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Tribute to Catholic Charities’ board chair to fund SafetyNet

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Gifts of the Magi open diocese’s Golden Jubilee year

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Catholic trends mirror society’s, but vision is different

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placeholder February 6, 2012   •   VOL. 50, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Gifts of the Magi open
diocese’s Golden Jubilee year

[Editor’s note: This is a slightly edited version of the homily preached by Bishop Emeritus John S. Cummins on the Jan. 8 Feast of the Epiphany in the Cathedral of Christ the Light. The year 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Oakland.]

By Bishop Emeritus John S. Cummins


This Eucharistic celebration of the Epiphany of Our Lord becomes a fitting feast to open this 50th anniversary year of the founding of our Oakland Diocese. Memory bonds our golden jubilee with the Magi. From memory the Magi drew the expectation of the birth of a special king, that birth to be marked by a sign in nature.

The Magi were an important story for the early Church. Seemingly, Matthew was writing for his own community, which had accepted substantial numbers of Gentile peoples. Tensions arose between the two groups, about which of the inherited Jewish customs were obligatory. We recall the spirited conversations between St. Paul and St. Peter.

The story of the Magi tells of good-willed, gentlemanly scholars from the exotic, mysterious East. They not only read the sign in nature but followed as well the scriptural promise to Bethlehem. Meanwhile, the assembled Scribes and Pharisees had the word but did not let it bring them to life. Matthew’s story is a compliment to the Gentiles.

The early Church embraced devotion to the Magi, who went through some romanticizing. By Tertullian’s time at the end of the second century they are regarded as kings. In the 400s, the emperor brought relics attributed to the Magi from Persia to Constantinople. By the Middle Ages the Magi had a number, and the three royal personages even had names: Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. Early artworks show great diversity of age and ethnicity.

Along with romanticizing, however, there developed a poetic and catechetical interpretation of the Magi — much more to our purpose today, namely, the poetic imagination related to the three gifts. St. Irenaeus in the Second Century saw the gifts instructing us on the life and mission of Jesus. Gold announced his kingship over all creation. Incense signified his divine nature. Myrrh associated with burial indicated a redeemer who would suffer and die.

The gifts taught the faithful about their responsibilities for Christian living. For one commentator, gold symbolized rich virtue and incense with its fragrant smoke ascending signified prayer. Myrrh reminded the faithful of cross and suffering endemic to Christian life.

A North African theologian, a contemporary of St. Augustine, saw gold as the wisdom of faith, by which one can believe the divine utterances correctly. Incense reflected the works of mercy, which the Lord has set before sacrifice. Myrrh became mortification rising above worldly values out of love for Jesus Christ.

Vatican II began in ’62


A Polish teenager presents wine for the Eucharist to Bishop Cummins at the Mass during a day-long cultural celebration of the Oakland diocese at St. Monica Church in Moraga in October 1993.
john wright photo

A variation from that heritage serves our golden jubilee reflection: Gold signifies the divine and our reaching to that divinity through prayer. Incense carries respected reverence and touches the demands of charity. Myrrh is the fragrance overcoming death — hope with theme of resurrection.

Gold draws our attention to the manner in which we reach and touch God, especially through prayer and worship. For the last half century we have had the blessing of the Second Vatican Council which started the same year as the Diocese of Oakland. The Council’s first document focused on public prayer and worship, favored by the council bishops by an overwhelming vote of 2,147 to 4. Profound and pervasively reformed liturgy has marked our diocese for this half century.

Key renewal concerned the Mass, untouched for five centuries. The role of Scripture was enlarged and with it the restoration of the traditional understanding of the Eucharist as both table of Sacrament and table of Word.

Most notable, Mass was now celebrated in the language of the people. I remember the emotional thrill at the first example Bishop Floyd Begin offered with us at St. Francis de Sales Cathedral. Looking back, no one was aware that the old cathedral would become such a sign of acceptance and warm embrace of the new liturgy by the people of our diocese.

In many ways the timing of vernacular language suited us well. Bishop Begin had established five ethnic centers in his time. Through the leadership of Father George Crespin as chancellor and Sister Felicia Sarati as ethnic coordinator, the five went to 15. Liturgical inculturation was an extraordinary blessing.

We welcomed people from various lands, including Eritrea. Father Donald MacKinnon, one of our Redemptorist priests and native of the diocese, along with Holy Family Sister Micaela O’Connor learned the language of Khmuu refugees from Laos, serving our own Khmuu as well as developing from this community persons who rose to national leadership. We welcomed the change of language. Only later did we realize the difficulty when a parish required two, three, four vernaculars.

