Installation Mass, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Wheeling, August 22, 2019
A people walked in darkness and dwelt in the land of gloom. Those words of Isaiah, referring to enemy armies oppressing the kingdom of Israel, are, I think, an apt description for how many Catholics in this country have felt over the past year and how many West Virginia Catholics have felt perhaps for even longer. The scandals we have learned about have caused painful disappointment, confusion, anger and distrust of Church leaders. We must face this situation with open eyes and determined spirits to bring about true and lasting change.
But Isaiah’s message to an oppressed people does not end in the darkness. Hear it again: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. My friends, it takes no humility on my part to admit that I am not the light. The light is the child born to us, the son given us. The light is Mary’s child, Jesus, the Light of the world. Through him, God has acted to bring his people out of darkness into his marvelous light. I hope that, with trust in the Lord and with your help, I may reflect in my service here in Wheeling-Charleston some of the Lord’s light, as the moon reflects the sun.
During these dark times, many others have persevered in reflecting Christ’s light of faith and love, despite their own struggle to make sense of the crisis that confronts us. I think of the parents who have continued to pray with their children and teach them right from wrong; the parish priests who have continued to preach the Gospel and baptize, marry and conduct funerals; the Catholic Charities personnel who have never ceased reaching out to those addicted to opioids or who lack food and clothing; the teachers in Catholic schools and parish religious education programs who have continued to show up each and every day to form young people and adults in our faith; teenagers whose youth reflects so much promise and whose vibrant faith fills us with so much hope; I think also of the diocesan chancery staff who have come to work every day to advance God’s work in this fine state, even under very trying circumstances. Christ’s light has been shining in the darkness through all of them and, as St. John says in his Gospel, the darkness has not overcome it. I thank God for these faithful West Virginia Catholics.
Behavior has consequences and there are consequences to bad behavior in the past that will have to be dealt with. That is one of my responsibilities and I assure you that I will meet it. At the same time, it is my fervent hope and prayer that we can begin to find our way forward. The light of Christ beckons us to move now from the painful past toward him, not in denial but in confidence that the Lord will supply us with the wisdom and strength to do things better, to live our faith with greater integrity and to reflect more brightly, as far as our human weakness and limitations will permit, his own enduring light.
A painful reality we must confront is the fact that some of our people have been so outraged or discouraged that they have stopped going to Mass or even praying. Others have certainly been tempted to do so. I ask all who feel that way to consider the example of West Virginians of an earlier era. When the dark clouds of secession were rolling over the State of Virginia in the spring of 1861, the people of these western mountains chose to remain in the United States of America. They would not break their unity with Ohio and Pennsylvania, Michigan and Kentucky. They petitioned Congress to admit them as the State of West Virginia, which Congress did in 1863. Many of their sons — the ancestors of some who are present — fought to maintain the integrity of the Union.
I know that strong feelings of revulsion may lead some to walk away. But I would urge all of us to recall Jesus’ prayer for his disciples the night before he died: I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me [John 17:21-22]. Unity with one another and with God is what the Lord wants for us — and what, in our hearts, we truly desire. One man told me not long ago that he stopped going to Mass in his parish because of the recent scandals but then he asked himself: who was he helping by doing that? No one. Who was he hurting? Himself. He has since returned to Mass, still eager to see the Church address its failings and bring about lasting reform but conscious that walking away doesn’t help. As Simon Peter said to the Lord when some disciples were leaving Jesus because of hard teachings, Lord to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.
My many years as a parish priest and two and a half as a bishop have shown me that the work of healing and renewal is the work of us all. Every one of us must find ways to reveal the light that overcomes all darkness, even in our own personal struggle to make sense and understand.
Today we honor Mary, who is a model for every disciple of her Son. She said yes to God in very difficult circumstances. Here is an example for us to imitate. Our difficulties are not only the misdeeds of my predecessor, the revelations of clergy sexual abuse and the irresponsibility of some bishops, bad as those scandals are but they are also the opioid epidemic that is robbing us of our relatives and friends; the poverty that envelops towns where the factories have closed and rural areas that have never known prosperity; the power exercised by some big businesses who act like bullies in the schoolyard; the need for robust educational opportunities for our youth, to which our Catholic schools can make a major contribution; the hopelessness among many of our young people, whose depression and suicide rates are rising; and an extreme individualism that denies our common ties and leads only to isolation.
In the face of all those social evils and many others, we dare to offer something better: good news, very good news during very bad news, news too good to keep to ourselves. What is it? God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that all who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life [John 3:16]. We who believe in the Son of God know that his grace upholds us in the trials and joys of this life and will lead us on to eternity. That experience of Christ in his Church we must share with others. We must invite them to put their faith in the Savior God has sent, the Savior who even now abides with us.
I saw two vanity license plates once in quick succession while driving west on 1-70: one said, “You can’t.” The other said: “GODIZ4U.” That’s St. John’s message and Paul’s in his Letter to the Romans: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to this purpose. Believing that, we can reject the pessimism of the first vanity plate: yes, like Mary, we can let God fulfill his purpose in us and not let the darkness return to cover the earth. We can right the wrongs of the past and move on to make Christ known, helping our neighbor in need and remaining united in faith and love. West Virginia Catholics: cherish your faith and the holy Church that has nurtured it. Make Mary’s “yes” to God your own and work with me and your brothers and sisters to let the light of Christ be a light brightly visible in the mountains and valleys, the city streets and country roads of this beautiful part of God’s creation: West Virginia.