going to help us find our way to heaven? He can’t even find his way to his own home. Tonight I’m not going to give you a talk on how to get to heaven. I’m just going to tell you a little about how I hope to find my own way there.
But, first I want to welcome all of you who are with us tonight from near and far — people from the State of South Carolina and people who honor us by their journeys from outside the diocese. We welcome especially our bishops, Archbishop Donoghue, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Atlanta; Bishop Snyder, my bishop in my days in the Diocese of St. Augustine; Bishop Boland our neighbor to the south from Savannah; and, of course, our own Bishop David Thompson. In a special way we all thank Bishop Thompson for guiding the Diocese of Charleston with wisdom, zeal, courage and compassion always maintaining his Irish wit in the process. He has served in the spirit of the true shepherd. He came among us not to be served, but to serve.
I dedicate this vespers service tonight to Bishop Thompson in gratitude for his decade of devoted service to the priests, religious and laity of the Diocese of Charleston and people of all faiths in the state of South Carolina. I thank you, Bishop Thompson, for all you have done especially in the time of transition, in the interregnum, while the Sede (See) has been vacante (vacant) in Charleston.
I, too, have been blessed by your wise counsel and your friendship. I am grateful for your guiding me around the area and introducing me to my new family here in Charleston.
One of the special features I’ve noticed about South Carolina, and visitors to South Carolina’s coastline will too, are the intriguing lighthouses that dot the eastern boundaries of our beautiful state. There are lighthouses on Sullivan’s Island, Georgetown, McClellanville, Hunting Island and Hilton Head. These lighthouses are not just there for looks. They serve a vital purpose to guide ships traveling at night safely to their harbors and to warn them of dangers.
This summer while on vacation in Ohio, I visited a lighthouse in the town of Marblehead, Ohio, with a priest friend, Father Jim Peiffer. It is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes, and it guards Sandusky Bay, near Sandusky, Ohio, a city made famous by the Cedar Point Amusement Park.
The 65-foot lighthouse was built of native limestone in 1821 to warn ships of the danger of being dashed against the rocks by winds from the north that can push waves up to 12 feet high. The large Fresnel lens gives out a brilliant flash of light every 10 seconds to warn of danger and let the ships know where they are.
Father Jim and I climbed the lighthouse tower and peered over the side. He was a little more daring than I was in moving around the upper deck freely. I had my back to the wall and held on tight. It was a long way down, and the wind didn’t make me feel any more comfortable.
Nearby one could see St. Mary’s Byzantine Church, which we managed to visit after descending from the intriguing lighthouse. It occurred to me afterwards that both the lighthouse and the church had a lot in common. They were both casting light in their own unique ways over Sandusky Bay. The one cast a physical, material light, the other, a spiritual kind of light.
The reading this evening from Matthew’s Gospel talks about letting our lights shine brightly, not covering them, not putting them under a bushel basket. A lot of people may not make it through the treacherous waters of life if our lights remain hidden under bushel baskets preventing the light from doing what light is meant to do — help people see.
As Church, we are light, but we are not the light in the fullest sense of the word. Jesus Christ is that great light. We, as light, are the means of supporting, reflecting, and channeling the great light — making sure it remains bright for everyone to see, in all its clarity and purity. Nothing should cloud the light of Christ that we, as Church, are called to display.
The great document of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, begins with the words “Christ is the Light of Humanity” (Lumen Gentium), and the Council Fathers go on to say that it is their heartfelt desire that, by proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to every creature, the Council may bring all to the “light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.”
The light of Christ is to shine out visibly from the Church, and we are the Church. All of us have the responsibility to help that light shine brightly. We are the house that supports the light of Christ and the lens that reflects that light. We are the keepers of the lighthouse, and we have the responsibility to let the light shine unimpeded for all to see — the light that is Jesus Christ within us.
As we move into the new millennium, you and I have been entrusted with that responsibility, you, through baptism, confirmation, sacred orders, and/or vowed religious life — I, through a call as shepherd and bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, a role which I will assume formally, officially, and sacramentally at tomorrow’s liturgy.
How do I hope to live out my role and responsibility as bishop here in the Diocese of Charleston, as keeper of the lighthouse that is the diocesan Church, as promoter of that light that is Jesus Christ?
I know that I can achieve nothing alone, and I will never lead without seeking the counsel and collaboration of others in sharing the light of Christ in the Church of Charleston. And most importantly, I will have recourse often to the grace God gives me through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy orders “to believe firmly, to love genuinely and to hope joyfully.” I want to set my service to the Church firmly on the supernatural grace of the theological virtues: faith, hope and love.
I would like to address each of these virtues, first of all faith.
Before the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Montalvo, tomorrow I privately will make my profession of faith that I, as your bishop, will uphold all that the Church professes and teaches and that I will be faithful to my call as your bishop to serve the Lord and His Church. My commitment is to profess and proclaim the faith in its entirety.
