As we celebrate thirty years as a local Church among the global gathering of communities that make up the Roman Catholic Church, I revert to one of my favorite frames of reference regarding this great mystery that we know as the Body of Christ. I often think of the Church and her mission in terms of one individual disciple, so to speak; the Church is the disciple writ large. Thus our thirty year old diocese is well beyond her infancy, stepping into the community of disciples as a young adult, firmly set on her “career path,” with the world and its future before her. Our thirtieth anniversary speaks to our community of faith beyond her teens or twenties: a young adult ready to take on her mission.
Four shepherds have guided this local Church as she has faced the challenges of birth and infancy, youthful adolescence and the challenges of maturing into early adulthood. As a priest, I have been blessed to be a part of the whole journey of the Diocese of Tyler, and I have embraced the challenging call of being her fourth shepherd as she navigated her late twenties. I know that many join me in expressing our profound gratitude to the three bishops who guided this new local Church for her first twenty-five years. Their hard work and collaboration with priests, deacons, religious and the lay faithful, who came from three dioceses to form one local Church, has placed us on a solid footing which allows us to face the future with great hope and strength.
Continuing with this framework of the progress of the diocese sharing similarities with the progress of an individual disciple, I turn to some basic guiding principles for me as a shepherd and for all of us as disciples of Jesus Christ as we seek to fulfill our mission. We have all been baptized into the saving life of Jesus Christ, and from that moment we share His anointed mission as priest, prophet and king. The beautiful sacrament of baptism is richly celebrated in our Roman Catholic tradition as we are anointed with sacred chrism and from that moment called to take on this threefold mission of the Son of God. We are literally united with the anointed one, and being anointed ourselves, we take on His life, death and resurrection and are incorporated into His body the Church.
The ancient tradition of our Catholic faith guides all of us from the Bishop of Rome, to the bishop of a local diocese, to the most recently baptized member, to always address the life of the Church with these three goals in mind. We the baptized are to live kingly, priestly and prophetic lives in the world and thus transform the human family. We can say this another way: we the baptized, we the Church, the Body of Christ, are to govern, sanctify, and teach the world the wondrous message that the Son of God has revealed to us. As I mentioned above, we have been blessed with shepherds in the first quarter century of our life as a diocese who have done an outstanding job of embracing these three aspects of our mission.
Certainly, the missionary challenge of our Catholic faith is to always seek to be moving forward in all three areas, and in the life of the Diocese of Tyler, we have made great progress in all three areas. Acknowledging that this three-fold challenge is always necessarily present, I wish to offer, from my perspective, some thoughts regarding the specific ways my predecessors have brought strength and blessings to the life of the diocese.
As a young priest, I worked with our first bishop, Charles E. Herzig, and I would frame his too short time with us in terms of the mission of governing. By necessity, he was faced with countless decisions of governance as he sought to unify three regions of East Texas and bring to birth a new local Church. I can only imagine the daunting task he faced as virtually every aspect of this new ecclesial entity, called the Diocese of Tyler, had to be decided. Of course, as he made basic decisions of governance, he had to make many decisions regarding the teaching and sanctifying offices of the Church as well, but as I reflect on the legacy of Bishop Herzig I focus primarily on his gifts of governance.
As I continue to consider the progress of the diocese with our second and third shepherds, I can see the numerous ways they each contributed to the three-fold mission of the Church. Bishop Edmond Carmody came to the diocese as our second bishop in May of 1992. Many of us remember the tremendous growth he inspired and fostered, and I have to say as a priest who was working at his side—it was hard to keep up! In terms of these reflections on our thirtieth anniversary, I would also characterize Bishop Carmody’s eight years with us as a time of significant decisions of governance. Bishop Herzig had laid the basic foundations of the diocese with his critical decisions regarding how the diocese would be established. Bishop Carmody faced the challenge of deciding how, when and where the Church would grow in these thirty-three counties that were becoming the Diocese of Tyler. As you read this, many of you are living your faith in parishes and missions that didn’t exist when the diocese was first formed. We should all say a prayer of gratitude to the Holy Spirit in thanksgiving for our first two shepherds who cooperated with God’s grace and helped us to become a Church founded firmly on rock.
