Friday Filing: A Night of Mixed Emotions

This week’s Friday Filing is, if you will indulge me, another more personal reflection…

Grant that all the faithful of the Church,
looking into the signs of the times by the light of faith,
may constantly devote themselves
to the service of the Gospel.
Keep us attentive to the needs of all
that, sharing their grief and pain,
their joy and hope,
we may faithfully bring them the good news of salvation
and go forward with them
along the way of your Kingdom.

These words, taken from the Eucharistic Prayer for Use in Masses for Various Needs III (Jesus, the Way to the Father) of the Roman Missal were swirling around in my head last night as I was present to witness the ordination as Bishop of Wollongong of my good friend, Brian Mascord, and much of today in the aftermath of last night’s liturgy. Echoing the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, these words from the Church’s liturgy, although not used during last night’s liturgy, seem to capture the conflicting emotions that were flowing strongly through me last night, and continue to eddy through the course of today.

Last night’s celebration, as with many episcopal ordinations I have attended or otherwise witnessed, was liturgy at its grandest, with bishops, priests, deacons, and the people of God gathered to witness and celebrate what is a memorable moment in the life of any particular Church (i.e. diocese). The very nature of the liturgy highlights and celebrates that same particular Church as they welcome a new shepherd amongst them, a moment that comes along very rarely and which marks a renewal of the missional and pastoral life of that same particular Church.

For the particular Church of Wollongong then, as with any diocese that welcomes their new bishop, this is an occasion of great joy, and one which they wish to celebrate with the very best that they have to offer. Last night, the Church of Wollongong did exactly that, with close to 4,500 people gathered to mark and celebrate the arrival of their fifth bishop, (the now) Bishop Brian Mascord. In song and worship, in welcome and joy, the People of God of the Church of Wollongong welcomed him, and those visiting their Church, in ways that would serve as a model for any similar situation anywhere in the world.

For others who gathered last night, including myself, there was another response present as well, a response that arises because a man we know, and know well, has been called to a ministerial office that is demanding and challenging. Those who know and love Bishop Brian, and know the role to which he has been called, will naturally be concerned for him. Not because we doubt his ability to fulfil that office, but because we know the man who has been called to fill that office. Our response, one of concern born of love, will be answered by a commitment to continue to love him, even though it will be in a different way than before.

For myself there was also a sense of grief that overlayed the celebration of ordination last night. It was highlighted for me as I watched the other bishops present come forward, one by one, to lay their hands on Brian’s head. It was this ritual moment, in particular, that reminded me very powerfully – as ritual is want to do – that despite a continuing friendship, my colleague, my mentor, my friend, is now called to a ministry that is radically different to what it was before. And that ministry, both generally as bishop and particularly as Bishop of Wollongong, means that I have lost something that was very profound in my own ministry. More importantly, I have lost someone who played a very significant role in my own ministry.

I suspect that I was not alone in experiencing last night’s liturgy as a loss. Being who he was, Brian was well-loved by many people amongst whom he lived and ministered. His call to be bishop, and to be so at some distance from the place where he was known and loved, means that many people might experience his absence as a grief that must be embraced and struggled with. We can and must be sad that we will no longer have him; we can and must be grateful that we had him in the first place; we can and must be be open to the same call that he has answered, that he is needed elsewhere to serve God and God’s people.

And this is the challenge, something I was confronted with during last night’s ordination liturgy, and most particularly during the laying on of hands. My friend and colleague, Brian, has embraced a call to leave the familiar and the known and to step out in faith to a new ministry, a new way of responding to the neverending call of the Spirit that is given to all who have been baptised and confirmed into the life of Christ. Brian did so not knowing what that might ask of him, but trusting that God will continue to be with him as he responds to where God has led him.

The most appropriate way, then, of continuing to support Brian as he answers that call is to do exactly the same thing: to continue to respond to God’s call for me to serve God and God’s people in the place where I am called to do so, trusting completely in God’s Spirit and God’s continuing presence to me. Such an approach will not, admittedly, be an easy one; stepping out into the unknown can be frightening and daunting. Yet I don’t do it alone, never alone. And neither does Bishop Brian.

For the opportunity to step out in faith, for the grace to respond to God and God’s call to serve God’s people, for these and for all things, in fact, I give thinks.