Arkansas will continue to be in my prayers

It is not often that one receives a call from the apostolic nuncio, the official representative of the Holy Father to the Church in this country with the rank of Vatican ambassador to the United States. In fact, I have received only two such calls. The first was Dec. 22, 1999, when Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo called to inform me that Pope John Paul II had appointed me bishop of Little Rock. The second was May 2, 2006, when Archbishop Pietro Sambi called to inform me that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed me bishop of Joliet, Ill.
Both calls came as a complete surprise, and during both I found myself at a nervous loss for words. In 1999, I was sitting at my desk in St. Louis Parish where I served as pastor, an assignment I had enjoyed for eight years, in a community I had come to love deeply. In 2006, I was sitting at my desk at St. John Center in Little Rock, having just returned from celebrating the morning Mass for St. Edward School; this time, too, I was in the midst of an assignment I had enjoyed for more than six years, in a diocese I had come to love deeply.
“Your Excellency, the Holy Father has asked me to inform you that he has appointed you bishop of Joliet,” said the apostolic nuncio. I was prepared for a full day of appointments in my office, and the news was a stunner. Needless to say, I was distracted the rest of the day (I hope I made sense to the folks who came to see me) but was able to leave the office a little early to spend time in prayer before heading to Christ the King Parish, where I celebrated confirmation.
For me the time of prayer was crucial, because I wanted to take some deep breaths in God’s presence and submit myself to his plans. I thanked him for sending me to Arkansas for six years, because these have been years of blessing and spiritual growth for me. I have come to love you as I have loved the people of every priestly assignment I have been asked to undertake. You have been good to me beyond measure, so much so that I was quickly able to call Arkansas home. I will always be grateful to you and will always keep you in my prayers. My daily prayer list, which now fills several baskets in my chapel with hundreds of intentions, has become a treasured way to keep you in my heart.
Ironically — providentially — I received the apostolic nuncio’s phone call at the very time I was making final calls to our priests who will be transferred to new parishes this summer. Since I could not speak of my new assignment until May 16, the priests I was asking to make a change had no idea that I myself had been asked to do the same. That’s why I say the nuncio’s call came at a providential time — it gave me a new opportunity to exercise my own promise of obedience to the demands of love and the needs of God’s people. Parenthetically, I would like to add that I am so proud of the priests who will be making changes this summer — they want to serve you as best they can, and I know that their own transitions will not be easy. They truly have generous hearts.
Could I have said “no” to the apostolic nuncio? Some years ago it dawned on me that I had already said “yes,” without knowing it, when I was ordained a deacon in 1977. It was then that I promised obedience to my bishop and his successors, and that promise implicitly contained a further promise to the Holy Father. One aspect of the promise, of course, involved accepting assignments my bishop might ask me to undertake; but even that was secondary to the fact that by making a promise of obedience I was surrendering myself to God and the needs of his people, whatever and wherever they might be.
I see a direct parallel in the commitment of marriage, when wives and husbands give themselves completely to one another for life, not knowing exactly what that gift will entail through the years. They make the gift with confidence because they love one another and know that “giving themselves away” will bring them joy.
I have often told people that being a bishop is good for my spiritual life. By that I mean simply that in this ministry God has drawn me more deeply into the priesthood. He has asked me to pray more fervently, to study his Word and Church teaching more diligently, to trust in him more surely, and to love you, his cherished flock. In the process I have come face-to-face with my weakness and sinfulness. God has reminded me that humility is the path I should always follow, and that I should rely on him for everything. Everything is grace. Being a bishop is not my work but his.
My installation as bishop of Joliet will take place June 27 in the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus. Over the next six weeks, I will find myself transitioning to a new diocese and a new community of God’s people. May I ask your prayers, both for me and the faithful of the seven Illinois counties to be entrusted to my care? It could be a simple prayer: “Father, make him strong, loving and wise, a priest in the image of Jesus, a bishop with your deep fatherly love.”
To be honest, it will not be easy to leave you. But the Church is bigger than any parish, any diocese, any state; and we will always share a spiritual bond more profound than any of us realizes. I have been blessed that in you God shown me just how much he loves the flock redeemed by his Son.

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