Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bishop Thomas Tobin: A Modern-day John the Baptist

Bishop Tobin (center) blessing the new wing of St. Pius X School on November 7, 2006.

(Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist 2007: This homily was given on June 24, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 57-66, 80.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Birth of John the Baptist 2007]

Listen closely to the following titles. Do you recognize them?

“Abortion 101”

“Should You Buy a Car on Sunday?”

“Reasons or Excuses?”

“Why We Need Lent”

“Immigrants Are People, Not Problems”

“Why Gay Marriage is Wrong”

“Questions About the Casino”

“Catholic Preaching: Powerful or Pitiful?”

“Breaking News: The Tomb of Jesus Is Empty!”

“Racism: It’s bigger than Imus”

“My R.S.V.P. to Rudy Giuliani”

If you didn’t know before, that last one probably gave it away. These are the titles of some of the columns that our bishop, Thomas Tobin, has written for our diocesan newspaper during the past couple of years. In looking them over the other day as I was preparing for this homily, I couldn’t help but think that John the Baptist would heartily approve! I couldn’t help but think that John, whose birthday we commemorate this weekend in the Church, would love our local bishop’s approach to pastoral ministry.

In paragraph 1558 of the Catechism it says this concerning the ministry of a bishop: “’Episcopal consecration confers, together with the office of sanctifying, also the offices of teaching and ruling. . . . In fact . . . by the imposition of hands and through the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given, and a sacred character is impressed in such wise that bishops, in an eminent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and act as his representative.’ ‘By virtue, therefore, of the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, bishops have been constituted true and authentic teachers of the faith . . .’” (CCC, 1558)

Sadly, some bishops in the Church today are failing to take their teaching role seriously. Perhaps that’s because they know that if they did take it seriously, they’d have to be a lot like John the Baptist! In other words, they know they’d have to address really tough issues and take very clear stands and endure a great deal of opposition—like John did.

And they’d rather not do those things.

John, of course, addressed the toughest of all issues—human sin—in a very direct manner. He came to prepare the way for the Messiah by making people aware of their need for the Messiah’s gift of mercy. But the only way he could make them aware of their need for the Messiah’s gift of mercy was by making them aware of the fact that they were sinners! John’s father, Zechariah, said it perfectly on the day his son was born: “You my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”

John was very clear about good and evil, right and wrong; he also had no qualms about challenging people who were in positions of civil and religious authority! He didn’t hesitate, for example, to tell King Herod that it was wrong for him to be living with his brother’s wife, nor did he hesitate in calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” at the Jordan River on the day they came to him to be baptized. (Believe me, Rudy Giuliani should thank God that John the Baptist didn’t write that R.S.V.P. column in our diocesan newspaper the other day. I can assure you that John would not have been as respectful and kind as Bishop Tobin was!)

Like John the Baptist, our present bishop is not afraid to tackle tough issues in the public square. Notice some of the “hot button topics” that are addressed in just the handful of columns I mentioned at the beginning of my homily: gay marriage, racism, gambling, immigration—and, of course, Rudy Giuliani’s stance on abortion.

For benefit of the few who might not have seen the bishop’s piece on Giuliani, I think it’s important to remember what precipitated it: an invitation from the former New York City mayor asking the bishop to come to a luncheon he was having here in Rhode Island to raise money for his campaign.

As our bishop said in his column: “I have no idea why I received an invitation to [this] fundraiser. I don’t know the mayor; I’ve never met him. I try to avoid partisan politics. Heck, I’m not even a Republican. But most of all, I would never support a candidate who supports legalized abortion.”

Bishop Tobin then went on to clarify the teaching of the Church on this issue—which is actually the teaching of Jesus Christ on this issue!—and to contrast that with Rudy’s position. (Rudy, in case you’re not aware of it, says he’s personally opposed to abortion and thinks it’s morally wrong, but he still maintains that it should still be a legal option.)

At one point in his commentary the bishop offered these important insights: “Rudy’s explanation is a classic expression of the position on abortion we’ve heard from weak-kneed politicians so frequently in recent years. ‘I’m personally opposed to but don’t want to impose my views on other people.’ The incongruity of that position has been exposed many times now. As I’ve asked previously, would we let any politician get away with the same pathetic cop-out on other issues: ‘I’m personally opposed to . . . racial discrimination, sexual abuse, prostitution, drug abuse, polygamy, incest . . . but don’t want to impose my beliefs on others?”. . .

“Hey Rudy, you say that you believe abortion is morally wrong. Why do you say that, Rudy; why do you believe that abortion is wrong? Is abortion the killing of an innocent child? Is it an offense against human dignity? Is it a cruel and violent act? Does it harm the woman who has the abortion? And if your answer to any of these questions is yes, Rudy, why would you permit people to . . . kill an innocent child, offend human dignity, commit a cruel and violent act or do harm to the mother?”

The real problem here is that Rudy the Republican—like Jack Reed the Democrat—wants “the name without the game”. He wants to be considered a Catholic in name and reap the earthly benefits that come with that title (such as your votes!), while at the same time rejecting fundamental moral teachings of the Catholic faith!

Our bishop rightly points out that politicians who freely choose to claim the title of Catholic can’t have it both ways. And as the chief teacher of the faith in the Diocese of Providence, our bishop needs to do this kind of thing in the public arena, because unfortunately the lie is still circulating out there that a person can be a good Catholic and “pro-choice” at the same time.

That’s a lie that just won’t die!

In many respects our bishop is a modern-day John the Baptist. His message, like the message of the original version 2,000 years ago, is sometimes tough. But when it’s accepted with humility, it leads people to Jesus!

Those who heard the original John, accepted his message, repented of their sins and received his baptism were properly prepared to embrace their Messiah when he came.

May all those who hear our bishop—and who read his column in our diocesan newspaper—heed what they hear and what they read, so that they will receive Jesus Christ more fully into their lives.

Today I offer that prayer for everyone, but in a very special way I offer it for Mr. Rudy Giuliani.