HOMILY – EPISCOPAL ORDINATION OF BISHOP SYLVESTER DAVID OMI
It is indeed good to be here, as we gather together in celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection on the Day of the Lord. With hearts filled with gratitude for the goodness and blessings God bestows on his people, we give particular thanks for blessing our Archdiocese with an auxiliary bishop. It has taken many years for this day to come but come it has, and we are confident that it is the kairos the right moment for it to happen.
As Archbishop I must express our thanks, on behalf of all, to the Holy Father, Pope Francis for appointing Bishop Sylvester, to Cardinal Filoni of the Dicastery for the evangelisation of peoples and to the Nuncio, Archbishop Peter Wells for their respective roles in facilitating the appointment of an auxiliary bishop.
I have no doubt that I speak on behalf of all in the Archdiocese when I say to Bishop Sylvester “welcome, we are delighted and overjoyed to have you here. We hope that you will be happy living here and that your ministry will bear much fruit”.
We are grateful to your family who nurtured you in your faith and guided you to priesthood. We are grateful to your other family, the family which you chose, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. We are grateful for the formation they gave you and their generosity and willingness to share you with the wider Church as a bishop. We appreciate the presence of many Oblates present here today, including your Provincial.Fr Neil Frank.
You will find, as I did, that the priests, deacons, Religious and laity of this archdiocese are welcoming, hospitable and supportive. We have our troubles and difficulties, but there is a great love for the Church and a joyful energy. The faith of people has always been a great source of strength for me – may it be so for you as well.
The Readings you have chosen are pastoral and personal, capturing the nature of God who yearns for his people and is always ready to welcome them. And so he says, in the First Reading of today’s Mass, that he himself will search for his sheep, he will seek them, he will rescue them, feed them in rich pasture, bind their wounds and bring back the stray. He is not a God prepared to sit back, to consolidate what he has, waiting for people to come to him. His yearning and longing for his people means that he will actively seek to gather and unite them.
Perhaps this is captured best by the dialogue between Jesus and St Peter when the Resurrected Jesus was revealed “for the third time” to his disciples. Three time Jesus asks St Peter “do you love me?” Three times Peter affirms his love for the Lord. St Augustine makes the point that while St Peter denied the Lord three times through fear, he confesses three times through love. That is the key to understanding the transformation brought about by the Resurrection and the coming of God’s Holy Spirit. Fear is cast out and we are invited to embrace love.
The Christian vocation is to love, and every particular vocation in the Church is an invitation to deepen love, whether it be through marriage, the clerical state, Religious Life or single life. We can only fulfil our call and our mission, if we strive to love more sincerely, more tenderly each day. And this must be especially true of a bishop, something we need to frequently remind ourselves of.
The mission of the whole Church is oriented to God’s people, to their care and strengthening, and to evangelise the nations, to gather the diversity of cultures, language, tribes and nations into unity and knowledge of God’s love. As Pope Francis has said Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.
It is a challenging time to be a bishop since we recognize that many “do not attend Mass, have quit or are indifferent”. We live with the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. We live in a time of disillusionment for many, a time when trust has been betrayed by leaders whether they be political, economic or church leaders. A growing number of people feel disempowered, no longer able to control their destiny but feel subject to anonymous forces.
We live in a time of deep uncertainty and insecurity as foundations we have always taken for granted in terms of cultural or national identity or what used to be commonly held values are swept from under our feet. The temptation is to retreat into a fearful response, like an animal cornered, or to try and desperately re-establish an idealised old order that gives the illusion of having being a more perfect era. Instead, we are called to face these difficult realities with a resolve to stand fast in our vocation to love.
But these challenges – and we could go on and on about them and others, wringing our hands or throwing them in the air – are not simply an annoyance or extrinsic to the life of the Church. As we have heard recently, facing these challenges is the ministry of the Church. We cannot afford to create a type of illusory world of denial of the reality of today. Here and now we live and here and we must evangelise, bringing the love of Christ to those who thirst and long for it.
It is the vocation of the whole Church to make that love concrete, not simply of the clergy or Religious. Perhaps now more than ever it is the laity who have to become the primary evangelisers for it is they who have more direct contact with people and share in their daily lives and have greater opportunity to console, comfort and strengthen. And so, together as bishop, clergy, religious and laity, in unity, in the words of Pope Francis we are to, Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.
