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"We Cannot Shrink From Our Calling to Be Shepherds, to Be Leaders"

BALTIMORE, Maryland, NOV. 13, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the address delivered today by Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, president of the U.S. episcopal conference, to the opening session of the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops, being held in Baltimore through Thursday.

* * *

Your Eminences and Excellencies, esteemed friends gathered with us this morning, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus:

It was three years ago that I stood before you, my brother Bishops, humbled and with a bit less than fullness of undaunted courage. You had shortly before placed upon me your trust to serve as the President of our Conference of Bishops. Since then, each time I sat before you to chair our gatherings, I looked with admiration upon all the faces of you, the Bishops, the very force and life of this Episcopal Conference, keenly aware of the task of service I held in support of each of you and all of you. That has been a source of my daily prayers for our strength, prayers for patience for our weaknesses, but most of all prayers of thanksgiving for the grace and goodness that, from long experience, I know characterize this body.

Over the last three years, together, we have continued to live through challenging times in the life of the Church. Our religious liberty is constantly challenged and needs vigilant defense. Our voice for the unborn, the poor, the stranger, the abused -- for peace and for justice -- is strong, but not always welcome. Our commitment to evangelization and catechesis, so that our people lead lives faithful to all the moral teachings of the Church, confronts the material and spiritual challenges of our time. And our efforts to protect the young and defenseless entrusted to our pastoral care are needed now more than ever. Those challenges have been more than met by your support as a body of brother Bishops, by the experienced and prayerful advice of the various committees dealing with so many questions, and by the excellence of our wonderful staff.

For all of this, then, my desire this morning is to say, Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve as your President for the past three years. To serve you, especially in support of your ministry to God's people, has been an honor and a spiritual fulfillment.

As I complete my own service of leadership to this body, it seems to me that one of the great challenges to our society and culture is increasingly one of just that -- leadership. Or perhaps better said, it is a misunderstanding of the meaning of leadership: on the part of many who aspire to it, and also on the part of some who look for leadership. That is probably not a surprise. Leadership has taken a beating in recent years. Our collective history during the past few decades and years is one marked heavily by divisions. Our politics have been very closely contested, and the resulting bitterness has been palpable. In our age of exploding communications, the rhythm of discourse, of reflection, and of expression has heightened the scrutiny and sometimes the bitterness surrounding many issues and decisions. This, to be sure, is characteristic of both the left and right, believers and not. It has led to a conception of leadership in certain circles, not as a service to the common good, but as a means to victory and dominance. At times, those looking for leadership then become frustrated because their cause or issue is not advanced fully or given clean and total victory.

But here is precisely the paradox we face in our time. Today, Americans often have an image of leadership that equates it to power. We often hear calls in society for strong and decisive leadership. At the same time, however, there is resentment toward those who seem to "lord it over" others -- who use power and influence in a manner that conflicts with the strong current of individualism that characterizes our time and place. Still, the power of leadership is both a reality and a necessity.

And so, the questions for us as Bishops are these: What is the nature of our leadership and authority, and how do we exercise it? To answer, we must look to the true model of leadership: that of Jesus of Nazareth. And we must ask: how did Jesus lead? How did he use his authority? For us as Bishops, a deep and Christ-like vision of leadership must be at the heart of our service. Christ has called us, as successors of the Apostles, to be his voice in our time. And our time needs to hear the voice of Christ. The Old Testament reminds us of a basic truth: without a vision the people will perish (see Proverbs 29:18). That vision is Christ's. It is carried by the Church; and we, like Jeremiah, must cry out and not hold back. Indeed at a time like this it should be all so clear to us: We cannot shrink from our calling to be shepherds, to be leaders.

Of course the source of Christ's power, and its goal as well, was simply this: Truth. The ultimate basis of all truth, of all understanding, rests in God himself. As Christ made it his mission to show us his Father, to teach us to seek the will of his Father, we cannot in fidelity to him renounce or weaken our proclamation of the truth. In our day, that truth is so often related to questions of the moral life. For that reason, we need to continue to speak out and teach our people joyfully to embrace life, to incorporate fully the Church's vision about chastity and the nature of marriage, and to understand the humanly and spiritually corrosive results of the contraceptive mentality and lifestyle. As shepherds, we will continue to be clear about the fundamental injustice of abortion and of sacrificing sacred human lives at their earliest moments for the sake of progress in medicine and science, or for convenience. We are in a position to speak to those issues not only because our theology holds God's truth, but also because our contributions to health and to the relief of suffering, by means of our Catholic institutions, are second to none.

We can marvel at examples of the mission of those who established these institutions. In the Northwest for example, the early missionary efforts of so many, the network of Catholic health care institutions founded by women religious, the educational institutions founded by both men and women religious, and Catholic Charities organizations in various dioceses are wonderful examples of great, visionary leadership.

As shepherds, we must continue to move minds and hearts to care for those who are needy and disadvantaged. We will continue to speak that truth to all our elected leaders, and to those whose policies affect our society and our world, which so longs for justice and equity.

But even as the basis of our leadership is the moral and doctrinal truth for salvation given by Christ, our leadership is shaped by Christ in a further way. That is, he "did not regard equality with God [as] something to be grasped"; he took on the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-7). He came among us and lived with us in a way that proclaimed the truth, but he did so first and foremost by example. Without compromise, Christ reached out with love and patience. But his leadership was not one that measured success moment to moment. It was a service, summarized by the magnificence of the washing of the feet, of the prayer for unity, and of submission of himself to the Cross for us, in accordance with the will of his Father. Few in our climate today would see that as a successful form of leadership. But with the eyes of faith, and not of the world, it is precisely that. And that is the model we are called to emulate.

