As the Church of Philadelphia prepares to receive its new Archbishop, we have a wonderful opportunity to reflect on this great time of grace and continuity. This is the topic of our reflection this week.

The Human Desire to be Connected to Someone and Something
Statistics show that some of the most frequently visited Internet sites are those which contain information concerning genealogies. Those who observe and study these phenomena tell us that this is due to a basic human need to “feel connected” to someone or something. They further observe that in our modern society, which has seen the frequent and unfortunate breakdown of the family, and where the neighborhood often does not fulfill the role it once did, there is a greater desire than ever for inspaniduals to feel a part of something.

We should remember that this need is not a sign of weakness, but rather another indication of the marvelous way in which the human person has been created by God, part of which is to live as a part of human society.

We have pointed out before that there is a basic truth which tells us that “grace builds upon nature.” God does not separate His blessings from the nature He has placed within the human person. We also know that when the Eternal Son was made Flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He did not come to eliminate our legitimate human needs, but rather to sanctify and fulfill them according to His plan.

Among the needs He fulfilled is our desire for continuity and the need to be a part of someone and something. The “Someone” we are a part of is Jesus Himself, who calls us to share His life, especially through the sacraments. The “something” can be said to be the Church He founded. However, when we speak of the Church as “something,” we do not speak of it as a “thing,” in the sense of a mere institution, but rather as a living reality that came forth from the wounded side of Jesus, as part of the testament He left to us.

Our Moment of Grace and Continuity
These days in the life of what we call our “local Church,” a particular geographical expression of a universal reality, are a great example of the life of the Church founded by Jesus as being “ever ancient and ever new,” according to the expression of St. Augustine.

With the arrival of a new archbishop, we do not create a new reality, but the continuous living out of the mission of Jesus, who said: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

We know that St. Paul speaks of the Church as the “Bride of Christ.” In his catechesis on the Letters of St. Paul, Pope Benedict remarked on this image, saying: “What greater sign of love could there be than this, in which Christ is concerned for the beauty of His Bride; not just the beauty acquired through Baptism, but also the beauty that must grow every day through a life of irreproachable moral behavior, without spot or blemish” (Audience, 14 January 2009). As an indication of the intimate role which the Bishop lives out in the Church, we sometimes say that he is “wedded” to his diocese.

In many ways, his relationship with the local Church he is called to serve should image the life found in a good marriage. As many of you who live out the gift of marriage know, this means fidelity in all the circumstances of life.

In the “Exhortation,” once commonly read by the priest at marriage ceremonies, couples heard these words concerning their future life together: “That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own.” The same can be said to a new Bishop as he begins his spousal relationship with his diocese.

This Relationship is Taken Up Immediately
As with any good marriage, in which the loving commitment is taken up immediately, so it is with the intimate life of the Bishop and his diocese. The continuing life of the Church founded by Jesus is lived out immediately by the Bishop.

My successor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M., Cap., has already begun this relationship, which takes effect officially on Sept. 8. This took place not only in the public press conference held to announce his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI, but also in the actions he took up immediately. What were some of them?

Archbishop Chaput wanted to visit first the shrines of Philadelphia’s two canonized saints: St. John Neumann and St. Katharine Drexel. We are more easily able to focus on them at these shrines, which contain their mortal remains, but it is their intercession in Heaven that Archbishop Chaput sought, just as I did when I arrived as Archbishop eight years ago.

In visiting the Shrine of St. John Neumann (1811-1860), Archbishop Chaput was able to seek the intercession of one of his predecessors in the office he is about to take up. As I have said before, what a grace to have a canonized saint as a predecessor, and what a challenge!

Although Archbishop Chaput takes up his mission in times that are very different from those of St. John Neumann, the task is always the same, because it is the mission of the Church: to make Jesus known and loved by preaching and teaching about Him and His Gospel.

As with the apostles, as with John Neumann, as with his successors, challenges will come. This has been so from the beginning of the Church. However, it is the promise of the abiding grace of Jesus that makes the mission of a Bishop possible.

Archbishop Chaput also wanted to visit the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955). Here again, we see the marvelous continuity of the life and mission of the Church. As you know, Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress, gave her life and fortune for the material and spiritual care of African Americans and Indians, the native people of our land.

You may know that Archbishop Chaput’s mother was an Indian, and that he was the first Indian to be appointed an archbishop when he became Archbishop of Denver. The particular mission of the Church in our own country has borne fruit in so many ways for so many people, including giving us an Archbishop to continue that mission in this local Church of Philadelphia.

As he began his loving relationship with the Church of Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput also wanted to visit our retired priests at Villa St. Joseph in Darby. These men, many of whom are known and loved by you, have borne the “heat and burdens of the day” (cf. Matt. 20:12).

In them, we see the generosity of heart shown by so many men and women in the service of our Lord in the Church of Philadelphia throughout her over 200 year history. In particular the priests must be close to the heart of the Bishop, because according to God’s plan, they are to be his intimate collaborators in carrying out the mission entrusted to him.

I wonder if I might conclude on an interesting historical note. It occurs to me, as I prepare this reflection, that today (July 22) is the 197th anniversary of the death of the first Bishop of Philadelphia, Michael Egan. Bishop Egan was a member of the Franciscan Order, as is Archbishop Chaput. In many ways, Archbishop Chaput is entrusted with the same mission Bishop Egan was.

It is a mission that was carried out so splendidly by the founder of their order, St. Francis of Assisi: to make Jesus known and loved at the particular moment in history in which we are called to serve Him.

28 July 2011