Sisters and Brothers, dear People of God in the Diocese of Fresno: a warm and cordial welcome to you all. Grace and Peace to you in Christ Jesus, Our Lord!
Tonight, we begin our year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Diocese of Fresno. We Catholics are so predictable, aren’t we? It seems when it comes to a major celebration, what’s the first thing we think of? Let’s have Mass! How natural of us – how Catholic of us. And so, it comes as no surprise, that the Eucharist is how we express ourselves because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives. It celebrates who we are; what we believe; and who is at the center of everything – even our celebrations: Jesus Christ, our Lord.
So, I am very grateful to stand here in this historic Cathedral Church where a large portion of the history of both the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno and the Diocese of Fresno has been made. Two dioceses were officially established in this Cathedral. Three bishops of the former Diocese of Monterey-Fresno and five bishops (count them) of the Diocese of Fresno have been installed here and have been seated in that very “cathedra” - the Bishop’s Chair! -- Currently occupied by Armando Ochoa, by the Grace of God and the Apostolic See, our Bishop!
And let’s not forget the scores of priests and dozens of deacons ordained here. The Religious Women who have taken or renewed religious vows here. The weddings, baptisms, first communions, confessions, confirmations, funerals and wakes celebrated here. This is the “stuff” of real life! These events and moments tell stories of real peoples’ lives – the hopes, the joys, the sorrows of real families, real history! So, it is entirely fitting that we begin the celebration of our 50th Anniversary here – in this “Mother-Church” of our diocese.
But, this is just one parish community among the hundred or so parishes and missions scattered all over Central California – eight counties making up the Diocese of Fresno – more than 35,000 square miles and today numbering more than 1.3 million Catholics; impressive statistics to be sure, but only numbers. What really matters is that each person, each family, each parish community has its own unique and colorful stories to share, its own history to remember, and futures to dream and build.
I am reminded of an old East-African greeting still in use today: When one person greets another, he or she says “I see you.” The other replies: “Then I exist.” What a marvelous greeting! It’s when we truly SEE one another that our story, our life, our dignity is appreciated and celebrated.
We cannot fully celebrate our anniversary without remembering our past, especially those whose sacrifice and vision, whose determination and patience, whose faith and devotion have brought us to this moment in our story. Who have we been? Take a moment and using your imagination – In your mind’s eye, take a look around your own parish. To those of a certain age: Do you know who the pastor was who guided the building of your parish church, or classrooms, or parish hall? Can you SEE him? Who were those who made the parish festivals, the fundraisers, the annual devotions really happen? Can you remember who got your parish’s religious education program started? Who were some of the teachers and volunteers who gave their lives to see the children of the parish brought closer to Jesus? Can you remember who helped clean the church or the grounds? Who were the people who cleaned and ironed the altar linens used at all the Masses celebrated over the years? Do you remember them? Do you remember their names? Can you SEE them?
What about today? Who are we now? Our parish communities have become more complex and more diverse. Languages and cultures demand new resources and gifts. The explosion of new ministries and structures are calling us to reach out in order to serve a wider and larger population. The presence of our Deacons, Ministers of Holy Communion, Catechists, Lector, Musicians, the Ushers offer new opportunities and sometimes bring new stresses on parish life.
We are in a challenging moment in our history as a Diocese: not a “crisis” moment, or a moment of panic. Rather, our faith community is searching to discover new ways of proclaiming the Gospel for a generation whose demands are certainly different than the past. With an ever growing Catholic Community, the challenges are real and they are important to address. This is Who we Are Today. The realization that fewer priests are available to guide the pastoral needs of a modern parish has its own stresses and concerns. The expansion of Lay Ministry is a huge blessing for the vibrancy and health of our parishes and calls for an even greater outpouring of the Spirit to meet the pastoral needs of our people.
The reality of who we are now would not be complete without the recognition and gratitude for the contribution of newcomers and immigrants from every land and culture.
Do we SEE them? Do they Exist for us? Do we welcome them? These enrich our life as a Diocesan Family and give us new stories and new histories to build upon those which already bind us together. That common story of our Faith in Jesus Christ – our common history that we are all Catholic! No matter what language we speak, what color our skin may be, or where we come from. The real message we need to take into our hearts and into our soul is: We are ALL Catholics. May it always be so!
A celebration of an anniversary, even one as important as our 50th as a Diocese, is an empty exercise without asking the questions: “What now?” “Where do we go from here?” We have reflected on who we have been and who we are now. The challenge this Anniversary Year offers us is to discover the path of Who We Are Called to Be! That is the ultimate and sobering question. Who Are We Called to Be? I have no magic answer. Like you, I struggle to discern the Signs of the Times. But, I do have a modest suggestion that is always before us: As people of Faith, we find our answer not in a crystal ball or in searching the stars. We find our Way in and through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Listen to the word of the Lord from our Second Reading:
“May God, the source of all patience and encouragement, enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the spirit of Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and voice you may glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Not a bad “blueprint” for our future!
And, from the Gospel:
“I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way before you.”
Dear friends, sometimes we can see the Church only as a building, or even worse, as an impersonal organization that, sadly, has sometimes let us down. This anniversary is an opportunity to set that notion aside for good. Rather, let us always go forward (Siempre Adelante) knowing that we are a Holy People of God – made holy not by our power, or our own merits, but through the Sacrificial Gift and Holiness of Christ Jesus. If we are this People, then our call is clear:
To come to know Jesus more deeply;
To love Him more dearly;
To follow Him more nearly;
To serve Him more sincerely.
Called to be authentic disciples of the Lord, indeed to be Intentional Missionary Disciples of the Lord! To so conform ourselves to Christ that we are and are known by all to be genuine messengers announcing that the Kingdom of God is among us! May our eyes and hearts be open to SEE those who search for God even if they are hidden or in the shadows. Can we SEE them? Do they EXIST for us? Can we embrace them and welcome them among us?So, as we go forward: Who, then, are we called to be?