Homily of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Worth Abbey, England, 20th May 2017
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?”
“Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Just as Simon did, you, John, have answered “yes”. That day the Nuncio called you, you did not have much time to reflect before answering yes to the invitation of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to accept responsibility for the diocese of Laghouat. As proof of your consent we have the mandate that has just been read out.
Conscious that you have been chosen, and counting on the Spirit of the Lord that has been given to you, you have responded in effect: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
You have answered confidently, I am sure, because you know that the love of God enfolds you as it has always enfolded you: in this place, Worth, in the years of your boyhood; during your service in the Armed Forces; and throughout all the time you have been serving as a priest in the Society of Missionaries of Africa.
You know with certainty that this love will continue to enfold you, whatever difficulties may come your way. This certainty is founded on the Rock of Christ, the one who “having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end”, the one whom we celebrate in this Eastertide, who has gone through his Passion and Death to rise to New Life, life which he wishes to share with all.
You have already held positions of responsibility, not only in the Army but also in the Church, as Superior of the community of the Institut de Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA), in Tunis, and as the Provincial Superior of the Missionaries of Africa in the Maghreb, but now, because of this loving response to the Lord, you are being given a new responsibility. Like Simon you hear the words: “Feed my lambs. Look after my sheep. Take into your loving care the people of the diocese of Laghouat.”
I would like you to notice that Jesus says to Simon: “Feed my lambs. Look after my sheep.” He is saying to you: Look after my people of Laghouat. Your love and your care are to be inclusive, universal. Allow me to quote Canon Law:
“A diocesan bishop is to show that he is concerned with all the Christian faithful who are committed to his care regardless of age, condition or nationality, both those who live within his territory and those who are staying in it temporarily” (cf. 383 #1).
This last category would include not only those who come to work in the oil-fields, but also African students, or migrants who are crossing the Sahara dreaming of a better life.
The same Canon goes on to say:
“He is to consider non-baptized as being committed to him in the Lord so that there may shine upon them the charity of Christ for whom the bishop must be a witness before all” (cf.383 #4).
Accordingly, as you are well aware, your pastoral care is not to be confined to the few Catholics in the Diocese, but is to extend to the population of over four and a half million. If there is to be any preference in the persons to whom you direct your attention it will be for those mentioned by Isaiah in the first reading: the poor, those who are suffering, whose hearts are broken, and those who are in prison or who are bound in any way.
This Diocese that is being entrusted to you is indeed vast, and as we know, the desert is your cathedral. You will, as your coat of arms suggests, be piloting the bark of the Local Church on a sea of sand or, if you prefer, following across the dunes, and leading your people to follow the Lamb that was slain, but is still living. Yet this vast area is no “empty quarter”. I trust that you will discover that the love of God has been preceding you everywhere. In saying this, I am thinking of the work of your predecessors in this See of Laghouat: Charles Lavigerie, Charles Guérin, Henri Bardou, Louis David, Gustave Nouet, among the “ancestors in the faith”, and those I have known myself, Georges Mercier, Jean-Marie Raimbaud, Michel Gagnon, and Claude Rault, your immediate predecessor, who is happily with us today. I think too of all the Missionaries of Africa, both men and women, as well as other priests and religious and lay people, who have contributed to the life and work of the diocese, and those who are present in the diocese now whom you are called to lead, as their Good Shepherd. So I pray that you may grasp the breadth, the length, the height and the depth of the love of God, in order that you may be filled with the utter fullness of God (cf. Eph 3:18) and be able to share this with others.
Our Gospel passage ended with Jesus saying to Simon: “Feed my sheep”. It is good, I think, to consider also the following verses in this chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus reminds Simon that “when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you like”. You had that same freedom as a young man, although you committed yourself to obeying orders as a member of Her Majesty’s Forces, and then you pledged obedience to the Superior General of the Society of Missionaries of Africa. Today “somebody else” – and I am privileged to be that person – will not put a belt around you, but will give you a ring, and this ring will be a sign that you are tied, espoused to one diocese, to the diocese of Laghouat.
New ties will also be created, with the other bishops of Algeria, with all the members of the Conference of Bishops of the Region of North Africa, and also with the universal College of Bishops with Pope Francis at its head. So your concerns must grow ever wider, to embrace the whole of your diocese, the whole of the country to which you have been sent, the entire region, and indeed go out to the Universal Church.
So, with you and for you, let us pray that your love may grow ever deeper, wider, and yet remain eminently practical and effective, following the example of our founder, Charles Lavigerie, who exercised his pastoral ministry inspired by one all-embracing word: CHARITAS.
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