Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The days of Lent are passing swiftly! Already we are well past the mid-point, and this Sunday marks the beginning of “Passiontide,” the last two weeks of Lent when we concentrate especially on the coming passion of our savior.
The second reading this Sunday is from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8).
Do we truly know Jesus this way? Do we know him to be so good, gracious, and merciful to each of us personally, so that in comparison with him, even the best of this world’s goods pain us not to give up? It is a high standard to love God with such perfect and self-less love.
St. Paul continues, recognizing the struggle and the journey of reaching toward more pure love, day by day, year by year, “…forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal…” (Phil 3:13-14).
This is the goal: to love so much that we might even give up our own life for it. Christ loved his heavenly father with just so pure and perfect a love. And he loves each of us in the same way, going willingly to the cross for the possibility of our salvation. Can we strive to love a little more like Christ? Can we let go of the things that hold us back from a more perfect love?
Passiontide also gives us the long-standing custom of veiling the images. Many of our parishes still do this, covering the main crucifix and some or all of the church’s statues during these two weeks, until the Vigil Mass of our Lord’s resurrection. The custom comes from the last words of the Gospel reading associated with the Fifth Sunday of Lent prior to the current Lectionary: “But Jesus hid himself from them, and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:59).
In this way, we can experience emotionally the fear and confusion of the disciples who witnessed the passion, wondering again whether Jesus truly was the Messiah, not yet knowing of the resurrection to come – not yet believing.
Thus, our joy is all the more powerful, when Jesus, by rising from the dead, is proven to be the Messiah, and heaven is again revealed to us in that most solemn Easter Mass. Again and again, for the whole church and for each of us as disciples, this is the pattern of a living, growing faith. We are converted and burn with enthusiasm; we slowly wane until we are perhaps coasting, perhaps doubting, perhaps falling away; we wander for a time in darkness, in whatever sense; and then, abruptly, God breaks through and we are again converted and on fire.
It is especially in the holy sacraments that we are given this light and grace, and therefore the church longs that her children in the faith would receive confession and holy Eucharist more frequently and more devoutly. If you have not yet done so this Lent, I urge you, please make an effort to go to confession during this Passiontide. Your Easter joy will be the livelier for it.
By now, I hope, you have all had a chance to read, and to begin to pray over, the details of the proposed pastoral plan in the last edition of The Catholic Globe. I hope you will continue to pray about these necessary changes. I know I am asking you to do a hard thing. Change is never easy, and we are facing a scale of change that may be shocking to some, at least abrupt to most. Fear and anger are natural responses. But even as we acknowledge these realities, the spirit of prayer will carry us to where we need to be to truly engaged and wrestle with this proposal.
For the health of our priests, we must expect fewer Masses to prepare, and require fewer committees to attend. For the health of our parishes, we must bring people together to share the faith more joyfully and vigorously. And for the spiritual health of every parishioner, we must become much more something we have never had to be in this part of the world – an evangelizing diocese.
How can we best accomplish this? Our committee and consultants have developed this draft proposal. It’s up to you to make it better, to make it the best pastoral plan it can be, so that it will result in a healthy and flourishing church here in Northwest Iowa.
Perhaps, as a diocese, we are now in that same darkness of Passiontide. The great flush of fervor that built up this diocese, that made so many personal sacrifices to build beautiful churches and faithful schools, lasted into the 1950s. Since then, we have been more or less coasting, tending the lovely garden we had inherited. The period of confusion and experiment after the council changed the garden, some for the better; now much of our garden remains, and is still lovely, but much has also been lost over the decades.
The farming economy is very different than it once was, and our thriving rural parishes have lost too many people to thrive alone. Our scattered efforts at evangelization have not borne the desired fruit. Our culture has slowly drifted away from its Christian roots, and our work to evangelize now is much harder than it once was. People have changed, moved and adapted to a different cultural era.
We cannot coast anymore. We need conversion! We need that new irruption of God’s light and grace, to increase our faith and zeal once more. It is my hope that this pastoral plan, with your crucial input, may be a vehicle of just such a spiritual renewal.
In these last days of Lent, I urge you to pray for conversion for yourselves and for all God’s children; pray for reconciliation for those who are angry, especially between husbands and wives; pray for healing for all who are injured, abandoned, and unloved.
Please pray in a special way for our own diocese, that we may be renewed and enlivened in faith and in joy, to share in the mission of Christ. Know that I pray for all of you, and for all your needs and fears, as we approach the great mystery of our Lord’s saving passion.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City