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Mass of Thanksgiving for the Ministry of Bishop Gregory Bittman

St. Joseph Basilica, Edmonton

Solemnity of St. Joseph - March 19, 2018

[2Samuel 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16; Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a]

When Bishop Gregory Bittman was first named to the episcopal ministry, he chose as his motto: Christus Iesus spes nostra, Christ Jesus is our hope. It is taken from St. Paul's first letter to Timothy. I draw our attention to it because this phrase is a striking summary of the message of the Scripture passages that we heard this evening. It also gives expression to the urgent task to be embraced in our day by all disciples generally and by the Bishop in particular. What the Scriptures teach us is this: hope is possible, hope is real, hope changes lives, and this hope arises from placing our faith not in our own abilities but in God’s fidelity to His promises. Our task is to announce this hope to our world, and we look to the Bishop to lead us in doing so.

The promises made by God are extraordinary. St. Paul recalls the promise made by God to Abraham to make of him the father of all nations. The second book of Samuel records the promise later made by God to David through the prophet Nathan, the pledge to establish from a descendent of David’s house a kingdom to last forever. Matthew narrates the promise God made to Joseph in a dream that the child to be born of Mary will save his people from their sins, an act that would bring salvation to the world.

These are promises that elicit astonishment. How did these men respond to them? They could not have known how God would bring them about, so wondrous were they, or even if they would be alive to see their fulfilment. They responded with hope. In reference to Abraham, St. Paul expresses beautifully the hope that animated them all. "Hoping against hope," is how he puts it. "Hoping against hope," he says, Abraham believed God. In other words, these men chose to place their faith not in self-reliance or human calculation, but in the wisdom and providence of God. From that act of faith in God’s ability to bring about all that he promised, hope arose.

How does this speak to us now? After all, we have seen the fulfillment of the promises; the fulfillment that happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, for what do we hope? Well, the point to grasp here is that it is uniquely in Jesus Christ that God has fulfilled his promises. They have yet to find completion in each of us. Hope for this fulfillment marks the life of every Christian. Since the promises have been granted in Christ, we recognize that it is only by living in union with him that they will be answered in us. Therefore, Christ Jesus is, indeed, our hope. Christus Iesus spes nostra.

So, Bishop Greg, you have chosen as your motto a phrase that captures beautifully the heart of our lives as a Christian people. I would also like to suggest that this choice is a prophetic one for our times. In our day, the proclamation of Christian hope is an urgent necessity, because the lives of so many of our contemporaries are marked by its opposite. Despair abounds, and its hallmark is paralysis. I think of young people today afraid to move out of themselves and into community for fear of not measuring up to some illusory standards, of families unable to break out of pain and dysfunction for lack of a moral compass, and of people at the end of their lives locked in anguish by regret for the past and an inability to see death as anything but absolute finality.

Despair paralyzes. Hope gives wings. The hope that we are called to announce is precisely that of Abraham, David and St. Joseph. It liberated them from any fear or doubt and enabled them to set out in accord with the Lord's summons. This does not mean they were blind to peril. Abraham was called to leave the familiar and travel across unknown and dangerous territory. David was invited to set his hope on an unlimited future for his household, even as he saw it threatened by human infidelity and mortal enemies. St. Joseph was summoned to let go of his plan and adopt that of God, a mysterious call certain to be met by misunderstanding and danger. Nevertheless, they chose to hope against hope. Now we are called to invite everyone to do the same, to "hope against hope," in spite of any and all difficulty, to look beyond the limits of human calculus and effort to the unlimited horizon offered in Jesus Christ. Our summons is to say to all: "Place your faith in God and live freely and joyfully in the hope that ensues."

We are confident, Bishop Greg, that this is precisely the message that you will bring to the people of the Diocese of Nelson now entrusted to your care. Our confidence arises not only from your choice of motto but also from our experience of you as a man animated by Christian hope. We've witnessed this in a number of ways. You are known as a runner, as someone who has jogged possibly every trail in the River Valley. You are also appreciated as one who, moved by hope, will run toward, and never away from, a challenge in the Diocese or to someone in need. Your black belt in karate means you are well schooled in the art of self-defense. Of far greater significance, though, is your capacity and willingness to defend the faith and uphold it as the reason for hope. You love to eat and do so constantly, frequently stalking the halls of the office to steal candy from your colleagues. Yet, after you have gone to confession, you turn to the food that alone can nourish with hope, the Eucharist. You love cats, a sure indication that even you have occasional lapses in judgement and live in the hope of conversion to greater wisdom.

We've been observing all this for quite some time, now. After all, you have served this Archdiocese as a priest for twenty-two years and as a Bishop for almost six. I think it fair to say that many of us have been "hoping against hope" that we could keep you here, but we knew that was not realistic. The Church is bigger than us, God is in charge, and He summons to ministry as He chooses and when He sees fit in accordance with His plan. The only appropriate response that we can give is thanksgiving to God for having blessed us all these years with your person, your ministry and your witness. It is precisely for this act of thanksgiving that we gather to offer the Eucharist this evening.

Now I know there are some people here tonight who are finding it a little harder than most to see you appointed by the Holy Father to another Diocese. I'm thinking, of course, of your mother, Fran, your siblings and the members of your extended family. Although Pope Francis enjoys extraordinary popularity throughout the world, nevertheless I'm told that, within the Bittman family, he has suffered a slight dip in the polls. We know, though, that the pride felt by the Archdiocese in its native son pales in comparison to theirs. God will do great things through your episcopal ministry in Nelson, and for that we all rejoice, family and friends alike.

As our attention now turns to the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let's keep before us the example of good St. Joseph. By his surrender to the mysterious plan of God he gave witness to what is the heart of the Christian life, namely, the obedience of faith. He heard the voice of God, he trusted in God's wisdom, and he obeyed in faith. Bishop Greg is now summoned to do the same.

Mind you, unlike St. Joseph he doesn't have to flee to Egypt. He just has to drive to Kelowna! Yet, Bishop Greg, challenges there, too, surely await you. So, as we offer this mass in thanks, we also ask our loving God to pour out upon you all the gifts necessary for the accomplishment of that which he now is asking of you. God is always faithful to his promises. Abraham, David and St. Joseph all trusted in that divine fidelity and looked forward in hope. Do, now, the same, and know that, as you go forth, you will be accompanied by the abiding respect and gratitude of the people of God here back home.

✠ Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton

March 19, 2018