December 20, 2013

A Christmas message from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

Christmas came early this year. God surprised the Church with a great gift back in March—March 13, to be exact.

At a little past seven in the evening, Rome time, white smoke poured from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. An hour or so later, he was introduced to the world as Francis. He greeted with smiling simplicity the throngs in St. Peter’s Square and asked them to pray for him, even that they bless him.

Since his election, Francis has charmed and puzzled people across the world, including Catholics.

His pronouncements and gestures have served to broaden the “tent” of the Church, while challenging her pastors to remain close to the people entrusted to their care.

I suppose that the most precious gift of my first year as Archbishop has been the election of Pope Francis. I met Blessed John Paul II a few times, worked closely with Pope Benedict XVI and loved and respected them both.

But, as the pastor of the Catholic Church in central and southern Indiana, I thank God each day for the words and example of Pope Francis.

When he talks about shepherds, his words resonate in my daily service to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. I am grateful to have him as a model of what a bishop should be.

The Holy Father has given me a lot to think about this Christmas, and his inspiration casts a special light on how I read the story of Jesus’ birth this year. I would like to share with you some thoughts about the shepherds.

Here the word of God is speaking to all of us, not simply those baptized who exercise ordained ministry. The shepherds illustrate the vocation of every Catholic Christian to rejoice in the Gospel and bring good news to a waiting and often weary world.

We meet these shepherds in the account of the birth of Jesus according to the Gospel of Luke. They are not the center of the story, which features the Holy Child and his parents. The shepherds, however, are the first to receive the news of the birth of the Savior. Having learned the news from an angel, they go to Bethlehem “to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to [them]” (Lk 2:15).

They bring to Mary and Joseph the “good news for all the people that the angel had communicated: the birth of one who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). We can well imagine how they might have stammered as they repeated the song of the heavenly host: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!” (Lk 2:14)

The Gospel remembers that all who heard the shepherds “were amazed” (Lk 2:18) by what the humble witnesses reported. The shepherds exit, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” (Lk 2:20).

The shepherds help us to understand our vocation. At first, they were bewildered, even frightened by the message that reached them as they were tending their flocks.

After finding the courage to investigate further what this message was all about, they met Jesus Christ, an encounter that provoked in them an incredible joy. That joy led them to be bearers of good news, even as they returned to their normal occupations.

Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), begins with an extraordinary claim: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew” (#1).

Here is where the so-called new evangelization has to begin: in meeting Jesus Christ and his saving power, an encounter that produces an incredible joy. It is only then that you and I will be able to announce a message that is both “good” and “news.”

In the coming year, our archdiocese will consider how we can better live our vocation as bearers of good news. What does the call for a “new evangelization” mean in central and southern Indiana? We will step through the door that God is opening for us and, like the shepherds, carry a message that still has the power to amaze those who hear it. Together we will praise and glorify God for all that God will do through us.

But the mission begins with an encounter. So, this Christmas, I invite you to listen to the story as if you have never heard it before. Allow the arrival of Christ to soften your heart and awaken your hope. He is with us in our joys and sorrows, our victories, our frustrations and our darkness. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Do not be afraid to be happy.

May this encounter enkindle exuberant joy and lasting peace.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Rev. Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Archbishop of Indianapolis

Local site Links: