9 August 2017

My Dear Sons and Daughters in Christ:


    With great joy, I share this first pastoral letter about the upcoming diocesan conference, “Families Fully Alive,” which will take place February 2018 in Fairbanks.            

    It is a warm summer evening and I am sitting in my office reflecting on the two and a half years since I was called to be your bishop. Many emotions are running through my heart. Deep within me echo the words of Saint Augustine, when he became a bishop: “With you, I am a Christian; for you, I am a bishop.”[1]

 

    There have been countless blessings (and multiple challenges) in my time as bishop, but since the beginning, you have welcomed me to walk with you on this pilgrimage of our beloved Diocese of Fairbanks. It seems as if it were yesterday when I awoke to the ringing from an unknown number, an unfamiliar voice at the other end giving me an even stranger message! Half-awake, I learned my life was about to change drastically. It was a call to a deeper level of commitment to my priestly vocation and I was humbled by what Pope Francis was entrusting to me: To become a bishop.

    But not just any bishop—a missionary bishop in northern Alaska, the largest diocesan territory in the United States, with parishioners from many different cultures. A great call, but at the same time, overwhelming. My thoughts raced towards heaven: “Thank you, Lord?” and “Your will be done.” Follow by, “But how am I going to do this?”

    Today, I reflect how God’s call can radically change our lives. We see during the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth that John the Baptist recognized his calling in the womb.[2] Shortly after I was ordained a transitional deacon, my class was asked to give a homily on a scripture that had been influential in our vocational call. I had always been moved by the missionary passion and zeal of John the Baptist, so I gave a short reflection on “He must increase; I must decrease.”[3] It is no surprise, then, that I also chose this verse as my Episcopal Motto.

    Then there was Saint Paul, who began by persecuting Christians, but through a divine call,[4] came to understand that Christianity was actually the fulfillment of ancient prophecies and that Christ was the Messiah. It was this very real encounter with the Risen Christ that brought Paul to his knees and turned him into a missionary apostle.

    Nowadays, many of us find it hard to listen to God and hear His voice. We sometimes doubt His existence. Did God really create the universe and does He really care about us personally? To find these answers, we need to enter a sphere we call “mystery,” where we can see only part of the Truth. Our faith is a little like the universe--the more we learn, the more mysterious it becomes.

    My own experience has taught me that to understand God, I must get to know Him personally first–-I need to be in relationship with Him. I can’t just read a book about Him or listen to what others say. Our God communicates in a deeply relational way; He yearns to establish close, loving relationships with His children. He has designed us as creatures who only understand themselves through relationships with others.

    This is why the family is the foundation for human life. By nature, we are born of the intimate relationship between man and woman and hopefully, are raised in loving relationships with others.[5]  God established the family to help us grow, but sometimes, our families are not a good example of what they were meant to be.[6] Yet no matter how broken, the family’s purpose is still revealed in our deep desire for authentic, intimate relationships with each other.

    We know God created humanity in His image and likeness,[7] but what does this really mean? Scripture gives us the answer: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”[8] This is important because if we are created in God’s image and Christ is the image of God, then we are also created in the image of Christ. To fulfill our potential, then, means to become more and more Christ-like. For in doing so, we discover our dignity and that of our neighbor. And this journey begins with baptism.

    Pope Francis reminds us in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia of the dignity of being God’s children and of our call to become what we are meant to be. He shows us that spiritual growth is deeply rooted in the family, an institution present in Scripture from Genesis to the Book of Revelation.[9]  When you were baptized, the priest or deacon said: “You are a child of God for so indeed you are.” This means, “You are a big deal because you are created in the image and likeness of God.” And you are a big deal because the Most Holy Trinity has claimed you to be part of a very real relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    Now allow me to guide you in a slightly different direction. It was the late Cardinal Avery Dulles who said, “Christ has three bodies in one person.”[10] The first body, Jesus received from the Blessed Virgin Mary; the second, He gave us in His most precious Body and Blood of the Eucharist. And the third is what we call the Mystical Body, which is the Church.[11] Through baptism, we become part of this Mystical Body and through the Eucharist; we receive His Body and gradually come to the fullness of Christ living within us.

    We need to see the intimate connection that exists between baptism and the Eucharist. Like baptism, the Eucharist brings us into an ever-growing closeness with God. In the Mass, we encounter the Risen Christ in the reading of his Word and it stirs within us a desire for conversion. Then we offer to God all of who we are, together with the simple gifts of bread and wine. Through the consecration, these gifts become transformed into the True Presence of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. This humble appearance enables Jesus to encounter us in a most intimate way when we consume Him. And in this encounter, we are transformed, too.

