Bishop Christopher Coyne
Bishop of Burlington
July 11, 2015
Over the past five months since my installation, I have been spending a lot of time driving around the state, getting to know Vermont, its people, and our parishes. In that time, I’ve seen a number of covered bridges, something for which Vermont is well-known. Do you know that there are more covered bridges per square mile in Vermont than any other state? Now, before I go any further, there may be one or two of the priests out there thinking, at his installation homily the bishop talked about bells, now he’s talking about covered bridges. What next, ski slopes? But bear with me a minute and you’ll see where I’m going.
As I said, Vermont is very well known for its covered bridges. You can go on-line and download a list of bridges and the history of each. Some are simple structures. Some are very elaborate. Some are long. Some are short in length. Some are garishly painted. Some are simple plain wood. Some are old. Some are new. Some have been rebuilt. But they serve their purpose. They are part of our state’s culture, history and life.
But, there are other bridges that have been and continue to be a part of our history and life here in Vermont and that is our priests. In his apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, “Pastores dabo vobis,” Saint Pope John Paul II instructed that:
The ministry of the priest is, certainly, to proclaim the word, to celebrate the sacraments, to guide the Christian community in charity "in the name and in the person of Christ," but all this he does dealing always and only with individual human beings…. In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity. It is necessary that, following the example of Jesus who "knew what was in humanity" (Jn. 2:25; cf. 8:3-11), the priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments. [PDV, 45]
It is a beautiful image, this image of the priest as a bridge for others to Jesus Christ. I would like to offer for consideration this image to all of you, to Scott and also to Curtis, since by its very nature the transitional diaconate to which he will be ordained is directed towards his future ordination to the priesthood, god-willing. The priest as a bridge to bring others to Christ is an image which captures the work of the Catholic clergy here in the state of Vermont throughout its history. Priests have been and continue to be a bridge between God and humanity. It is an image that has resonated in my life as a priest for twenty-five years and a bishop for four years. The priest is to be a bridge to Christ, not an obstacle. We are at the service of Christ, his Church, and all of God’s children, both inside and outside the Church. My brothers, when we set our hearts and our ministry in that place of service, it illumines all we do. Every time I celebrate public Mass or any of the Sacraments, I pray, “Lord, let me get out of the way of what you need to do. Let me be a means to serve your holy people. Let it not be about me, Lord, but about you.” When one sees oneself as serving as a bridge to Christ, then the starting point is one in which we try to make good things happen, one in which we say how can I be a bearer of the Good News of Christ.
Let me pose a question to my brother priests as an example: when a young couple or a parent comes to me as a priest to ask to have their child baptized, is my response “This is wonderful! Congratulations!” and do I think, “what do I need to do to make this happen and how can I help this be an encounter with Christ and His Church?” or do I rather start with obstacles: “Are you married? Are you registered in the parish? How come I never see you in Church? You have to live in our parish geographic area. Call the parish secretary. She’ll take care of it….” And so on, sadly, and so on. This is a bridge alright – a draw bridge – and it’s up! To be a true bridge we have to do everything that we can to have open lanes, an open path to Christ.
Now the strength of a bridge comes from the fact that it is clearly anchored on both sides. As one author puts it, “the bridge knows both shores.” The priest as a bridge is rooted both in his chaste love for and relationships with other children of God and in his relationship with and love for Jesus Christ. St. John Paul II makes this point about the necessary humanity of the priest very clear again when he writes that candidates for the priesthood need
“… to be balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior…. Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a "man of communion." This demands that the priest not be arrogant, or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere in his words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening himself to clear and brotherly relationships and of encouraging the same in others, and quick to understand, forgive and console.” [PDV, 45]
Scott and Curtis, the Church in calling you to Holy Orders has first recognized that you are devoted and well-formed members of the Baptized. Your diaconal service and your priesthood are first built upon your humanity. People who know you, like you. You don’t have a lot “issues.” You are good Christians, good Catholic men. You’re normal guys. And that’s a good thing. Try and stay that way.
But there is the other end of the bridge that is also a necessary part of your priesthood, your relationship with and love for Jesus Christ and His Church. As St. Pope John Paul II said it so wonderfully in another one of his speeches:
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
My brothers, today you courageously commit yourselves in humility and patience to doing something great with your lives. In this ordination, you will be more deeply configured to Christ, the great High Priest, the one who died for the salvation of the world. Holy Orders is a call to something great and wonderful, yes, but it is first and foremost a call to follow and love a person – Jesus. Keep Him as the object of your daily prayer. He calls those who serve Him “his friends.” Cultivate and cherish that friendship in all that you do.
Finally, I would offer one another characteristic of a bridge for you to ponder: the bridge helps people to cross without asking anything in return. Our ministry is one of sacrificial service - not for our sake - save our personal salvation - but for the sake of others and for Christ. Scott you will very soon be privileged to join with me as a priest in the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist at this Mass. Each of us as a baptized, priestly person joins in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross in the offering of the Mass by lifting up with the bread and wine all of the sacrifices of our lives done in the name of Christ. In a sense we say, “This is my body, too, offered for others. This is my blood, too, poured out in His name.” Scott, as a brother priest, as Father Gratton, your very being will be configured even more deeply to the sacrifice of the Cross. Live your life as a priest in such a way that people can see Christ living in and shining through you. Christ died for us. He is the perfect bridge between us and the Father. He asks only that we follow Him and love Him in return without measuring the cost.
Curtis, you will soon be ordained to the diaconate, a particular ministry of service to the Word, the altar, and charity. I ask you to consider this question: if you as a deacon were not allowed to proclaim and preach the Gospel or to serve at the altar, in other words, if your diaconal ministry was directed only to the ministry of charity, what form would it take? I pose this question because your work in the ministry of charity to the poor, the needy, the homebound, the sick, the imprisoned, and the difficult should be the foundation of your life as a deacon, not something seen as an addition to the role you perform in the Liturgy. Too often, we have defined the role of the deacon mainly as a liturgical one while neglecting the necessary works of witness and of charity in everyday life. Curtis, cultivate this attitude of charity now. It will not only serve you well as a deacon. It will serve you well as a priest.
In conclusion, my brothers, “Always remember the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and to seek out and rescue those who were lost.” [from the Rite of Ordination]
May Our Blessed Mother Mary help all priests conform to the image of her Son Jesus as stewards of the precious treasure of his love as the Good Shepherd.
Mary, Mother of priests, pray for us!