In 1999 when appointed Bishop of Knoxville, I had the task of seeking an appropriate episcopal motto. That motto is the title of this bi-weekly column, “Hope in the Lord,” and I pulled it from Psalm 31.
The lengthy Psalm 31 has been divided into three parts and is one of the psalms that forms the daily Office of Readings. When choosing an Episcopal motto, I remember how moved I was every Monday of the second cycle of 4 weeks as I encountered Psalm 31.
Psalm 31 asks for God’s help, and from it comes the familiar words, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” — those words Jesus uttered in prayer from the cross right before he gave up the spirit and died. There is also the “My life is in your hands,” or as the translation I use says: “My times into your hands.”
This self-surrender of Jesus, one that his followers are called to emulate through his power and example, was perfect for me to say each day as a bishop. The psalm ends with a thunderous and hope-filled note as the psalmist becomes aware and even overwhelmed by the reality of God’s assuring presence. Stating that “the Lord protects the loyal,” the psalm ends with a verse filled with promise, with confidence in the Lord, and with great assurance.
Here is the translation I like best:
“Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.”
I couldn’t help thinking of this verse as I re-read the first homily Pope Francis gave the morning after his election as the Bishop of Rome.
Reflecting on the readings, this homily took the three-fold theme of “to walk, to build, to profess Christ Crucified.”
Pope Francis has spoken over and over about walking and accompanying others, evoking that great image of the Church as the People of God, so prominent in the pages of the Vatican Council II documents. This concept provides an attractive image for this day in which the world is yearning for someone to warm hearts and heal wounds — someone who sees the person first and who desires to walk with them.
The second theme in his homily, building, produces images of edifices and maintenance, but the New Testament use seems first to concentrate on this concept as the building of the Kingdom or reign of God on earth. The word for Church, ecclesia in Greek, recalls a gathering or assembly of people who carry out the building of the Kingdom in community.
Finally, there is the image of Jesus Crucified on the cross. Rightly, we cannot picture Jesus on the cross without a joyous remembrance that He who died is now risen. Perhaps equally true, we minimize the rising from the dead in the life of Jesus and that of his followers if we do not dwell on the sacrificial nature of his great love: that he suffered and died.
This week I was in Mexico City at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe for a pilgrimage and encuentro (meeting) on the intercontinental mission of the Catholic Church to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ and to call all to Christ in and through his Church. (By the time you read this, I will be on my way home.)
I had the opportunity to deliver a 20-minute summary of the progress of the new evangelization in the United States. It was a privilege, but somewhat challenging, to cover it all in that short time. I began my address with that call to prayer — the call that is embedded in Psalm 31 — that allows us one at a time and together to see the hand of God in our daily life and surroundings.
And as we reflect on the need to “Pray first,” I ask for your prayers as I begin my term as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I am both honored and humbled as I begin this time of serving my brother bishops as together we seek to walk with others, build the Kingdom, and profess Christ Crucified.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz