Through the years, I have often been asked if I could have said “No” in 1999 when the papal nuncio called to inform me that Pope St. John Paul II had appointed me bishop of Little Rock. I typically responded that I could have declined for a good personal reason of which the pope would have been unaware, and I then gave examples of such possible reasons. But asked that question one day about 15 years ago, I realized that I had been giving a very inadequate response.
From then on, I responded, “Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I said ‘Yes’ to becoming bishop of Little Rock the morning of April 21, 1977, when I was ordained a deacon.”
By that I do not mean that in 1977 I had an inkling that I would be named a bishop someday, or that I aspired to the office of bishop. Far to the contrary! When I thought about the future, I felt secure that I would be a parish priest in the Diocese of Memphis for the rest of my life. And that was perfectly fine with me.
But at a significant moment in that ordination liturgy 40 years ago, Archbishop Jean Jadot took my hands in his and said, “Do you promise respect and obedience to your bishop and his successors?” I responded with a firm “Yes,” because I was giving myself intentionally to the Lord and his Church in response to his call to ordained ministry.
Through the years, my understanding of that promise has matured. I had always been confident that I could discern the will of God in what my bishop called upon me to do, go where he assigned me and do what he requested of me, faithfully teach the Catholic faith, and be loyal to the popes who would guide the Church in the years ahead.
As the years went by, however, I understood more fully that because I had made a promise of obedience to my bishop and his successors, I had given myself completely and wholeheartedly to God and the Church Universal, without reserve and without conditions. I had said, in effect, “I will go where the Church needs me. I will go where the demands of love of God and his people take me. I will put God and the Church ahead of my plans, my preferences, my prognostications. I will give my life in union with the sacrifice of Jesus. I will love.”
Thus, in effect, I had said, “… from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.”
A promise of obedience is a promise to love unconditionally, to give oneself unconditionally, to be faithful unconditionally, to trust God unconditionally. That is what I mean when I say, “I said ‘Yes’ to being the bishop of Little Rock when I was ordained a deacon in 1977” (and “Yes” to being bishop of Joliet and “Yes” to being archbishop of Seattle — and “Yes” to everything, both the joyful and the difficult, that would flow from those “Yeses”).
I recently officiated at the wedding of one of my nephews. He and his wife have their lives in front of them, and with deep love for each other and faith in God, they responded to God’s call to be married. Their vows will shape the rest of their lives — which is another way of saying their mutual obedience will shape the rest of their lives.
The maturing of my understanding of obedience has come in large part because God took my “Yes” seriously and with the passing of years has been teaching me what it means to love. He has stretched me, challenged me, pushed me, pulled me: loved me. He has taught me to trust in him and in his call, to trust in his Word and in the Church’s teachings: to take his “Yes” seriously.
God has taken me places I never imagined I would go — geographically, certainly, but more importantly, spiritually. Even my spinal surgery and all it entails were part of my promise of obedience! For to be obedient is to take seriously God’s words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) After 40 years of ordained ministry, I have no doubt that God will call me to delve even more deeply into his grace.
Bishop Mueggenborg’s diaconal ordination. Photo: Eastern Oklahoma Catholic
On May 31, I will have the great joy of ordaining Msgr. Daniel H. Mueggenborg to the episcopacy. He said “Yes” to being our auxiliary bishop when he was ordained a deacon in 1989!
This issue of Northwest Catholic features Bishop Mueggenborg, religious sisters celebrating jubilee anniversaries, and young men soon to be ordained priests. Many things bind them together, and among them is obedience gladly promised in imitation of and in union with Jesus.
Do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - June 2017