In 1966, during my year as a deacon prefect at Our Lady of Providence Seminary on Warwick Neck, the college freshman class numbered one member who has recently received the personal affirmation of Pope Benedict XVI himself.
I hope I was kind to seminarian Robert Evans from our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Providence who this week is to be ordained a bishop of the universal Church. I know he was kind to me. During his years of study at the North American College in Rome, it was seminarian Evans who would secure for me papal blessings for family weddings and anniversaries. I certainly hope I gave him a decent tip. The ministries in which Reverend Monsignor Robert Evans has served the Church over the years could not be more varied. Nor could they be more impressive: assistant pastor in geographically diverse parishes, pastor and administrator in small and large parishes, service at the diocesan chancery office in Providence, service to the academic community in Rome, service to the diplomatic core in Washington, DC, and now successor to the Apostles as auxiliary bishop of Providence.
Not too many years ago the church at Providence would be celebrating the “consecration” of Msgr. Evans as a bishop. Nowadays the church refers to the anointing of a new bishop as an “ordination,” the same word used for the anointing of a priest or a deacon. Consecration seems a much weightier word; it seems to connote a much more solemn and significant ceremony. Yet the decision to employ the word ordination for the anointing of a new bishop is not an indication of less pomp or less ceremony. The episcopate, like the priesthood and the diaconate, should be appreciated as one of the three holy orders, three holy orderings, three holy orientations, by which the priesthood of Jesus Christ is carried out in a diocese. The deacon is ordered toward service; the priest is ordered toward sacrifice and absolution; the bishop is ordered toward teaching. An episcopal ordination celebrates the sacramental elevation of a priest into the college of bishops, into the ranks of those men ordered toward the development, dissemination and defense of the Gospel entrusted to the original apostolic band. Bishops are our tutors in the faith.
A bishop does now what the Apostles did in the early church, what Jesus Christ did during his public ministry and what God the Father did in the Old Testament. God the Father guided and maintained the community of believers that had commenced with Abraham. God the Father guided and maintained the Jewish community which he had initiated through Moses. These ancient communities were begun at God’s instigation and were maintained by his providence in spite of sin and infidelity. Jesus Christ guided and maintained the first Christian community consisting of his Apostles, his disciples and the crowds. He provided for their maintenance through the sacraments he instituted and the Gospel that he preached. The first apostles maintained communities of believers all around the Mediterranean world. These first missionaries maintained these infant church communities by their visits, their letters and their ordinations of successors.
As later generations of believers grew throughout Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, it was bishops who were entrusted with the formidable task of guiding and maintaining these worshipping communities first of all by preserving the original deposit of faith entrusted to them from Apostolic times and then by intensifying and spreading these truths revealed through Jesus Christ. After two thousand years the primary mission of bishops has not altered. Today bishops propose Christian belief in the face of indifference and secularism. Bishops espouse the sanctity of life in distinction to abortion, fetal experimentation, insufficient health care and euthanasia. Bishops promote the dignity of the person when confronting immigration, imprisonment, and discrimination. Bishops uphold sound teaching by tacking scriptural novelties and theological modernism. Bishops defend society by supporting traditional marriage, just wages and affordable housing. By theologically insightful words and by spiritually meaningful actions, bishops establish, nourish and maintain communities of faith throughout the world. Bishop Evans has his work, Christ’s work, cut out for him.