May three faithful shepherds enter into peace with the heavenly Master

  • August 31, 2011

Death comes for the archbishop, as the novel puts it. Death came for three of them this summer in Canada. Three retired metropolitan archbishops died in the space of a few weeks — my own archbishop emeritus in Kingston, Francis Spence, in late July, followed a few weeks later by Austin-Emile Burke of Halifax, and then just last week Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto.

They were all in their 80s, and had served long years as bishops —Archbishop Spence for 44 years, Archbishop Burke for 43 and Cardinal Ambrozic for 35. Their episcopal service began at a difficult time, in the years after the Vatican Council, inaugurated with so much hope, but quickly inundated by the tsunami of secularism that submerged the culture and washed over the Church. Their years were not full of great triumphs for the Gospel, for there were few of those to be had. Instead, their task was, as I wrote about Archbishop Spence upon his death, the “long fidelity.” They lived long enough to see that the Lord would begin to restore the years that the locust hath eaten.

Archbishops Spence and Burke were ordained just in time for the worldwide rejection of Pope Paul VI’s teaching on marital love in Humanae Vitae. They would have been surprised then to know they would one day see enthusiasm in parishes and in campus chaplaincies for the Theology of the Body. They were new bishops when the Canadian bishops published their Winnipeg Statement of 1968, deciding to take a pass on the unpopular teaching of Humanae Vitae on chastity and contraception. As retired bishops, they saw their brothers publish Liberating Potential, a pastoral letter for the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, which defended and celebrated Paul VI’s wisdom in teaching the ancient faith.

The late 1960s and 1970s were years of liturgical renewal, but also of liturgical betrayal. Bishops of that time were astonished at their impotence in the face of abuses of all kinds. Our three archbishops died on the threshold of a new translation of the Mass in English, the capstone of a movement toward a more reverent liturgy. The silly season is long over, and a new sacred season is beckoning us.

The renewal of biblical scholarship ought to have been one of the great fruits of the Council, with its teaching that study of the “sacred page” was to be the soul of theology. Cardinal Ambrozic himself was a gifted scriptural scholar. But biblical scholarship increasingly estranged itself from the life of the Church, becoming an archeology of the dead instead of a theology for the living. Yet the archbishops lived to see the Pope of Rome publish two volumes on the person of Jesus Christ, combining scholarly analysis with the faith of the Church. One of the most exciting grassroots phenomena in the Church is the serious study of the Bible in parish groups and in the new movements.

There were bitter disappointments for the deceased three. The numerous defections from the priesthood were a constant wound in their hearts, to say nothing of the priestly abuse scandal which erupted, in the words of Pope Benedict, like filth from a volcano. The decline of the great religious communities of their youth was a source of more than a little bewilderment. The faithful were not untouched by the great flight from marriage, so that marriages and baptisms often became a burden for priests rather than a blessing.

The cultural moment the three archbishops were ordained priests into was not the same moment they were asked to govern as bishops. It was not an easy road, and there are few missions lonelier than that of a bishop when times are tough. For that reason, their long fidelity always inspired in me admiration.

Yet the Lord granted them to see that the Spirit does not abandon the Church. I had the job, as a seminarian, of doing the logistics for Archbishops Spence and Burke during their joint pilgrimage to Rome for the Great Jubilee. Archbishop Burke, already retired, and Archbishop Spence approaching his 75th birthday, were greatly consoled by the vitality they witnessed.

The great triumph of Cardinal Ambrozic’s tenure was World Youth Day 2002, when he welcomed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Toronto. He witnessed another, spontaneous World Youth Day in Rome in 2005, when he participated in the funeral and conclave following the death of Blessed John Paul II. More than most bishops of his generation, he was given to see the first signs of the new springtime of evangelization.

The years of the long fidelity are over for three of our shepherds. As faithful servants, may they enter into the peace of their Master.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

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