Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
First Sunday of Advent – December 3, 2017
Opening of the Diocese 150th Anniversary Year Celebration
My brothers and sisters, welcome to our cathedral Church as we gather to celebrate the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a yearlong celebration in commemoration of the 150thanniversary of the founding of this local Church – the Diocese of Scranton.
It is with particular joy that I welcome on your behalf, His Eminence, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia and former Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Scranton from August 2009 until April 2010. Your Eminence, we are truly blessed to have you with us today to commemorate this historic moment in the life of our Diocese and to welcome you “home” to a Church that you served so well – even if for a brief period of time.
I am also pleased to welcome Bishop Timlin, the 8th Bishop of Scranton, Bishop Dougherty, Monsignor Joseph Quinn, pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Clarks Summit and chairperson of our 150th Anniversary celebration and Monsignor Thomas Muldowney, our Vicar General along with priests, deacons, women and men in Consecrated Life and – of course – you, my brothers and sisters representing our 120 parishes and 20 schools who are this wonderful local Church, whose founding we celebrate this day.
“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” Today’s gospel passage, taken from the 13th chapter of Saint Mark’s gospel, is often referred to as the “Little Apocalypse,” as it focuses our attention on the end of the current age and the in-breaking of the reign of God. Yet, for all of its focus on the end of this world as we know it, Saint Mark includes this apocalyptic message in his gospel to serve as a source of consolation for those in the early Church who were suffering because of their faith. The conviction that the world would one day be transformed and that God’s people would reign with the risen Jesus in glory was meant to provide them with a horizon of hope against which they could interpret and accept their sufferings as well as to help them find meaning and purpose in their efforts to live as disciples of Jesus in the present.
While written to some of the first members of the Church, these same words of Saint Mark have the capacity to convey comfort and consolation to us as well, don’t they? And they do so by means of a challenge given to all believers. While the gospel writer draws our attention to the coming of the Lord at the end of our material world, he clearly beckons us to move beyond the darkness of our broken and sinful world into the light and promise of faith in the here and now! “Be watchful! Be alert!” Look for opportunities to encounter and serve the presence of the Lord when he comes!
During his historic trip to the United States two years ago, Pope Francis celebrated a special Mass in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. In his homily, the Holy Father referenced Saint Katharine Drexel and her great contribution to the life of faith in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.
He recalled that shortly after Katharine’s wealthy father had died, she and her two sisters traveled to Europe in 1887 where they were privileged to meet Pope Leo XIII in a private audience. Katharine asked the Holy Father for missionaries to staff some of the Native American missions that she and her family had been financing. To her surprise, however, Pope Leo’s first response was not to grant her request. Rather, he asked her a question: “What about you, Katharine? What are you going to do?”
“Those words,” Pope Francis noted, “changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up His Body, the Church.”
My brothers and sisters, the same resolve and determination – rooted in faith – that prompted Saint Katharine Drexel to respond to the Pope Leo’s challenge to serve the neediest in our country lies at the heart of our celebration today.
Few, if any, of the earliest pioneers who helped build this local Church of Scranton would have ever been confronted with the question like that posed by Pope Leo to Katharine Drexel – “What are you going to do … with your baptism? What are you going to do to build the Church?” Nonetheless, countless numbers of clergy, religious and lay faithful knew implicitly that if the faith that they had come to cherish was ever to flourish in this region of our young country, they would be the ones responsible for carrying out the Church’s mission in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania.
And so, beginning in 1793, it was evident what the earliest settlers of our region of Pennsylvania were going to do for and because of their faith in Jesus. Just seventeen years after the founding of the United States – a French colony was established on the banks of the Susquehanna River between Wyalusing and Towanda. Within that colony, was found the first verifiable presence of the Catholic faith in what is now the Diocese of Scranton.
Thirty-two years later in 1825, an Irish born missionary priest by the name of Father Jeremiah O’Flynn used his own savings to purchase property where the first Catholic church within the territory of what we now know as the Diocese of Scranton would be built. The church, placed under the patronage of Saint Augustine, was erected at Silver Lake in Susquehanna County. Following a fire that destroyed the original church in 1870, the present Saint Augustine Church was dedicated the following year and continues to serve as a house of worship for Catholic faithful in Susquehanna County.
From the time that Father O’Flynn first settled in Susquehanna County, the fledgling Church in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania was served by missionary priests from the Diocese of Philadelphia and several religious congregations, including members of the Society of Jesus, the Congregation of the Holy Cross and the Franciscans until the founding of the Diocese in 1868.
While clergy were responsible for the sacramental life of the emerging local Church of Scranton, the contribution of women religious from various congregations promoted and advanced the institutional life of the Church. Led by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and joined over a short period of time by several other congregations of women religious, including the Sisters of Christian Charity, the Sisters of the Holy Child and the Sisters of Mercy, through the efforts of these dedicated women, schools were opened and the important responsibility of educating the young had begun.
Much can and should be said about the selfless service of the clergy and religious who laid a solid foundation of faith for this blessed local Church of Scranton. Yet, no matter how heroic or selfless, each of them was only able to fulfill the work entrusted to their care because of the commitment of the faithful souls they served – souls who had been touched by the mercy and love of God and who realized that they too – in their own way – were responsible for proclaiming the good news of the gospel. … My friends, those faithful souls are like all of you, who understand that even and particularly today, it is your responsibility – just as much as it is mine – to build the Church – the body of Christ – and to be his hands and voice and heart to a world so much in need of God’s grace.
When the Diocese of Scranton was created by a decree issued by Pope Pius IX on March 3, 1868 – just forty-three years following the construction of its first church – and the Reverend Doctor William O’Hara was named its founding bishop, 24 parishes had already been established. With the movement of peoples and the arrival of immigrants throughout its 150 years, those 24 parishes grew to as many as 239 by the early 1970’s.
While the number of parishes have diminished in recent years due to changing demographics and cultural challenges, thankfully, this portion of God’s kingdom that all of you represent so beautifully continues to vibrantly embrace the mission of the Church entrusted to all of the baptized. … And it will continue to embrace that mission if we are humble, generous and selfless enough to confront time and again the same question posed by Pope Leo XIII to a young Katharine Drexel – now a canonized saint of our Church. “What about you? What are you going to do” to build the Church and proclaim Jesus’ message of salvation and life? … “What are you going to do?”
My sisters and brothers – may this blessed anniversary year of celebration and remembrance serve as a time of renewal for each of us who are called to make the mission of Jesus our own. Just like the first missionaries who traveled to our eleven counties in times that were different but just as challenging as our own, we too have the responsibility to build Church. And, like them, we would do well to remember that if anything profound is to happen through us, it will only happen in relationship with Jesus.
So, “be watchful! Be alert!” Continue to look for opportunities to serve the Lord Jesus – in those who have lost their way – in the poor – the suffering – the marginalized – and the brokenhearted. Work for justice. Forgive generously. Give Jesus room to mold our lives into the pattern of his own. Continue to be the leaven of the gospel in our corner of the world. And give thanks – for all that has been and for all that will be in this local Church through the grace and presence of God in our midst. Amen.