Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As we draw closer to the great celebrations of our faith, may the mercy and grace of our Lord fill your heart! Christ died to save us, willingly going to the cross in our humanity, so that you and I might live in his divinity. His resurrection on Easter morning changed everything and will again for us, this year.
We are sinners, but not slaves to sin, because Christ has freed us. We suffer, but not without purpose or end, because Christ has conquered suffering, fear and death. As we anticipate the glory of Easter, then, we can be filled with confident faith, waiting in joyful expectation for our own resurrection.
Throughout these days of Holy Week, we remember Christ’s passion and great suffering. On Holy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper, when Christ gave to his apostles the fullness of his own ministry, so that they could lead and build up the church for all time. He instituted the sacrament of holy orders: deacon, priest, bishop.
For our sake, and through that same apostolic ministry, he gave us the holy Eucharist, the food of faith, the bread of angels, to sustain us in all the difficulties of life. And he washed their feet, to give them proof of the humility necessary for the Christian life, and all the more so in those who lead. Then, he went out to pray in the garden, accepting with obedience to God the Father his arrest, torture, crucifixion and death. All these things we commemorate and witness each Holy Thursday, as we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
On Good Friday, we remember Christ’s crucifixion and death, as we venerate the “wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” We respond, that day, often with lively emotion, to the summons to adore him in his saving passion. We see ourselves like Peter, often denying the Lord, yet we give thanks for all He endured to save us. We should remember his great love for us every day of the year.
On Holy Saturday, we wait with the apostles, in grief and confusion, longing for the kingdom we thought we knew so clearly was arrived. Christ our king has died, has been taken from us. Could we have been wrong to believe in him, that he was indeed the promised and anointed Savior?
I am particularly moved this year to meditate upon this silence of Holy Saturday, in light of our efforts and decisions in pastoral planning for our diocese. I, too, experience grief and confusion at the decline of so many parishes, for as your bishop, I am in fact a member of every parish, and I desire nothing more than to be with you on your journey of faith.
With each decision to close a parish or transition to an oratory, I feel keenly that in some ways I have failed you, failed to lead and inspire sufficiently. Has not Christ given me this office in order to build you up? Yet, despite the pain of change, I trust that our pastoral plan can truly revitalize each and every parish.
And I feel especially keenly the failings of my brother priests, who, although striving to be good and holy men and faithful servants, have also not always led and inspired you in the best way. Sometimes, I know, we have not been your servants. We have tried hard, but still at times have overlooked your pain, or been afraid to preach too clearly against the evils of the world, or watered down the faith we are charged to teach and sustain in you.
We have, at times, been lax in our liturgies and homilies, allowing these to focus more on us than on God – as if somehow it could benefit God to be our friend, rather than the other way around! We have sometimes taken the easy path, rather than the right path.
And thus, many times the virtue and the practice of the faith has weakened. I say this knowing that we all fall short of the Lord’s expectations for us. As in the account of the woman caught in adultery we heard about in Monday’s Mass reading, none of us can cast the first stone knowing we have sinned and failed.
It seems to me that, like the apostles in the upper room that first Holy Saturday, we thought we knew who Jesus was and expected an easy and triumphant path to our victory. The kingdom was, after all, already established with Christ’s preaching and miracles, even though few heeded them and followed unreservedly. What obstacles could remain?
Fifty years ago, our parishes were secure and flourishing in just this easy way. Decades of sacrifice by our forebears had established the church firmly here in northwest Iowa. We had plenty of priests, many young families, lots of baptisms, weddings and first Communions. Our church was vibrant. It seemed nothing could derail our continued growth and sufficiency.
Now we see it differently. Things have changed. In the light of his crucifixion and death, in this Holy Saturday meditation, we need to look honestly at the past and see where we are today. Our forebears sacrificed to build; we may have thought the church so well-established that she could do without our sacrifices.
Mostly in little ways, in seemingly harmless ways – yet sometimes in significantly sinful ways – we too often chose the world and its values rather than Christ. In some ways we failed to keep the faith vibrantly strong.
Now, as we see our parishes close and merge, we must admit that we are suffering a kind of spiritual death. Can we, perhaps, own this admission, and participate more deeply in Christ’s passion as we do?
After the passion, we should remind ourselves, comes the resurrection. It can be so with us as well. Individually, each Lent and Passiontide and Easter is such an invitation to be closer to Christ, to die a little more to self and rise a little more with our Lord, year by year growing in faith.
For us as a diocese, this year in particular, can we die to self with Christ in respect to the mistakes of the past and even to our attachment to what is good in our history? Can we let go, for the sake of a resurrection of faith? Can we rise with him once more, with a greater commitment to sacrifice, evangelize and build up our Catholic Church again?
In these last days of Passiontide, as we await together the rising of the Savior of the world from the grave, may the joyful expectation of new life fill not only our hearts and families, but our parishes as well.
A happy and blessed Easter and Easter season to all of you. Let us continue to pray with Easter hope that one day we share in the fullness of Easter joy.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City