In January 2001, Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio was installed as the third bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, and thus began more than ten years of growth and development. Under the faithful shepherding of Bishop Corrada, the diocese continued to grow and move forward with her mission. The foundations and new communities established by Bishops Herzig and Carmody continued to flourish and gain strength. As with his predecessors, Bishop Corrada continued to make important decisions about the life of the diocese. He embraced the call to teach with great strength, but I would characterize the years of Bishop Corrada with us as bearing a primary focus on the sanctifying office of the Church and the bishop. Due to his own personal love of the liturgy and developments in the universal church like the new edition of the Roman Missal, Bishop Corrada made great strides in forming the priests, deacons, religious and laity in a love for Christ in His liturgy. As with the entire mission of Jesus Christ in His Church, we can never say that we have completed the task of sanctifying the world in His name. We continue to seek to be more deeply sanctified in the Eucharist, all of the sacraments and all of the means of grace that the Lord in His mercy offers to His body the Church.
These reflections on the thirty year journey of the Diocese of Tyler bring us to our present reality and the joyful challenges of the next thirty years and beyond. As disciples baptized into the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and confirmed in the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to live out this triple challenge of our lives. In many ways the greatest hope for this local Church is that, as individual disciples, we all embrace the mission with great energy, strength and joy. We are all called to govern our own lives and make Gospel-based decisions. We are all called to seek a greater sanctity in our own personal lives and develop an ever closer relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. How are we called as disciples to move forward with the mission of the Church facing the challenges of today? How is the Lord challenging me as your shepherd to lead you into a bright future, imbued with the Light of the Gospel that our world so desperately needs? I believe the answer lies in the prophetic teaching office that we all share and that serves as one of the pillars of my work as bishop.
As we look to the next thirty years and beyond, I believe we must embrace the call to teach the truth in new and profound ways. It is impossible for us to make the wise decisions of Gospel-guided governance or to seek authentic and life sustaining holiness and thus be sanctified, if we do not know the truth that sets us free. Many circumstances from past and present converge in our present day and demand that we humbly acknowledge that there is much of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that has been ignored or rejected. I often use the colloquial expression that we in the diocese, and really throughout much of the Church, are in need of “meat and potatoes Catholicism.” I believe this rather quaint image brings home the truth of what our focus needs to be for our future. There is much of the beautiful wonder that is our Catholic faith that remains unknown and unexperienced by the people of God today. It is my firm belief that we can make great progress in addressing the ills of our day if we are able to know and share the basic truth that has inspired disciples to lives of holiness through the ages.
Taking the call to teach a step further, I would propose that the journey develops into two paths that constantly intersect, intertwine and invigorate each other. The teaching office we share as disciples involves a path of catechesis, of learning clearly and deeply what it is that we believe as followers of Jesus Christ in our Catholic tradition. It also involves a second, equally important path of evangelization, of learning why we believe as we do as Catholics, and why it makes a difference for the human person. I am confident that, after only a few moments of reflection on these two paths of the teaching mission of the Church, we will all recognize that we face a daunting task for the next years of our journey of faith. There are many false voices that will try to shout us down. There is much apathy and ignorance that can derail our efforts before we can even begin. But let us be inspired by the glorious early days of the Church when she was just taking shape, when many of the solid truths that guide us now were only beginning to be discovered.
Let us be teaching disciples that are constantly seeking to learn more deeply ourselves.
Let us joyfully and clearly catechize with the basic message of what we believe and set God’s people free in the wonder of His truth.
Let us evangelize young and old, rich and poor, weak and strong, thus sharing the dynamic why of our faith.
Let us be on our way in Christ.