By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
I write this week’s column on the weekend of my 40th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood on May 7th 1977. During quieter moments, and while at the altar during liturgical celebrations, I am stirred by the grace of wonder and awe that 40 years have passed, and the Good Shepherd has led me through the endless mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, in the Diocese of Scranton into the Deep South in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi. After nearly thirty-six and a half years there, and nearly three and a half here, I am happy to be alive and well, capable of memory and gratitude, and able to serve with motivation and purpose.
The 40-year and 40-day time frames in the Bible represent sacred time, kairos, when God and his people walk together (or float in Noah’s time) in the unfolding mystery of salvation. It’s a time of purification, regeneration, and the joyful hope of something new on the horizon. For the Christian, the waters of the flood prefigure the cleansing waters of Baptism and a 40-day period that is closely associated with the season of Lent. Once on dry land, the rainbow arching through the clouds was the sign of the Covenant between God and humankind, and the promise of new life. In my brief time here, a new day has dawned and I have known the abundant life that the Good Shepherd promised in the gospel reading this weekend. Moreover, with the pounding rainstorms that I have experienced since moving to the South, multiplied by 40 days and nights, I could envision the construction of an ark on every corner.
In the Exodus experience, we have the dual time periods of 40 years and 40 days. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert, and Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai that brought about the gift of the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Torah, and the sign and substance of the evolving Covenant between God and the Israelites. These tablets of stone were made and adopted early on in the desert sojourn and set the standard for relationship building that God required of the Israelites before opening the door to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. And so, I reflect on the 40 years of preparation that the Israelites underwent, and in a very real way I savor all of the experiences of my priesthood as grist for the mill that the Lord has used to strengthen my relationship with him, and to serve now as the 11th bishop of Jackson. A lesson learned is that God can redeem and transform all of our faithful labors and vain endeavors in order to accomplish his will.
Likewise, I feel confident in drawing a parallel between the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, and the 40 days that Jesus endured in the desert in anticipation of his public ministry with my ministry in the Diocese of Jackson. When Moses came down from the mountain he knew that God, who is merciful to the 1,000th generation, was a faithful God, and would be with them always. The golden calf was a substantial pothole along the way, but it was successfully traversed. The Israelites now had a sacred mission and vision with clear pastoral priorities. (You know where I am going with this.) Likewise, when the Holy Spirit led Jesus out of the desert he launched the sacred mission of the New Covenant to be established in his blood, rooted in the prophecy of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor… and announce a year of favor from the Lord (Luke 4,18ff). In the same vein, the Holy Spirit has anointed and empowered the Body of Christ in our diocese with a renewed sacred mission and vision that is embodied in our pastoral priorities.
This is the life of the New Covenant in the Lord’s blood for me as I travel and serve throughout the diocese. God is renewing my zeal as I see the wisdom of our Vision: to serve others, to inspire disciples, to embrace diversity at every turn in the road. This evening will be my 12th of 23 celebrations of the Sacrament of Confirmation and the diversity of the gifts and ministries in the church, the call to discipleship, and the mandate to serve are alive and well in our young disciples.
The newly confirmed are the living stones who represent the labor of faith, hope and love that happens daily in their families and parishes across the expanse of our 65 counties in Mississippi.
The Vision also is realized in our schools and faith formation programs, through Catholic Charities and Saint Dominic’s, through a myriad of social services and advocacy for a more just social order. For me, the work of pastoral planning over the past year-and-a-half has allowed the Holy Spirit to nudge us forward with greater purpose and passion for the work of the Gospel in the Catholic Church for the salvation of all. It roots us deeply in the Bible and the words of the prophet Micah come to mind as a lamp for our feet. “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what the Lord requires of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
At 40, I am grateful to all who faithfully pray for me daily in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass, via the rosary, and in a host of other ways because my zeal and desire to serve remain strong. This is a gift from the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the fruit of prayer. As we are fond of saying in these parts, I am blessed. “Being confident of this, that he who began the good work in you (us) will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6).
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz