Anniversaries are special moments. People pull out pictures, view videos and even examine memorabilia. Anniversaries are times to remember when a special moment happened, when it all began.
Jan. 4 holds a unique significance in my life as a bishop. Besides being the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, it is also the day I was installed as the 11th Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jan. 4, 2010. Like all anniversaries it seems as if it were just yesterday, but in fact, I am celebrating my seventh anniversary.
When a couple stands before the altar exchanging vows, they have no idea of the challenges that lie before them. They only know they love one another and they place their confidence in God who has led them to this moment. If they are faithful, they will be used as instruments of God to fulfill his plan.
In my case, it was an “arranged marriage” as Pope Benedict XVI appointed me to replace Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. I had no idea what we would experience and accomplish in the next seven years, but I always had a confidence that God has us where he wants us to be and it is necessary for us to trust.
My installation was a cold day. A few of my friends thought that I looked particularly stoic (deer in the headlights) during the ceremony. Actually, a couple days before, I had hyperextended my knee and was in a great deal of pain during the ceremony. Standing before the altar, all I could think of was, “Don’t pass out.”
As I marveled at the religious richness of the archdiocesan community, it was obvious to me that people truly cared about the well-being of the church of Southeastern Wisconsin. I felt welcomed, but was reminded by many of the challenges ahead of us. No person of faith enters a marriage predicated on his or her own terms. That’s why the vows state: “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
From my very first days as archbishop, I accepted the words of the marriage vows in my commitment to the archdiocese and its people, and I was confident God would give us the strength to fulfill his plan.
Seven years later, as I look back, I can clearly see the hand of God in the accomplishments and the challenges.
My first year was a “getting to know you.” I needed to know the idiosyncrasies of the priests, religious, deacons, lay ministers and faithful and they needed to know mine. As I traveled to the various districts, I was impressed by the vibrancy of the faith.
In June, I traveled to Rome to receive my pallium. It was a wonderful ceremony and a reminder of my connectedness as archbishop to the pope and the Holy See.
The question of bankruptcy always loomed over our heads and a decision had to be made soon. When a last ditch effort in mediation failed, I announced bankruptcy on my first anniversary as archbishop. My prayer was that the faithful would understand this decision and trust my leadership to steer the barque of St. Peter through the difficult waters of legal proceedings.
We were blessed to have expert legal professionals at every level representing all of the various entities who embraced their task as family rather than a job. Although it was five and half years, a resolution was achieved which allowed us to meet our obligations and continue the mission of the archdiocese, serving the church in worship, education and charities.
Many would attribute the resolution of the bankruptcy as the highlight of the seven years; however, I would offer – without a doubt in my mind – the greatest success achieved in the seven years that I have been archbishop was the Archdiocesan Synod of 2014.
It began with a pastoral letter, “Who Do You Say That I Am.” I will reread the pastoral on my anniversary, because it reminds me of the mystery of our relationship through the church.
It seemed obvious to those who participated in the synod that the force of the Holy Spirit was at work. There was a power present that seemed undeniable. The church is not just an organization, it is the “Body of Christ” and, despite the fact we were struggling through bankruptcy, the “Body of Christ” was alive and strong.
I felt like a proud father watching the participants celebrate their confidence and commitment to the future development of the family. They were not asking how much do we have, but what can we give.
The spirit has continued to be vibrant in the Archdiocesan Synod Implementation Commission, which directs the priorities established by the synod delegates. The energy is there and it is real and it is the reason we are confident going forward.
I am told that the traditional gift associated with a seventh anniversary is “wool.” Not bad for a shepherd dedicated to his flock!
On my seventh anniversary, I can tell you I am more in love with the church entrusted to my care than the day I was installed and I am discovering just how blessed I am in the faith of the people of our archdiocese.