Three popes and many other changes

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Bishop Sullivan’s episcopal motto, “In the Breaking of the Bread” is an allusion to Luke 24:35, where the evangelist describes the disciples recounting to the others “what happened on the way,” when they had recognized the Risen Lord as a co-traveler with them on the road to Emmaus. This image of the church, as a pilgrim people journeying together on the highways of history, has deep resonances with our pastor’s own “crossing and dwelling,” as a famous text names the primary lens through which all religious participation can be studied.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan greets the Holy Father Pope Francis during an audience on Sept. 13, 2013, in the Paul VI Audience Hall. Bishop Sullivan was on pilgrimage to Rome with the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. Servizio Fotografico de “L’O.R.

Not only the content of his ministry — which has at various stages inspiringly prioritized pastoral care to migrants of many backgrounds and language groupings — but even his personal life reflects this “synodal” (literally: “together on the way”) dimension of our shared faith.

Named an auxiliary bishop to the city once described by Pope John Paul II as the capital of the globe, (New York), and in communion with the beating heart of the church in the “caput mundi,” the head of the world (Rome), Bishop Sullivan has long been connected to corridors of influence and sites of crucial decision-making for the life of the international community of believers. Yet, his priesthood and episcopal leadership have also been indelibly marked by a deep commitment to the outcast, the forgotten, the excluded, and those on the move. He has brought these passions with him to the Camden Diocese.

His time as bishop has thus far spanned the lives of three popes, with their distinct emphases and ecclesiological visions: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. It also intersected with the decades in which the Catholic world sought to interpret, implement and live out the Second Vatican Council and its radical tonal shift in its approach to the “modern world.” Polyglots like Bishop Sullivan recognize that this radicality does not necessarily refer to extremism or fanaticism, but rather is tied to the word for “roots” (radix), recovering the riches of the tradition that had been lost, distorted or compromised over the course of centuries or millennia. The methodology for this recovery is often associated with the French term Ressourcement, where one rediscovers the life-giving sources and experiences of the early church. Yet, this is never divorced from the overall project of the Council, referenced usually by the Italian word Aggiornamento, literally “bringing into today” or more colloquially, “updating.” One could not be an effective pastor, servant leader, or teacher such as Bishop Sullivan has tried to be in this period without navigating these sometimes difficult waters of post-conciliar life.

The fractures of the post-modern secular world have also multiplied and splintered over the last five decades, as technology, social media and globalization have redrawn what were familiar, if sometimes illusory, borders, allegiances and thought-patterns. The rise of mass communication and digital society deeply impacts pastoral ministry and theological education. To be a bishop when the world is simultaneously becoming more inter-connected and yet more fragmented, more literate and yet more isolated, more populous and yet more tribalist, is an unenviable charge. The painful process of adapting to new challenges, and living with the ramifications of horrific historical ones that still haunt us, demand that bishops and their faithful re-imagine what it means to collaborate for the coming Kingdom of God in the dawn of an undefined era and in heretofore uncharted mission fields. Bishop Sullivan has worked to bring just such partnerships to South Jersey, both among believers within the church (ad intra) and with political and sociological realities outside of it (ad extra).

The current Holy Father has not been shy in his implicit and explicit critique of the culture of clericalism which divorced the faithful from their local ordinaries in various places around the globe, to disastrous results.  He recently exhorted church leaders to consider themselves “tentmakers” like Saint Paul’s original occupation, that is to say “apostles that enable the Lord to dwell in the midst of His People” (Discourse of Sept 12, 2019). Two characteristics make this possible: proximity and availability, themes that when lived authentically prevent the aloofness and elitism which has infected so many current organizations and institutions, not excepting the church. Instead of retreating into self-protection or self-promotion, a bishop and pastor must “make oneself close, to be in contact with people, to dedicate more time to them to one’s desk, not to fear contact with their reality, rather to know it and embrace it.”

The truths of faith provide an indispensable moral compass amidst the torrent of noise, egoism and division in our world. Yet, the community of believers exist always and only in particular places and particular eras. Thus, we encounter the sacred precisely in the messiness of everyday life, not somehow despite it or in flight from it.  The disciples that Bishop Sullivan cites in his motto remembered their companionship with the Lord only when they were given the space and time to reflect back upon what they had just encountered. It is only after the experience is winding down that they recognize what blessings they had been given. They ask one another in retrospection: “Were not our hearts burning within us [back then when we didn’t realize what was happening in the moment]”?

As our diocese faces transitions in the coming months and years, let us also take the time to reflect back on all that has happened, noting the goodness, mercies and growth, as well as the limitations of doubt, fear and blindness to the Lord that also marked the Emmaus encounter, as they do all human realities. So as with the disciples so long ago, we too have traveled together and now set out once more into an unknown future with collective gratitude and courageous hope. The whole community, with Bishop Sullivan included, now confidently moves forward to finish the race and complete the task the Lord has bestowed on us all — to testify to the Good News of God’s grace (Acts 20:24).

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D. grew up in Collingswood and attended diocesan Catholic schools. He teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.