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Pastoral Letter for the Year of Faith (Part 1)

November 14, 2012

By Bishop Terry LaValley              

Soon after Archbishop Sambi informed me that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI had chosen me to be the 14th Bishop of Ogdensburg, I realized that I needed to select an Episcopal Motto.  The words that I would choose were to capture the essence of how I would fulfill my office as Bishop.

I had always been inspired and challenged by two simple words that Jesus directed to His closest followers as well as to all who would be His disciples:  Follow Me.  They have become a rallying cry, of sorts, of my episcopal ministry.

Two simple words, to be sure, but put them together and the phrase becomes a lifetime challenge.   Our faith tradition is rich in imagery.  One familiar Scriptural metaphor that is often used to describe life on earth is that of a pilgrimage.  The Hebrew Scriptures are steeped with colorful stories of the chosen people as pilgrims of faith, led on the journey by men and women, such as Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, and Esther responding to God’s call in their own lives.

To be a pilgrim is to be a person always headed towards some destination, always on the move.
The word, follow, is an action verb.  One simply cannot follow by standing still.  When Jesus called His first disciples, Peter and Andrew, they had to leave their fishing nets behind, as did James and John, to follow Jesus.  (Matt. 4:19-22)  After having finished breakfast when the risen Christ appeared to His disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, Peter asked Jesus about John’s future.  Essentially, Jesus responded by telling Peter not to worry about the beloved apostle, but to just follow Him.  Again, there is no “staying put” for the first apostle. (John 21:20-23) 

Clearly, the apostles and first disciples are not to be the only followers.  Jesus said to all those with Him: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  Sacrifice, carrying one’s cross each day and following Jesus, is the condition of discipleship.

It is important that we never become comfortable and content with our relationship with Jesus Christ.  We know that, biologically speaking, if we do not grow, we die.  We simply die.  The same can be said about our spiritual life.  If we are not moving ever closer to Jesus and His Body, the Church, we are dying. 

My responsibility as bishop is to ensure that our following of Jesus, our spiritual growth, remains healthy and robust.

The second word of my episcopal motto is Me.    I am sometimes teased and/or accused by my friends of directing them to follow me.  While, God willing, I would not lead anyone astray, the “Me” is, of course, Jesus, the risen Lord.  The mission has been set, the pilgrimage lies before us as we breathe the air and tread the ground below our feet:  Follow Me.  But, who is this risen Jesus that I am beckoned to follow?

My fervent prayer for every person who calls the North Country home is that this Year of Faith will be the opportune time to seek the answer to this life-altering question.

Let’s desire “To taste again for the first time,” to know Jesus even more and, with renewed energy and grace, embrace His mission of love that we received at our Baptism and reaffirmed at our Confirmation.

Year of Faith
With the Apostolic Letter of October 11, 2011, Porta fidei, Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of Faith, marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council in Rome and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This Holy Year will conclude on the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, November 24, 2013.

In announcing this special Year of Faith, the Holy Father desires to help Catholics appreciate the gift of faith, deepen their relationship with God and strengthen their commitment to sharing faith with others.

The Pope begins his Apostolic Letter reminding us that “the door of faith is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into His Church.  To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.” (Porta Fidei, 1).

At the very start, the Holy Father uses that image of journey to provide us with a way of understanding the dynamism of what to expect, i.e., a pilgrim people on the move—following Christ.

It is important that we rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and enthusiasm of the encounter of Christ.  The Holy Father hopes that this Year will help lead people out of the desert, towards friendship with the Son of God who gives us life in abundance.

Don’t we all desire that joy and enthusiasm that will last forever?  We learn too late the futility of hanging all our hopes on the fleeting pleasures that the world has to offer.

Faith as Mystery
Faith is a Mystery.  It’s a leap in the dark, but who likes walking and stumbling in the dark? In our world today, we demand to know all the reasons for everything.  Everything must be seen and explainable in clear, scientific terms.  There is little room or patience for mystery. 

Faith does not take away the darkness of the unknown (for instance, read the life story of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta), but it does tell us that Jesus is leading us by the hand.  We may stumble and even fall.  However, even in the dark, we know that we are going where Jesus wisely chooses to take us.

So, with deep faith, we accept His invitation, “Follow Me.”  Even when we are criticized, misunderstood, seemingly unsuccessful, underestimated and disregarded, or broken physically and emotionally, God promises to bring good out of it all (cf. Rom. 8:28).  Faith is our rock because it assures us that we are no longer in our own hands, but in those of our Savior, so we follow Him. 

The Holy Father reminds us, “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience His closeness, His friendship, His love; only in this way does one learn to know Him ever more, and to love and follow Him ever more.” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 21, 2009)   Perhaps, for too long, we have neglected tending to this personal encounter with our Savior.

We know from our personal experience that in order for any close relationship to be established and for it to flourish, its needs an investment of time and attention.  We must prepare the soil, open the door, to allow such an encounter, such an intimate relationship to develop. 

Faith is not merely an assent to a set of statements but a personal engagement, a continuing act of loyalty and self-commitment, offered by the human person to God.

Part I of the Catechism of the Catholic Church treats the articles of the Profession of Faith we pray in the Nicene or Apostles Creed.  Here we find a rich description of the truths of our Catholic faith. 
We are reminded of the essence of what we, the communion of the faithful -fellow pilgrims all - who seek to follow Jesus, believe. 

In the Creed, we profess to believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.  We do not profess to have belief in the Church, per se.  We believe in God, and it is He who reveals the Church as the Body of Christ and as His people. 

Some have likened the Church to the moon that does not have its own light, but only reflects the light of the sun, which is Christ.

This Year of Faith can help us to once again find and embrace the Creed.  The heated debates among the “experts” today about Church issues are quite irrelevant if we don’t search for the reasons why the major tenets of our faith are under attack. 

Jesus is being reduced to being simply a unique and curious historical figure.  The Scriptures are relegated to being a collection of uninspired stories of backward simple folk.

There is a growing popularity of writing off the miracles as mere fiction. Large numbers of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Eucharist. 

The four marks of our Church proclaimed each time we pray the Creed:  “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” no longer identify who and whose we are, according to the more “enlightened” among us.  These marks have become fodder for debate.

Indeed, there is an urgency that we reacquaint ourselves with and pray the Creed, the essence of what we believe as Catholic Christians.  We must embrace, not try to solve the Mystery of Faith.

(Next Week: Faith as Gift, Called to Belong)

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