By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
I am writing this column from way above the earth, in flight back to Jackson, and to the diocese and ministry that await me. For those of you who may not know, I participated in a conference in Rome, Italy for all newly ordained bishops throughout the world. About 250 bishops were on hand to listen to a series of talks that touched upon the many dimensions of a bishop’s life. The Cardinals, who are the heads of various departments within the Vatican that serve the Catholic Church throughout the world, gave most of the talks.
One of the lasting benefits of the conference is the new relationships that emerged with my fellow bishops from around the United States. We are all in the same boat, so to speak, as recently ordained and appointed bishops, and it is enriching to begin to know their stories, and something of the dioceses where they now serve.
Of course, no diocese is as interesting as Jackson. In addition, getting a better perspective of the bishops who serve throughout the world is always worthwhile. Some are serving under extreme duress due to poverty and unrest.
Apart from sitting in four conferences per day, celebrating the Eucharist along with morning and evening prayer each day while eating three substantial meals, what else occurred to create lasting memories?
For starters, all of the bishops had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica above the tomb of Saint Peter. As we processed out after Mass, we reverently paused at his place of burial, a very stirring moment.
On Sunday, the following day, I hopped on the bus and journeyed to Assisi like a good pilgrim to spend a day in the ambience of the great Saint Francis after whom our Holy Father is named. We celebrated Mass with the Franciscan priests at a regularly scheduled Sunday service in the Basilica of Saint Francis. The visitors to Assisi and the parishioners of the parish were a bit stunned to look up and see the entourage of bishops who processed in during the opening hymn. Later in the day we visited the Church dedicated to our Blessed Mother, Santa Maria degli Angeli, I tweeted from the expansive piazza, leading into the church where tradition marks the location of the death of Saint Francis.
The culminating moment of the journey to Rome was our audience with Pope Francis in one of the spacious, yet cozy Vatican halls that easily accommodated our entourage. It was super to be able to see him up close and personal, to hear his encouraging words and to personally greet him.
There was a surreal feeling to the whole experience, yet it was also a well-grounded hour with plenty of time to savor the encounter with my brother bishops. Twenty of them were from Argentina and the Pope really lit up when he recognized many of them at the personal greeting. Those were endearing moments to observe.
I have selected a few of Pope Francis’ reflections from the talk that he gave us. He began by saying that he was happy to meet us, and quickly encouraged us by saying that we are “the fruit of the arduous work and tireless prayer of the Church who, when she chooses her pastors, recalls that entire night the Lord spent on the mount, in the presence of the Father, before naming those He wanted to stay with him and to go forth into the world.” In the company of bishops from all over the world, the Pope’s words resonated in a compelling manner.
As a good father ought to do he then proceeded to challenge us to embrace the ministry, the gift, entrusted to us. “Now that you have overcome your initial fears and excitement of your consecration, never take for granted the ministry entrusted to you, never to lose your wonder before God’s plan, nor the awe of walking aware of His presence and the presence of the Church who is, first and foremost, His.”
Continuing with this sentiment he proceeded to highlight the close relationship between a bishop and the people of his diocese. “There is an inseparable bond between the stable presence of the bishop and the growth of the flock”. This touches the heart of Pope Francis’ vision in proclaiming and living the Gospel which he articulated in “Evangelii Guadium,” his Apostolic Exhortation, i.e., we are to encounter one another, and accompany one another in the light of the Gospel as we serve the Lord in our daily lives. Along these lines, the Holy Father advised us to imitate Moses’ patience in leading his people, as “nothing is more important than introducing people to God!”
Toward the end of his address he poetically urged us to be especially solicitous of two groups of people. Dear brothers, “begin with the young and the elderly, because the first are our wings, and the second are our roots; wings and roots without which we do not know what we are, much less where we are going”.
I am happy to be able to share some of my experience with you from this unique trek to Rome, the eternal city, and I am even more content to be on terra firma, at home once again in Jackson, the crossroads of the South.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz