November 4, 2007
My dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ of the Diocese of Buffalo, clergy, religious, and faithful:
Twenty-five years ago, on a rather nondescript routine morning at work in the Chancery Office of the Diocese of Trenton, engaged in my duties as Vice Chancellor, I was soon to find that it would be much more than a "nondescript routine" day in my life. Although a rather routine day of diocesan business, it did have some significance in another way, especially for me and those of Polish ethnicity, as it was the date of August 26, 1982, the Feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the patroness of Poland, so dear to us in our enduring devotion and love. But there was a special element on her feast day in that year, as it was the 800th anniversary of the famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
It was in this context that the events of that day would evolve for me. My bishop at that time, the Bishop of Trenton, John C. Reiss, leaned into my office and asked me to come to his office. As I entered, he asked me to close the door. I thought something was up, for that was unusual, but nothing what I thought it might be.
Once seated in his office, the bishop asked me how would I like to be a bishop. My answer was that being around bishops for 20 years, I know enough to say no thanks. He said, well, you are. I said, you have to be kidding. In turn, he said he had just received a call from the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, that I have been appointed to be the auxiliary bishop of Trenton. Swamped in disbelief, finding it difficult to breathe and searching for words, I said I wish I were more holy. The bishop replied, don’t we all.
Having had a few minutes to recover, I then had to call Archbishop Laghi, who then formally gave me the news that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, had appointed me auxiliary bishop and asked for my acceptance. Seeking words of thanks and humility, I said yes with gratitude to the Holy Father. There was an ironic twist in our conversation. In it, I mentioned that this was a special feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and being of Polish ethnicity found His call all the more providential as well as overwhelming. I thought there might be a significant connection for calling me on that particular day. His response was, oh, you are Polish…I thought you were Slavic! That took care of the intentionality, but for me, the providence of it all still touches me to this day.
So, dear friends, that is how the episcopacy had its beginnings for me. In describing my emotions and feelings on that day of notification in detail, I hope to convey to you how awesome and life-changing such a moment is in the life of a priest who assumes that priesthood itself is more than enough anyone can dream of, and dreams only to be a good, faithful, and effective priest in the person of Christ, bringing Christ to the people through His ministry and service. Kiddingly, with my affection for large bodies of water and the Atlantic Ocean so near to us in New Jersey, I used to say my ultimate ambition was to be a pastor of a parish on the seashore. Twenty-five years later, that is somewhat fulfilled in another way as pastor-shepherd of a much larger flock on the shores of Lake Erie and Niagara Falls. Though it was never an expectation on my personal priestly journey, being here is not a bad exchange! Not at all!
Back to the concept of episcopacy, if notification to be a bishop is breathtaking, all the more so is the actual ordination to be a bishop. That occurred on November 3, 1982, the 25th anniversary I celebrate with you today. There is no more moving ritual in the Roman Catholic Church, much more elaborate than our Lord Jesus' ordination of His apostles as His first priests and bishops, but still with a deep significance and meaning of what Christ intended for the shepherding and leadership of His Church.
The core of the ordination rite of bishops is primarily contained in the consecratory prayer offered by the ordaining bishop and his bishop co-consecrators, creating a new bishop in the unbroken line of successors to the apostles, with the gesture of the imposition of hands on the bishop ordinand, the symbol of passing on the Holy Spirit as it has been since the institution of the priesthood by Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, a 2000 year tradition of the Church.
Following the imposition of hands by the principal consecrating bishop and all other bishops at the ordination ceremony, the former places the open Book of the Gospels upon the head of the bishop elect, and then two assisting deacons standing at either side, hold the Book of the Gospels above his head while the prayer of consecration is prayed.
The sublime moment comes in the actual words of ordination, prayed by the consecrating bishop: "So now pour out upon this chosen one that power which is from you, the governing Spirit whom you gave to your beloved son, Jesus Christ, the Spirit given by him to the holy apostles, who founded the Church in every place to be your temple, for the unceasing glory and praise of your name."
Each sacrament has its matter and form, an action and words. For the Sacrament of Orders, the matter is the imposition of hands and the form are the previously quoted words of ordination to the episcopacy.
For me, that ordination rite in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Trenton, New Jersey, was the beginning of my life as a bishop, all twenty-five years ago. As the saying goes, a lot of water has gone over the dam, or maybe better said for us in Western New York, water over Niagara Falls. Ten years into episcopal ministry served as auxiliary bishop of Trenton, my home diocese, another unexpected call from Washington came to me. This time, it was another voice of the papal representative, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, speaking once again for Pope John Paul II, advising of the decision of the Holy Father, in the classic formula: "I have good news for you. The Holy Father has it in mind to appoint you as Bishop of Nashville, Tennessee. Do you accept?" I can assure you, what a stunner that was! Of all the places in our country, a mission diocese of few Catholics, in another culture, foreign to me in the deep South. Of course, I said yes, how could it be otherwise for a papal invitation, but with more than a little trepidation. Now looking back, it was another providential assignment for me. Whatever doubts I had at the time, I would come to another place in the vineyard of the Lord, a call to serve in a growing diocese for a tenure of twelve years that would be, now in retrospect, a place of great blessing, richness of spirit and growth, and great fulfillment.
