“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 5:6
Melchizedek was that mysterious priest who first appears in the 14th chapter of Genesis, when he brings out bread and wine and blesses Abram. He is again recalled in Psalm 110’s description of the victorious Messiah who would be called as high priest, not because he was born into the tribe of Levi but rather as one called by God to offer sacrifices and mediate between God and the people.
The author of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament picks up this theme in exalting Jesus as the high priest forever. Each time we gather at the Holy Eucharist for the offering of the bread and wine that become the very Body and Blood of Jesus, we recall that mysterious priest of peace, Melchizedek.
The passage from Hebrews was the second reading at the Mass of Christian Burial for Bishop David Choby, the 11th bishop of Nashville. How fitting it was because my friend, + David Choby, was a priest through and through. Hebrews speaks of no one taking this honor of high priest on his own initiative but only after being called by God. This call to put on Christ Jesus, even in the midst of weakness, and to offer sacrifice, to serve with patience and to seek a path of holiness was the life of Bishop Choby.
When I was first ordained, I would often hear the expression, “a priests’ priest.” It usually referred to a priest who was always there to support his brother priests. It was this priest who was always at jubilee anniversaries to support a brother priest or at the hospital to visit a priest who was ill or to take a pastoral responsibility when the priest could not. Even more so, this “priests’ priest” tended to enjoy the company of other priests and seek to be uplifted as he lifted up their spirits.
These were the qualities that I saw exemplified in the 18 years during which I called Bishop Choby friend. Our friendship really began when he was elected diocesan administrator for Nashville in 2004 and appointed bishop fourteen months later. After his ordination, he became a “bishops’ bishop.”
Four times a year we bishops of the Province of Louisville (the 7 dioceses of Kentucky and Tennessee) gather for provincial meetings, which mostly take the form of support groups. (I credit Archbishop Thomas Kelly for initiating this wonderful format some 35 years ago!) Of all the bishops, + David Choby was the most faithful in his participation — always enjoying, always lifting up others, and always with stories and wit, experiences and wisdom to help and inspire.
Bishop Choby was just 70 years old when he died earlier this month on the eve of Pentecost Sunday. At the end of his life, after spending more than four months in hospital and rehab and after at least three operations, he remained that “bishops’ bishop.”
We spoke over the phone the day before he died. At the very end, he said that he hoped to be present at the August meeting of the Province of Bishops but would not be at the national gathering of United States Bishops in Indianapolis in mid-June. When I asked him if he had any message for me to carry to brother bishops, he said quickly, “Oh yes. Please tell those bishops who know me of my gratitude for their prayers and of my greeting, friendship and love.”
I tried to recall why his Funeral Mass was so touching to me emotionally, why I will miss him more than most who have gone before me. It was his genuine capacity to be a friend. When together, he never missed an opportunity to ask how I was doing and was usually specific on one question or another. And then he paused to listen to my reply. He knew how to make friends and to keep them.
His Mass of Christian Burial was not at the Cathedral of the Incarnation but rather at the recently dedicated Diocesan Pastoral Center with its newly remodeled sanctuary, Sagrado Corazon, which holds 3,000 and is used primarily for Masses for the Latino faithful in the Diocese of Nashville.
The Church was filled with the faithful who loved this bishop, who befriended so well. How fitting that we would gather at the Holy Eucharist, where the bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Jesus at the hands of the faithful priest in the line of that mysterious priest of peace, Melchizedek. Bishop David Choby, may you rest in eternal peace.