Reflecting on our shepherd, by Fr. James Gigliotti, TOR
One of the many joys of our Catholic spirituality is “theological reflection.” One thinks back over certain instances of the greater past, or the most recent of events, and discerns where the Lord was working for the good of one’s soul. It is custom to search, prayerfully, the Scriptures, seeking some lesson or wisdom reflecting God’s Presence in such and such an event.
I might remember a time when circumstances seemed particularly stressful or challenging. Fear and anxiety reigned, but somehow, things came together; one survived and maybe even thrived and learned some wisdom. In my Franciscan friar way of life, I can see how “Alone I can do nothing, but with Christ, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13)
Upon reflection, the dawning of being held in the palm of His Hand, protected and sustained, rises to the surfaces and gratitude radiates as never before. Such is spiritual reflection, growing in “wisdom and grace” as Christ did in Luke’s Gospel after leaving the Rabbinic circle at the Temple where he’d asked His Mother, “Did you not know I have to be about my Father’s business?”
The image of the “growing in wisdom and grace” is also our “business” in the Kingdom of God within us. Socrates’ famous quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living” points to the richness of learning lifelong lessons by mulling over what has been by the grace of God. Inserting our subjective experience into the Book of the People unites us to the universality of the human condition. We are all connected in Christ and Christ sustains us with the Word given to His people as reassurance of His continual activity in us and among us.
The sacred Scriptures ground us in the Living God who calls us to activate what St. Irenaeus calls, “The Glory of God is fully alive.” Gratitude for His Divine Presence in every fiber of our being, we blossom in His Light. Overcoming doubt, fear, and all the rest of our frail human condition, we glean “mindfulness” of Christ always sustaining us on the journey towards the promised blissful eternity.
It is advisable to do such theological reflection under the direction of a spiritual director. Over time, like any dynamic, one becomes more self-directed, relying on the perusal of the sacred Scriptures, surfacing some Word reflecting the lived experience owned by the spiritual seeker.
This is not done only for one’s own sake, however. Since we are social beings, and in the eyes of the Church, members of the Body with Christ as our Head, we can take ecclesial experiences and seek out what the Holy Spirit has said, is saying, discerning knowledge of His workings in the Church for the sake of sharpening the eyes of faith, trusting that we walk by faith, not by sight.
Luke’s exhortation (6:27ff) grounds us in the fact we’re not in Heaven yet! “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who mistreat you…Love your enemy and do good,” should sustain us in persecuting events seemingly growing in the world today.
The Church has always been “tested” and challenged and always will. We take confidence, upon reflection, that the Lord raises up men and women in every age to guide, shepherd, counsel, and correct souls attempting to traverse this land we’re just passing through. Bishops in particular have the mandate of shepherding the sheep with the same love and care as Christ and the first Apostles zealously displayed. In the Greek, “zeal” means “to bring to a boil.”
Too many of us become tasteless salt, tepid to the point of sloth. Such is our culture these days. We’ve got our work cut out for us, especially our bishops. Stirring us from flat to full, reflecting on the promises and mission delivered to His infant Church, realization of the dynamism the Holy Spirit sustains, we pray with St. Faustina, “Jesus I trust in you.” Reflect then, we trust in the Magisterium of the Church and, in particular, the leadership of the episcopacy among us.
“John gave this testimony also: ‘I saw the Spirit descend like a dove from the sky, and it came to rest on him.'”
Reflecting on our shepherd, Bishop Michael Olson, I was blessed to be present at his elevation as the fourth bishop, just nearly ten years ago. For all my 55 years as a Franciscan Friar and 43 years (now) as a priest, this was my inaugural witnessing of such a stellar event.
Not happening often in the history of any diocese, it’s a landmark event to be celebrated by the whole Church, especially that diocese with the presbyterate present. San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Silva presiding, with other bishops, our own Msgr. Olson became Bishop Olson, witnessed by a vast number of religious and lay folk from all over this vast diocese. With the eyes of faith, the Holy Spirit did the descending, validating the “call” by the Holy Father himself, to hold to the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders.
That day, Bishop Olson was missioned in particular for teaching doctrine, governing Catholics in his jurisdiction, sanctifying the world, and representing the Church.
His pastoral role is first and foremost for the Body he now shepherds in the name of Christ.
“Pastoral” means “care of souls.” Priests and parents have this same mandate. But it is the local bishop who is to do this with the fullness of Church authority invested in him at this ordination. I well remember the beautiful ancient text chanted by conjoined diocesan choirs — the “Veni, Creator Spiritus” or “Come, Holy Spirit.”
As a Franciscan vowed Religious, and an ordained priest, the body gesture of total surrender to the Will of God was acted out as Bishop-elect Olson prostrated in front of the makeshift altar — a sign of complete surrender to the Triune God — as the faithful invoked the Litany of Saints. This Litany by those joyfully present petitions the intercession of the Apostles to bless this man with the fortitude to continue the ministry of the Apostles in our own time. Quietly, with the laying on of hands, Bishop-elect Olson quietly calls down the Holy Spirit to continue to influence his will, his mind, and his heart after the likeness of Christ and the first Apostles.
It’s a striking ceremony, full of the teaching tradition of our Catholic faith. One can’t help but reflect on roots, giving praise to our Triune God, and our Blessed Mother, for sustaining our Church like a ship in turbulent waters. This event of happy memory provokes confidence in the sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit guiding and shepherding us, particularly through the bishop and his curia. What a day for the whole Church!
Just after that time, I was transferred to a small parish in the Diocese of Venice, Florida. They also had just installed a new bishop, so I had lots of company coming to know the lay of the land and the shepherd leaders in that sunny land. I’m a slow study, so after a year and a half there, still settling in, I found myself being transferred back to Texas as pastor of this grand old parish of St. Andrew the Apostle in Fort Worth.
Away, then returning, I found some changes had been made. There was a stronger emphasis on our Catholic spirituality which was a welcomed scenario to my tradition-minded formation. Change is never easy, which sounds better than change is always hard!
I have been blessed to have worked in other dioceses: Erie, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Trenton, Metuchen, Archdiocese of Miami, Diocese of St. Petersburg, and Venice. These included stints as a prison chaplain, hospital chaplain, and high school teacher for 17 years. Reflecting on a sort of itinerant coming and going, one gathers a plethora of pastoral styles, programs, and Catholic schools. But the experiences with different bishops were as different as were the pastors’ varying personalities and approaches to parochial work.
We are blessed with a big Church, we Catholics. There is no cookie-cutter style for the most part, though some “clericalism” exists wherever one goes. Pope Francis rails against clericalism, and so he should. To be clear, the general definition is the misuse or overextension of clergy’s authority. But, when we attack and condemn clericalism, we must take care not to attack or condemn priests as such. We all need prayer. But the enemy will always attack priests and religious men and women especially. As Christ’s ministering mandate is taken up by such souls, the devil will tempt as he tempted Christ in the desert.
Pray for your ministers in the vineyard. Pray for our bishops. I was recently sitting in a voting venue for our Province as we were electing a new Provincial. We’d been praying for enlightenment to do the Lord’s will, and may the best candidate be in place for the next four years, until another friar leader is elected by the many. Sitting next to one of my contemporaries who had seen as much of the Church as yours truly, he whispered, “Who would want this job?” Indeed. There is no pleasing everyone. This is particularly true in Church leadership. And so it has always been!
A Scriptural insert helps ground the cross of leadership in St. Paul’s Letter to Titus: “The bishop as God’s steward must be blameless. He may not be self-willed or arrogant, a drunkard, a violent or greedy man. He should, on the contrary, be hospitable and a lover of goodness; steady, just, holy, and self-controlled. In his teaching, he must hold fast to the authentic message, so that he will be able both to encourage men to follow sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.” A formidable task in any age. And some bishops approach this with gusto; others, perhaps more cautiously. Again, styles differ.