I was happy in Nashville and at the senioring age of 68, no expectations of new horizons beyond Nashville were on my radar. Then came another phone call from Washington, now another Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, speaking for the Holy Father John Paul II: “I have good news for you. The Holy Father has it in mind to appoint you as Bishop of Buffalo. Do you accept?” Another quiet morning, with routine business in Nashville, but this another jarring telephone call to redirect ministry to another place, Buffalo, huge, ten times the size of Nashville. You gulp a few times, scared of such a future, but no way can you say no to the Holy Father’s invitation that he wanted you in Buffalo, and, of course, yes, I will go there, whatever that portends.
Thus, I came, three years ago this week, to a place I’ve never been, to a people I’d never met, and without a hint or directive of what would need to be done as shepherd of this diocese, other than an open heart to see, to learn, to discern what needs are pastorally evident, an open book, an empty page. That was not without anxiety or apprehension.
But as I look back, three years to the day last Sunday, how those fears of consternation were so quickly dispelled. In my installation homily on that first official day, I said to you: "With great warmth and welcome…I feel so embraced by you all…in unconditional welcome.” I went on to say: “I’m thrilled to be here, and I look forward with excitement and enthusiasm to walk with you on our journey of faith."
Now three years later, those personal sentiments voiced back then still prevail today, even with more intensity, for I have had the pleasure of our growing mutual acquaintance, and deeper than that, our friendship. Back then, I spoke of coming to a "new home." Today, I say: "This is my home, lived in the midst of this family I call mine, you the great people, clergy, religious, and faithful, of this Catholic community of Western New York." In the inscrutable providence of God and the Church through the agency of our late Pope John Paul II, no greater gift could have been given to me than to be placed in your midst as shepherd, to serve in the persona of Christ, the mission of priests and bishops. Back on that first Mass of Installation, I said: "It is my hope that we can marshal our human and spiritual resources to the good and great things that are the mission of the Church, facing challenges and difficulties with faith and courage, and we’re pragmatic enough to know that such exist."
Looking back, that was more prophetic than I could have conceived at the time. What then was a fond hope of "human and spiritual resources" ready for "the mission," I have found in you a marvelous and extraordinary pool of talent and giftedness, embedded in a rich and fruitful tradition of faith and spirit, a treasure more than equal to any pastoral challenges or difficulties. On my first day, as I mentioned before, I spoke of walking with you "on our journey of faith." Reading the signs of our times as urged by Vatican II, and with your discernment, encouragement, and commitment, we added "grace" to our journey of faith. With you, we were wise enough to know that it would be difficult and trying, and so it has been, is, and yet will be. But, it is also necessary with the inspiration and the glimpse of God’s view which sees gateways and bridges where before we saw walls and dead-end streets. All this could be most daunting, but in the courage and paraphrased words of St. Paul: "In Christ…and with you…we can do all things."
Forty-six years ago, in Rome on the night before my ordination to the priesthood in St. Peter’s Basilica, I read in prayer Psalm 27 which contains this paragraph: "There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life, to savor the sweetness of the Lord, to behold his temple." To this day, I make that my pledge of commitment to our Lord. Our Gospel today adds the words that characterize that commitment: "I am among you as the one who serves." At one time, I only perceived that simply as the mantra of my priesthood. Twenty-five years ago, that priesthood was elevated by the grace of God to the fullness of the episcopacy. In choosing a motto, I added charity to service, to serve with love. This I have endeavored to do, in Trenton, Nashville, and now Buffalo. While being ordained a bishop, the consecratory prayer invoked God in these words: "Father, you know all hearts. You have chosen your servant for the office of bishop. May he be a shepherd to your holy flock, and a high priest blameless in your sight, ministering to you night and day; may he always gain the blessing of your favor and offer the gifts of your holy Church."
The priestly and episcopal path of my life has lastly placed me here in Buffalo, where I am happy, feel blessed, and loving of all of you entrusted to my pastoral care. Without question, this is the apex of my spiritual journey, and happily, this is not an ending, but rather a milestone on a way yet to go forward. I thank God for His benevolence to me, but I also thank all of you for your love, prayers, friendship and support. As a local auto dealer says: "That’s HUGE"! May the best be yet to come. God bless you all!
Most Rev. Edward U. Kmiec
Bishop of Buffalo
November 4, 2007