    In an important and particular way, our membership in the Body of Christ comes to its fullness within the family. The New Testament speaks of “churches that meet in homes.”[12] A family’s living space could turn into a domestic church, a setting for the Eucharist, the presence of Christ seated at its table.[13] Jesus himself chose to live in a family with all its blessings and challenges. In fact, our primary witness to the world should be how we care for each other within the family: “But a body calls also for a multiplicity of members, which are linked together in such a way as to help one another. And as in the body when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain, and the healthy members come to the assistance of the ailing, so in the Church the individual members do not live for themselves alone, but also help their fellows, and all work in mutual collaboration for the common comfort and for the more perfect building up of the whole Body.”[14]

    I came to understand this profound connection between family members in a beautiful way in 1996, when I was celebrating the Christmas Eve Mass at our parish. I was a young priest and poured all my passion into the homily that I directed to the little ones. In living colors, I painted the poverty of Mary and Joseph—how hard it was staying in a cold, uncomfortable stable with animals on a winter night with no heat. Suddenly, a little three-year-old girl ran to the nativity where little Baby Jesus was lying in the manger with no blanket. She tenderly picked up the infant, covered him with her little arms, and started to rock him like we do with living babies. She simply knew little Jesus needed help and she ran to give it to him. Just three years old and already she had a missionary heart.

    When we encounter the living Christ, He sends the fire of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Jesus will make us His missionaries if we allow Him to. According to Pope Francis, “The Risen Lord poured out upon his disciples two forms of consolation: interior joy and the light of the paschal mystery. The joy of recognizing the presence of the Risen Jesus draws you into His Person and His will: for this very reason, it leads to mission.”[15] Or as Pope St. John Paul II stated, “The Spirit leads the company of believers to ‘form a community,’ to be the Church. After Peter's first proclamation on the day of Pentecost and the conversions that followed, the first community takes shape (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). One of the central purposes of mission is to bring people together in hearing the Gospel, in fraternal communion, in prayer and in the Eucharist. To live in ‘fraternal communion’ (koinonia) means to be ‘of one heart and soul’ (Acts 4:32), establishing fellowship from every point of view: human, spiritual, and material. Indeed, a true Christian community is also committed to distributing earthly goods, so that no one is in want, and all can receive such goods ‘as they need’ (cf. Acts 2:45; 4:35). The first communities, made up of ‘glad and generous hearts’ (Acts 2:46), were open and missionary--they enjoyed ‘favor with all the people’ (Acts 2:47). Even before activity, mission means witness and a way of life that shines out to others.”[16]

    Saint Paul writes in his second letter to Timothy: “For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control.”[17]

    My dear ones, God loves us and wants to be in a loving relationship with us. He builds us up through the Church’s sacraments and community and He calls us through Christ to become disciples and missionaries to this world. It is particularly within and through the family that the new evangelization will take place. There is much to be done and God is with us. Let us reflect the words of Pope Francis from Amoris Laetitia: “The family lives its spirituality precisely by being at one and the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world.”[18]

    May God bless your families and renew your mission in the upcoming Faith and Family Fully Alive Conference in February. May Mary, the Mother of our Lord and wife of St. Joseph, be our intercessor, model, and help in this endeavor.


In Christ our Lord
 

†Most Reverend Chad W. Zielinski

Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska



[1] Saint Augustine, Sermon 46

[2] Lk. 1:41

[3] Jn. 3:30

[4] Acts 9:4-5

[5] CCC, 371-372

[6] …there is always arguing in marriage, sometimes the plates even fly. Yet we must not become saddened by this, this is the human condition. The secret is that love is stronger than the moment when there is arguing, and therefore I always advise spouses: do not let a day when you have argued end without making peace. Pope Francis, “Catechesis on Marriage,” 2 April 2014

[7] Gen. 1:26-27

[8] Col. 1:15

[9] Amoris Laetia, 8-10

[10] Card. Avery Dulles. “Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist: True, Real and Substantial,” Adoremus-Online Edition, 11(2), April 2005..

[11] Cf. Col 1:24

[12] cf. 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:5; Col 4:15; Philem 2

[13] Amoris Laetitia, 15

[14] Mystici Corporis Christi, 15

[15] “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Participants in the General Chapter of the Congregation of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,” 24 June 2017

[16] Redemptoris Missio, 26

[17] 2 Tim. 1:6-7

[18] Amoris Laetitia, 391

 

File: Family_Conference_Letter_9_Aug_2017.pdf