I would add more than a word about Sacred Scripture. The rich development in biblical awareness since the Second Vatican Council has been well received. Only people my age remember that the first part of the Mass was not regarded as even needed to fulfill what we called, in those days, “Sunday obligation.” In these intervening years we have learned the traditional understanding of the presence of God in the Word, as St. Paul pointed out so sharply.

With that came the important role of lector. Preaching loomed in importance and raised high expectations, even preaching at daily Mass. Beyond the Mass, Scripture moved with ease to enrich much of our prayer. Scripture was woven into catechesis. It became the focus of study for so many of our people.

Newer forms of prayer arose — charismatic prayer, lectio divina, centering prayer. There were courses on Ignatian Spirituality as well as Carmelite and Dominican. Happily, San Damiano Retreat House in Danville, which opened one year before the diocese did, offered varied opportunities for prayer and reflection, joining the welcome of the Mission San Jose Dominican Sisters for Taize prayer along with the invitation from the Holy Family Sisters in Mission San Jose to promote religious experience for our people.

Along with the new, Marian devotions remained, with the rosary prominent along with devotions, such as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe grew greatly. Our Lady of Lavang was also introduced to us. The devotional Marian patterns of our ethnic people 19 years ago brought us together for the first gathering of the annual Chatauqua celebration on the feast of the Assumption.

As a postscript, we became accustomed to ministries at the altar. These were lectors and Eucharistic ministers and acolytes, no longer known as “altar boys.” Piety was enriched by the service of Eucharistic ministers, especially in bringing Communion to the homebound. Beyond that, we note the fruitful ministry of permanent deacons, unhesitatingly established by Bishop Begin.

Dignity of the person


The development of so many ministries leads us to a poetic reflection on incense. We not only incense the table of the altar, which represents Christ; we also incense persons. It is a sign of respect and reverence. A theme traceable to the Second Vatican Council becomes explicit through the teachings of Pope John Paul II, namely, the dignity and the sacredness of the human person.

The steady and prayerful upholding of the sacredness of life in the womb, spoken of in the Second Vatican Council as an unspeakable violation if not protected, has been the clearest witness by the Church. The diocese has been blessed to have had Sister Maureen Webb of Holy Names University. Scientifically and politically competent, she established our Respect Life Office, extending concern to threats to the life of the elderly or the ill and reflecting the clarity of Pope John Paul II on the immorality of capital punishment.

Dignity of person is a foundational heritage pointing our attention to those among us in need. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, long and well established in the East Bay, carried a national reputation even in my college years. It moved beyond parish work and even thrift shops after the Second Vatican Council. With patriarchs, such as Michael Hester and Cyril Gilfether among so many, the society opened a dining room for the homeless and needy and Casa Vincentia and rehabilitation work for released prisoners.

In the 1960s, Professor Raymond Sontag from the University of California History Department, keynote speaker at the welcome for Bishop Floyd Begin, remarked with passion that racial division had brought down empires. It was he who prevailed on the bishop to establish the Catholic Interracial Council. The advent of the AIDS epidemic stirred Mother Teresa’s Brothers from Southern California to help form here a center of care and concern — in recent times carried on quietly by Providence House. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet reached out to homeless women.

At the institutional level, Bishop Begin and Monsignor John McCracken, inspired by renewed vision after the council, enlarged the older patterns of Catholic Charities. Its outreach became more flexible and adaptable, opening up new services and closing down those that had served their purpose. The proud work of resettlement and welcome of refugees has marked our diocese. At one time we also responded to the needs in Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley.

The very sophisticated Mercy Sisters Housing program came to our rescue after the 1989 earthquake. Steady attention was given to the role of inner-city education. Important initiatives in adult literacy and care of marginal young students came through the efforts of the Sisters of the Holy Names and the Christian Brothers of St. John Baptist de La Salle, two of the pioneering religious communities serving in this diocese for more than a century.

The Vatican Council stressed the dignity of people in need but also reminded us to recognize the dignity of those of mature talent. Thus grew the diversity of consultative bodies at the level of parish and of diocese. Committed to pastoral direction and finance, the pattern did not develop without resistance, but it is indeed a holy work.

Before its time through the recommendation of the senate of priests and the work of Father Brian Joyce, we developed a Diocesan Pastoral Council composed of priests, religious and largely laity. A gathering of 400 people at Holy Names University in 1983 promoted five priorities. They stressed lay leadership, youth, social justice, education and evangelization.

What surprised me somewhat was the united emphasis on social justice. Perhaps it should not have since what the delegates promoted was a century-old teaching of the Church. The council identified inner-city schools as a matter of justice, and Catholic hospitals in their pursuit of universal health care, also St. Vincent de Paul Society in its work with prisoners. Credit for this consciousness must be given to congregations of religious men and women, who developed such awareness as part of their ministries.

Dignity of person related as well to new roles in church government. What once was the realm of clergy became much more diffuse. I remember one day at a meeting of department heads in our chancery office. Almost without notice there were more laity than clergy and more women than men directing education, charities, the diocesan newspaper, community relations, canon law and the role of chancellor. Parish administration because of immediate need fell to deacons, to religious women, to lay men and women, to whom the diocese owes great appreciation.

Old pattern was holy


Such developments affected relations on the question of authority and obedience. Again the example and instruction from our religious men and women opened up the understanding of discernment. The old pattern of authority and obedience was holy, “not to be mocked by caricature,” as one delegate said so well, but the present insight into the will of God in community had to give full play to mature freedom.

Again by way of postscript, dignity of person included those beyond the Church. The Second Vatican Council in a strong document required Catholics to embrace their fellow Christians in prayer and dialogue. Clergy began to prepare homilies together. The teaching of Scripture was in common as well as ecumenical prayer services.

Bishop Begin modeled much of this. Four months after his arrival and shortly before he traveled to Rome for the first session of the Vatican Council, he invited 150 Protestant ministers and their spouses to the Claremont Hotel for dinner. He did so only, as he told them, because he loved them — words remembered through the half century.

Also ecumenically significant, he of all the California bishops was the one who witnessed and promoted the development of Roman Catholic participation in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The GTU is a singular experiment in training Christian leaders across denominational lines, leaders who were enriched by resources, generously made available by accord with the renowned University of California.

Bishop Begin as well assimilated the words of the council calling for new relations with Judaism. A famous picture was his preaching from the pulpit of Oakland’s Temple Sinai at the request of the popular and renowned Rabbi William Stern. The bishop might have been surprised that within relatively few years we would have mosques in our diocesan neighborhoods along with the opportunity for promoting dialogue and understanding with our Muslim neighbors.

Lastly, the poetry of myrrh is associated with burial. We remember Mary Magdalene and the other Mary coming to the tomb on Easter morning with their spices. The fragrance of perfume stood against the odor of death and decay. For Christians it would translate to resurrection and therefore hope.

And hope is an indispensable virtue for us in the run-up to our Golden Jubilee year. Violence in our city, not unrelated to growing poverty, has called for the best in diocesan pastoral leadership, a leadership undoubtedly wounded by the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Added to that were the natural disasters, the Oakland fire and the heroism of Msgr. Bernard Moran and the Parish of St. Teresa’s. In addition to its human toll, the earthquake destroyed two churches but the centrality of cathedral experience in the diocese enabled the rebuilding of Sacred Heart Church and the inspiration of the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

We face difficult economic times in 2012. We note the effect on parish life and the challenge for parish leadership. We remember the recession of 1989 which dislodged so many careers, especially in the San Ramon Valley. We recall jobs lost with the almost simultaneous closing of Ford and General Motors factories plus the 30,000 military positions lost in the Bay Area with the demise of bases. More than faceless statistics, these were jobs lost and careers affected by our parishioners and neighbors.

The Vatican Council’s document on the Church in the Modern World urged broad Christian responsibility for issues of family life, for war and peace, for economic morality and human culture. The document cast the light of the Gospel on all human society. This ambitious burden or responsibility was met by the last of the directives from our diocesan pastoral council, namely evangelization.

Our response as a people begins with ourselves. In the decade of the ‘90s, parishes engaged in the RENEW program, some groups of which are still meeting, reflecting and praying. Twice we developed strategic plans for the sake of religious renewal. Youth ministry added experience to instruction and made catechetics real by organizing service activities.

We are on the edge of the developments so long spoken of by Pope John Paul II and now by Pope Benedict XVI, calling for “new evangelization.” That program will be in our midst in a short time. Our experience as a diocese should have prepared us well for this.

In conclusion, we look over the 50 years not as a question of whether it was the best of times or whether it was the worst of times. The Vatican Council pointed us to see it as our time.

In this connection I remember an evening at St. Cornelius Parish in Richmond at the ordination of a priest. Bishop Begin began his homily with praise for hope. He indicated that we were like the butterfly coming out of the cocoon with perhaps moist wings but clear of the vision to come.

With St. Paul it would serve us well to remember in this holy year those who have gone before us, who brought us the faith. It will be a Golden Jubilee year to remember and therefore refresh us as to who we are. The words of Samuel Johnson, a pious and wise observer of society some centuries ago, indicated that we need not so much by way of instruction, we just need reminders.

 

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