At the Chrism Mass almost four years ago, the Most Reverend Robert C. Evans concluded his homily to the priests of Providence with these sobering words: “Perhaps, when all is said and done, the most we can hope for is others to have said of us: he was a Catholic priest.” The bishop’s words inspire reflection on the supernatural identity of every priest. Notice, in clever style, the bishop never mentions the surname of any particular cleric. The priesthood demands a certain kind of anonymity — a relinquishment of one’s personal prerogatives, surrendered into the hands of Another. At his ordination, every priest undergoes a kind of death to self when he offers his life for Christ and His Church. Laying prostrate on the floor during the Rite of Ordination, an otherwise macabre eccentricity becomes a profound symbol — and reminder — for future ministry: the priest is not his own. To borrow the words of St. Paul, every priest can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Bishop Evans’ recollection of the priest’s abandonment to divine mercy reads much more like an autobiography than a theological instruction to the clergy. His words bear the mark of personal testimony. As the Church of Providence gives thanks to Almighty God for the episcopal service of Bishop Evans upon the acceptance of his retirement by Pope Francis, one could easily summarize the bishop’s tenure with his own words: he was (and is) a Catholic priest. Theology teaches us about the supreme priesthood of Christ in which every bishop shares fully. Bishop Evans exemplified this by the way he served as “father” — father to the priests who sought out his gentle wisdom, wit, and warmth amidst their personal joys and sorrows; father to the seminarians formed under his advisement in Providence and Rome; father to the myriad confirmandi he anointed with sacred chrism, sealing them forever as soldiers for Christ Jesus; and father to those of us who continue to learn from his counsel, enjoy his good humor and kindness, and even profit from an occasional gastronomic lesson (or critique, as it were).
Rarely without a smile, and with a twinkle in his eye, His Excellency easily reminds us about the meaning of his episcopal motto, Spe Salvi. In hope we were saved. Even amidst life’s most challenging hurdles, the Christian never abandons hope. Bishop Evans knows this because he lives his priesthood and episcopacy as a man of hope. The ecclesial milieu of the 1950’s which formed a young Robert Evans—the self-proclaimed “kid from Federal Hill”—seemed to have entirely disappeared by the time the same altar boy from Mt. Carmel Church donned a precious mitre at his episcopal consecration in 2009. Yet such epochal change did not disorient him, or challenge his deepest identity. He chose the words of St. Paul to remind us: there is always hope! This son of Providence knows this because he knows, in all humility, not everything depends on him. Christ is the Head of the Church. Bishop Evans understands his identity: an adopted son of God, consecrated a priest forever and successor of the Apostles. Thus, when all is said and done, we can echo our thankful hymn of praise to God for giving to the Diocese of Providence our former Auxiliary Bishop, Robert C. Evans. Thanks be to God, he is a Catholic priest!
Father Nathan Ricci is the Vice Chancellor of the Diocese of Providence and the Theological Advisor to Rhode Island Catholic.