You, as the Christians faithful, have the right, as Pope John Paul I said before his untimely death in 1978, you have the right to receive God’s word in all its entirety and purity, with all its saving power. The pope says “a great challenge of our day is the full evangelization of all those who have been baptized.” And “on this, the bishops of the Church have a prime responsibility. Our message,” he says, “must be a clear proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ …. For us, evangelization involves an explicit teaching about the name of Jesus, his identity, his teaching, his kingdom, and his promises.” And, the Pope says, “His chief promise is eternal life. Jesus truly has words that lead us to eternal life. If all the sons and daughters of the Church would know how to be tireless missionaries of the Gospel,” the Pope went on, “a new flowering of holiness and renewal would spring up in this world that thirsts for love and for truth.”
Faith is a venture into the mystery that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Faith is letting ourselves be embraced by that God, allowing that God to establish an intimate, abiding relationship with us. “Our hearts are restless,” St. Augustine once wrote, “until they rest in God.”
Nothing less than that relationship will make us happy or fulfilled.
I am honored and happy to give back to God a portion of what he has given to me. To believe firmly in God is the Lord’s invitation to me tonight, believing that the loving God is a person who reveals himself to me in this wonderful Church. I accept that invitation and challenge.
That belief also encompasses being faithful to him. Father Adrian Van Kaam says, “Fidelity means to renew daily the faith that we ourselves are called to be an epiphany of the risen Lord in our families, in the workplace, in our love of people everywhere.” “Fidelity,” he says, is “celebrating the enduring resurrection of Christ in our lives.”
Believing firmly means being faithful every day of my life to the one who has been faithful to me and reveals his crucified and risen presence in me. Pray for me my friends, that in believing firmly I will always be faithful to the Faithful One, God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The second theological virtue that I want to mention, and I am doing some jumping here, which enables me to hold up the light that is Christ, is the virtue of love, the most encompassing of the virtues. In effect, it embraces all the others. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, love is patient, kind, not rude or quick tempered. It bears all things, believes all things, endures all things. In the end there will be faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these, St. Paul says, is love.
And Mother Teresa of Calcutta adds an interesting commentary on God’s love for us in one of her last meditations before her death in 1997: She asks how it is possible to last even one day without hearing Jesus tell us “I love you. Impossible!” She says, “Our soul needs that just as the body needs the air to breathe. Without it, prayer is dead, meditation, only thinking. Bring all you who are suffering to the Lord,” she says, “Only open yourself to be loved by Him as you are. He will do the rest.”
I ask you in tonight’s service to pray for me that I may love genuinely in the spirit of the messages of St. Paul and Mother Teresa of Calcutta which, first of all, means being a person who knows he is truly loved by God, day in and day out. I can only share with others what I have experienced personally myself — God’s great love for me.
Pray for me that I may love others genuinely as the Lord has loved me. The third virtue, hope, connects faith and love. Holding the light of Christ up to shine brightly to the world means, I believe, to hope joyfully. Hope is the great theological virtue and grace needed so much by young and old today as we move into the Third Millennium of Christianity.
Hope is the motto of the Coat of Arms I chose for my ministry: “Rejoicing in Hope.” I lifted those words from the text of Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer.” I found those words in the reading from evening prayer of the service on July 13 when I was first introduced as the new Bishop of Charleston.
The Jerusalem Bible translates the Greek words this way: “If you have hope, this will make you cheerful,” which is probably what St. Paul had in mind. If we have hope, we will be cheerful people. We will display a cheerful disposition. The light of Jesus Christ will shine through us. You and I will radiate Christ. We will be a visible light, leading people to Christ. We will be a lighthouse. Christ will be visible in and through us.
I think of one example of this kind of joyful hope, and I will conclude with this brief illustration of such a radiant and cheerful kind of hope. It’s in the form of a person, and her name is Geraldine Ferguson. She was a housekeeper at the rectory of the Cathedral in St. Augustine until her death a few years ago. She cleaned our floors. She cleaned our washbowls. She cleaned our toilets; and always, always she did it with a smile on her face. The most menial and difficult tasks, she always did with good cheer. One day she got the sad news that she had terminal cancer, and there was nothing that modern medicine could do to save her. Gerry took the news with the same good cheer she had when cleaning floors and washbowls and toilets. Gerry had hope in her heart and a cheerful disposition in her soul, even then.
I asked her about her attitude in the face of death, and she said: “Father, I always knew one day I would die. And I would live my life with the same disposition.” And that she did. She said, “when I pray I take my problems to the Lord and leave them there. When some people pray, they take their problems to the Lord and bring them back with them. I leave them there.” Gerry Ferguson is the kind of person who embodies the message I choose for my motto: “Rejoicing in Hope.” She lived that message to the day of her death. I pray God gives me the grace to live it until mine. If I do, like Gerry, I will be holding up for all to see the Light of Christ, who is my joy and my life. I will be what Jesus meant me as a bishop to be, an ambassador of the light and joy and hope of Jesus Christ to all the world.
Pray for me, my friends, that I will share always the light of Christ in my days as bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, because the Lord nourishes me through sacramental grace with the great virtues of faith, hope and love. May those who are struggling, hurting and lost, those who are the last and the least, especially those, may they be able to believe firmly, to hope joyfully, and love genuinely because God has helped you and me not to hide his light under a bushel basket, but hold it up for all to see.
May your light shine, Lord Jesus, through the great priests, religious, and laity of the Diocese of Charleston! And with your grace, may it shine through me.