Strange phrase for a mendicant friar to use, but, for my money, I must thank Bishop Olson for his courage in confronting some wounds which have never scarred because of oversight or sheer neglect. Confrontation can be a loaded word. According to the late, great Fr. Henri Nouwen, “Confrontation is a ministry of caring.”
In the marketplace, confrontation can be an “I’m in your face” and “who has the power.” But in the Kingdom of God, it’s a ministry of speaking one’s truth in love. Sin and its ilk must be confronted and dealt with, as messy and unpleasant as this always is. I’ve lived in too many places where bishops were less prone to be transparent. Abuses of all kinds had no “come to Jesus” moment. I have spoken out about sexual abuse by clergy and lay people, which was ignored with a code of silence for some time that only bred more disdain, anger, and abandonment of the Church in the passage of time.
Not so here under Bishop Olson. I have been refreshingly fascinated by his courageous ability to name the transgressions and the out-and-out sinful behavior. From the pulpit to the printed word and airwaves, he has presented the Gospel values, attending to Biblical justice which is defined as “righting wrongs.”
Someone has to step up and speak the truth, steeped in wisdom and scholarly knowledge to ground teaching and correcting. The role of the local Ordinary is not for the faint of heart. We should appreciate the gusto and forthrightness we’ve been blessed to witness here. St. Paul of Tarsus comes to mind in the manner just stated but also in the pastoral wisdom restoring any leanings to the Left which currently infect too many of our members, clerical and lay. That’s another story to be told another time!
Again, a focus on St. Paul and Hebrew letter, 5:1-6.
Reflecting with this viewpoint: “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with erring sinners, for he himself is beset by weakness and so must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. One does not take his honor on his own initiative, but only when called by God as Aaron was. Even Christ did not glorify Himself with the office of high priest; He received it from the One who said to Him, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you”; just as He says in another priest, ‘You are a priest forever according to the Order of Melchizedek.’”
A priest is called to serve our members with alacrity. A bishop, blessed with the “fullness of Holy Orders,” takes initiative from the Holy Spirit to put himself in the life situation of his people. We are all pilgrims walking through the desert, a la Old Testament, on our way to the Promised Land.
I well remember being drawn to tears at one of the ordinations where Bishop Olson spoke in his usual inclusion of Spanish. But hearing him speaking the Vietnamese tongue in service to the Vietnamese community so well represented, feting one of their own about to be ordained a priest, just left me with that seventh Gift of the Holy Spirit, wonder and awe. This personal touch displays his obvious investment in the multiple groups claiming the Fort Worth Diocese as their Home Church and this bishop as their shepherd for us all. I could only imagine the effort (and sweat) in learning his welcoming, which was not brief, by the way. And those with this as their first language were as impressed to the point of tears as were many of us present for yet another glorious event in the life of this large and fast-growing Diocese of Fort Worth.
With all the fuss and muss over this Roman Synod, and AI blasting fearful innuendos, the bishop recently spoke to our assembled clergy, reassuring that the Holy Spirit was in charge and not to believe some of the more fantastic “news” flowing out to the world, sowing anxiety and anger. Coming from someone of the bishop’s stature, a palpable calm rose up and descended down to us all. The authoritative reassurances in that moment had us reflecting scripturally, that the phrase “Do not be afraid” is stated 365 times in the Holy Bible!
A blessed 10th anniversary to you, Bishop Olson, and may the Good God give you many more years of shepherding your burgeoning flock of many races and tongues. As the Good Lord has sustained you in the past, in the present moment, we thank Him for further graces for your future, and ours as Church.
“All mankind is grass and the glory of men is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower wilts, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Now this Word is the Gospel which was preached to you.” (1 Peter 22-25)
And Bishop, you preach it well to us. Thank you and God bless you!
Father James Gigliotti, T.O.R., is the pastor at St. Andrew Church in Fort Worth and has also served as pastor at St. Maria Goretti Church in Arlington.