6th October 2023
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In this beautiful liturgy, the Church celebrates the faithfulness of God who once again keeps his promise to give shepherds after his own heart who will guide us with science and intelligence. The appointment of Father Alfonso Amarante has undoubtedly raised in him prophetic protests that take their cue from the words of Jeremiah: “Alas, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak”- our beloved Alfonso dares to add “because I am young?” To comfort him – and confirm our gratitude for his generous assent to the call of the Holy Father, I propose the testimony of one of his elder brothers, a canonised saint who found holiness as a bishop.
Some years ago, a Redemptorist historian, working in the Secret Archives of the Vatican found a rather negative report on a Redemptorist bishop in the United States named John Neumann. The document had been filed by a special envoy of Propaganda, the department of the Roman Curia that dealt with the Church in so-called “mission countries”. In the mid-19th century, the United States fell into this category. The name of the envoy was Gaetano Bedini, an Archbishop, later a Cardinal, who was sent by Propaganda to examine the life of the US Catholic Church. After an eight-month visit, he submitted a report dated 12 July 1854. Having worked in the Curia, I smiled reading Bedini’s words. Clearly, he does not want to expose himself by criticising the US bishops, and reassures his boss by stating that the Prefect is already sufficiently informed about these Americans. He notes that “in fact they are very respectable in every way and worthy of their high position”. But Bedini’s diplomatic caution disappears when he speaks of Monsignor Neumann. He writes as follows: “And yet, I dare mention the Bishop of Philadelphia, who does not live up to the importance of that great city. The question is not doctrine or zeal or piety, but rather his personal scruffiness and his disdain for fashion. The truth is that he is evidently holy and zealous, but more as a missionary than as a bishop. One must not forget the very modest ways of the Institute to which he belongs, and Philadelphia being a populous city, rich, intelligent, full of life and of an importance that clearly requires a different style of bishop.” Bedini concludes his portrait of Neumann with a judgement: “I am convinced that he could gladly accept being transferred to a Diocese in formation and considerably poor, as this would be more suited to his ways, including his genuine and heartfelt humility.”
Listening to Archbishop Bedini’s assessment, we are struck by the distinction between the holiness of John Neumann – what the legate calls the “holiness of a missionary” – and the holiness of a bishop. If such a distinction has ever been justified, today it certainly cannot be maintained. The Second Vatican Council and all post-conciliar popes have consistently taught that the Church is missionary by its very nature. With our Baptism, we become jointly responsible for the mission of the Church and each of us can say with the Apostle Paul… “if I proclaim the Gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation has been an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).
The challenges of proclaiming the Gospel today can only be met by a Church of missionaries, an outgoing Church, a community that is concerned with proclaiming the fullness of life – which is possible through an encounter with Jesus Christ – rather than retreating towards any kind of factionalism or empty ideology. A Church in which all the baptised realise that we preserve this treasure in vessels of clay, so that the extraordinary power is from God and not from us (2 Cor. 4:7). A Church whose structures are unequivocally missionary, humbly reflecting the mission of the Son, whom the Father has sent because he has so loved the world.
The mission of a missionary bishop follows the example of the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for his sheep. If one thinks of the description given to us by Jesus in the Gospel, the Good Shepherd and the Shepherd as the ‘mercenary’ seem the same – until the wolf appears on the scene. It is when the local Church is threatened, that the Bishop proves his worth. At the time of John Neumann, poverty, scarcity of resources and the hostility of the dominant culture threatened the life and future of the fledgling Philadelphia diocese. John Neumann did not flee, but rebuilt burnt-out churches, organised a school system, supported religious orders and relentlessly visited the vast territory to organise structures that ensured the transmission of the faith to new generations. The threats confirmed him as a shepherd after the heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
If the holiness of the Church is missionary, then the holiness of the pastors cannot but be missionary. The ministry of the Bishop is to call and coordinate the gifts of all the baptised for the good of the Church’s mission.
St Augustine, also a bishop, spoke for all those who share the episcopal ministry when he wrote:
“Whatever we are, do not put your hope in ourselves: if we are good, we are your servants; if we are bad, we are still your servants. But if we are good and faithful servants, then we are truly your servants.”
Dear Father Alfonso in calling you to the Order of Bishops, the Successor of Peter has not called you to care for a populous, rich and intelligent diocese, nor for a diocese still in formation and considerably poor. Instead, he has asked you to oversee the mission of a particular family of faith, a venerable university that has always had a close relationship with the Bishop of Rome. The very close relationship between the Pontifical Lateran University and the Supreme Pontiff was particularly emphasised by Pope John Paul II who, during his first visit on the 16th of February 1980, in his speech in the Aula Magna, addressing all the academic departments, he said: “You constitute, in a special title, the University of the Pope: a title that is undoubtedly honorary, but for this very reason onerous.”
You will feel this burden, you will face the wolves that threaten the Gospel witness – even the existence of a great university, you will find new ways every day to offer your life. You will do this, dear brother, not only because of the gifts of nature God has bestowed upon you, but also because of the sacrament you are about to receive in its fullness. God equips you to live your missionary life in this new service in the Church with the gifts of a spirit of strength, of charity and prudence. You will find holiness as a messenger, apostle and teacher.
In 1854 Bishop John Neumann travelled to Rome and participated in a unique event in the modern history of the Church. Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: the truth that the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free from original sin from the moment of her conception and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism. Her participation in the definition of this doctrine undoubtedly strengthened St John Neumann, because in this truth God reveals once again that nothing can thwart his saving will, not even the darkness of sin and death. Mary collaborated with this grace and sang: “He who is mighty has done great things for me! Holy is His Name!”
May Mary Immaculate help this great University to recognise that God has done great things for it and that nothing, not even sin and death, will thwart the divine plan. Then, like Mary, this University will sing the saving grace of God, and its Pastor will find holiness by bringing the Gospel to the new generations.
Joseph W. Tobin, C.SS.R.
Archbishop of Newark