To become the Word of God, to tend for the sheep, demands a personal touch, treating people as people in contrast to the anonymity characteristic of modern life. It is not unusual for many who do not know Christ or who have strayed from him to be brought to him through hearing the testimonies of the joys and struggles of those who have come to serve him, to hear their personal stories.
Bishop Sylvester, you today will make certain promises before all of us gathered here and, indeed, before all those who have joined us through live-streaming. These promises form the basis of the bishop’s role to teach, to sanctify and to govern – in essence to care for and to tend his sheep. This three-fold role could easily become an administrative task, or even a burden, but you are called to embrace it with love and in service of those to whom you have been sent.
You will commit yourself to guide the Holy People of God in the way of salvation together with your fellow-ministers the priests and deacons. You will resolve to preach the Gospel of Christ with constancy and fidelity, and to guard the deposit of faith, entire and uncorrupted as handed down by the Apostles. St Paul reminds us to teach and preach “in season and out of season”[i] helping people to attain the “full stature of Christ” so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes[ii].
To teach with firmness of faith, but without the false rigidity of an ideology, is the role of a bishop, a difficult task in an age when “progressiveness” is identified with political correctness and when there is such intolerance that certain subjects or practices can hardly be questioned any more. In this regard, of fundamental importance is the sanctity of life and the need to protect the life of the unborn, as well as to protect the lives of the elderly who more and more become threatened, often for economic reasons when they are sometimes regarded as “non-productive” human beings and too great an expense to support.
Promoting the sanctity of life is to promote the dignity of each and every person and to oppose anything that strips people of that dignity, whether it be economic systems that perpetuate poverty, injustice and discrimination, the enslavement of people through human trafficking, the rights of refugees…and the list goes on. Thus, you will also promise that for the sake of the Lord’s name you will be “welcoming and merciful to the poor, to strangers and to all who are in need”.
You will resolve to pray “without ceasing to the Almighty God for the holy people and to carry out the office of high priest without reproach”. Every baptized person is called to holiness. This is not an erroneous holiness of piety alone, but is rooted in prayer and achieved through faithfully doing the best one can at work, in the family, in society and in the Church.
To sanctify is to lead God’s people to holiness, to a deepening encounter with Christ, and to seek ways of providing continuing formation for the people of God to strengthen them spiritually and in their knowledge of the faith.
You will resolve, that in governance, you will “build up the body of Christ, his Church, and to remain in the unity of that body….” When the Lord Jesus rebuked his apostles after two of them had sought to sit one on his right and one on his left in his Kingdom, he said to them “you know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant…”[iii]
Much honour is paid to the bishop – at least in front of him. You will be well-received and welcomed. You will be invited to many different functions and events. You will dress in very distinctive clothing and be given a place of honour, but you should never lose sight that our task as bishops is to gather people, to unite, to ensure that the voice of the weak and vulnerable is not stifled, to foster the great diversity of the Catholic faith which is united in our belief in the Creed, the doctrine of the Church and fidelity to the Holy Father.
Governance includes the openness to dialogue and to discussion with those who do not believe in God or Christ, with those who are searching for the meaning of life, who are lost and confused. We are told in the ritual that, as bishops, we should never relax our concern for those who are not yet gathered into the one fold of Christ; they too are entrusted to us in the Lord.
With all the love, honour and prestige given to us we should not forget that we must always be prepared to be “fools for the sake of Christ”, to be placed “at the end of his parade” and at times to be treated as the “offal of the world” and the “scum of the earth”, in the words of St Paul.[iv] It is not about honour or prestige, it is a vocation that we have been called to fulfil and to do it in a way that will bring people closer to Christ.
Pope St John Paul II once said that the test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being. After St Peter had responded to Jesus’ thrice-asked question “Do you love me”, Jesus said to him “follow me” so it is through a renewal of our desire and resolve to self-abandonment, to making Christ the focus of our lives, to growing in our faith, hope and charity, to openness and guidance from the Holy Spirit, and to treating every human person with respect and love, that we will be able to fulfil the vocation Christ has given us.
Perhaps it is appropriate to end with the words of Pope St John Paul II: I plead with you – never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.
Archbishop of Cape Town 25th