When I was named a bishop seventeen years ago, one of my seminary classmates called to offer his congratulations and prayerful support. He added, though, “Frankly, Tom, when I heard that one of our classmates was named a bishop, yours wasn’t the first name that came to mind.”
Well put, I thought, and a pretty accurate assessment of the unofficial rankings of our seminary class. If, back in 1973, our last year in the seminary, our class would have tried to predict the future bishops in our ranks, I guarantee you that my name wouldn’t have been on the short list. It wouldn’t even have been on the long list. But God’s ways are not man’s ways, and my selection to the office of Bishop is an undeniable reminder that God often calls the weakest links to do His work.
One of the names that would have been on our short list of future bishops, however, was Robert C. Evans, now to be ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Providence and Titular Bishop of Acque regie. How grateful and joyful we are that God has called Msgr. Evans to this new and noble ministry and that he has accepted the call, graciously and generously.
Bishop Evans is supremely qualified to assume the office of bishop and fulfill his new ministry. He grew up on Federal Hill, the iconic heart of the State of Rhode Island and the City of Providence. He has provided faithful service in a number of parishes and variety of chancery positions. He knows and loves the priests and people of the diocese and is, in turn, highly respected by them. And his studies and work in Rome and Washington, D.C. have given him a clear and comprehensive understanding of the workings of the Universal Church.
The Rite of Episcopal Ordination reminds us that “the title of Bishop is one of service, not of honor,” and goes on to describe the threefold nature of that service. It is a service conferred by the laying on of hands and sealed by the anointing with sacred chrism.
A bishop is called, first of all, to the fullness of the priesthood. As a priest he is to be a holy man, a man of prayer, a living bridge between God and His people. As the Ordination Rite explains, he is to “offer sacrifice for the people committed to his care, and to devote himself wholeheartedly to seeking every kind of grace for them from the fullness of Christ’s holiness.”
A bishop is anointed to be a prophet, a man imbued with the Word of God and commissioned to preach that word to the Church and the world, sometimes comforting, sometimes directing, and sometimes challenging his listeners. “Preach the word in season and out of season; reprove with all patience and sound teaching,” the Ordination Rite insists.
A bishop, finally, is called to share in the kingship of Christ, that is to form and lead the Church, the holy people of God. Again the Rite explains, “As one chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.”
To be a priest, prophet and king – these sacred offices belong to every member of the Church, in light of their baptism; they find particular fulfillment in the ministerial priesthood, in those ordained to be leaders of the Christian community; and they are heavy burdens placed squarely on the shoulders of a bishop, as real and tangible as the Book of the Gospels held over the head of the bishop during the prayer of episcopal consecration.
The ministry of a bishop is further exemplified in the symbols of office he receives during the Ordination Ceremony. The ring is a sign of his permanent and total commitment to Christ and the Church. The miter reminds the new bishop that he is called to holiness so that he can someday wear the “crown of glory.” And the crosier is the pastoral staff, the shepherd’s staff, which a bishop uses to remind himself and others that he is to serve the flock of Christ like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, whose work he continues.
By tradition, every bishop chooses a motto, usually a Biblical phrase, that summarizes his aspirations and hopes for his ministry. Bishop Evans has chosen the words, Spe Salvi, the title of Pope Benedict’s second encyclical. “In hope we are saved,” Pope Benedict writes as he opens his letter, going on to explain that “the one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
To instill hope, to speak of new and eternal life – in choosing his motto Bishop Evans has signaled that this will be the purpose and focus of his life, his service and preaching, now as a successor of the Apostles. Nor will the significance of “hope” be lost on Rhode Islanders who will quickly recognize the virtue as our state motto.
The appointment of Bishop Evans is a wonderful blessing, an early Christmas gift, for our diocesan Church and for our community. I know that he will serve faithfully and effectively for many years, and in so doing will bring peace and hope to countless individuals and families. And last, but certainly not least, our new bishop is a source of pride and joy for the North American College Class of 1973. Ad multos annos!