That model can have a wide variety of practical circumstances. Just three weeks ago, Cardinal George and I spent twenty-five minutes with our Holy Father on behalf of our Conference. A week ago yesterday, I celebrated Mass with prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. In reflection, I marveled at how the Church calls us as servants to be present in so many and varied circumstances.

Living out such humility does seem paradoxical to many. Consider, for example, the stories that were reported recently, when Mother Teresa's autobiography was published. Here was a person who exercised leadership in a very real way in our Church and our world, even if that leadership is essentially different from what we have been called to. Her leadership was one based in a fundamental and visible humility that challenged, but also attracted, our world. Still, some people were shocked -- perhaps even scandalized -- by her memoirs. They revealed that, as with many of the greatest of saints, her humility was not only lived externally. It was a deep spiritual reality. God, it seems, gave her periods of dryness during which he hid his face from her.

The example of Mother Teresa should cause us to reflect as Bishops. What is the state of our souls? Our leadership must be rooted in the humility of a life of prayer, every day and before the Eucharist. It must embrace Christ in the humbleness of the Sacrament of Penance. Our leadership as shepherds will never be authentic if our souls are not one with Christ the shepherd. The words of Mother Teresa herself are fit for our own meditation as Bishops in service to the God's people: "It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal."

In a particular way, during the term of my predecessor, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, as well as during my own tenure, the sexual abuse crisis in our Church has given us a tremendous opportunity for a lesson in humility as well as in needed leadership action. We were humbled by the tears of those who had been hurt so profoundly by a small number from among our clergy. We are continually challenged to bring about reconciliation and healing, and to encourage and defend the thousands of exemplary priests and deacons who are faithful to their vows.

While much remains to be done, and we can never forget what has happened in the past, I am most sincerely grateful for all that has been accomplished in the past five years. The steps that the Church has taken have been remarkable. The light that we are shedding on this dark corner of humanity is making a difference. Things will never be the same for the next generation of children. They will be better; and for that, we as a Church can be very proud.

Leadership as called for by Jesus is, at times, painful and transforming. Such moments are never sought, yet they too are redemptive. But this should not be a surprise to us. In the year 411, St. Augustine of Hippo presided at the ordination of a young Bishop. The great saint took the occasion to offer one of his most striking and challenging homilies, this one on the ministry and life of Bishops. "The one who is to preside over the people," Augustine proclaimed, "must first understand that he is the servant of all." And how does the Bishop serve the faithful entrusted to him? Augustine answers in the clearest terms: "Christ said, Feed my sheep: suffer for the sake of my sheep. This must be the good bishop. If he will not do this, he will not be a bishop" (Sermon 340A). Jesus' reminder of the daily cross in our lives is exactly that. We must be faithful to it and accept it gladly, gratefully, and joyfully.

Our meeting this week will offer us other opportunities to practice Christ-like leadership. In the symbolism of the New Testament, a boat often represents the Church. Hopefully, our leadership places us on the prow of the boat looking forward, always mindful of where we have come from. Jesus, in the boat with the Apostles during the storm on the lake, reminds them of who they should be, asking them to trust humbly and be without fear. Our discussions on faithful citizenship, on liturgical reform, even on the efforts to reorganize ourselves, will give us the chance to practice humility during the coming days.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the great work that has been done in moving forward on our reorganization efforts. This truly is a watershed moment for our Conference of Bishops. While it is challenging, it is a time of great blessing as we build a new system of collaboration that should help us proclaim the Gospel of Jesus with a stronger voice, in a more unified and focused way. I look forward with great hope to the fruits of the work being done. I wish to acknowledge and encourage the work of the committees: those that continue as before, and especially those newly formed. Your efforts in the coming year will be a key to our success. But I also want to say a special word of gratitude to each and every member of the Conference staff. We know that this has not been an easy time for you. But your commitment to assisting us in our work, and the excellence with which you carry out that effort, are another key part of this reorganization. Thanks to you as well.

To Cardinal George, I express my gratitude for his support and wisdom these past three years. It has been an honor to serve with him. I must give special recognition and appreciation to two exceptional General Secretaries of our Conference: Monsignor William Fay in the first year of my term, and then Monsignor Dave Malloy the last two years. Monsignor Malloy: with all the preparation and implementation of the restructuring of our Conference, all of us and especially I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.

As we enter into this new style of collaboration, we may have yet more opportunities to practice charity and humility! Of course, we will not always agree on everything. A good leader, however, recognizes that he does not have all of the insights, all of the answers. As leaders, we are called to recognize the value that each person brings to the conversation, and to recognize that our primary role is to bring about unity in truth. That unity often comes at a price: it costs us our egos; it costs us our individualism. It is a pearl purchased at a great price, but it is a pearl that is priceless.

But more important still is our knowledge that what unites us in an unbreakable bond is the vision implanted in our hearts of the Divine Mission entrusted to each one of us: a vision by which we are strengthened, enlivened, and encouraged. We are servants to that Sacred Mission, which has always been and will forever remain as radically simple as this: proclamation of the salvation of humankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I myself, so long as I have served you in this position of President -- indeed, so long as I have been a priest and Bishop -- have been convinced, in the words of the Prophet Habbakuk, that "the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late" (Hab 2:3). That is the joy of the servant, and it is a joy I have known in serving you, an opportunity for which I will remain forever grateful.

God bless you all.

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