(Editor's Note: The following is text of the homily given by the Most Rev. Joseph R. Cistone during the opening Mass for the diocesan 75th anniversary year of celebration. The Mass was celebrated at the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption in Saginaw on Saturday, September 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To view a photo album from the Mass click here.)
Today we commemorate the Birth of Mary, the Mother of God and our own Blessed Mother. As we observe Mary’s birthday, we also begin our year-long celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the birth of the Diocese of Saginaw.
On February 26, 1938, Pope Pius XI separated 16 counties from the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Diocese of Grand Rapids, and formed a new Catholic community, with the city of Saginaw as its center. On that same day, His Holiness appointed Monsignor William Murphy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, as the first Bishop of this beloved Diocese, and entrusted to him and his successors the privilege and awesome responsibility of forming a people of faith in the image of Jesus Christ.
Our year of celebration will be prayerfully brought to conclusion on August 15, 2013, the Solemnity of the Assumption, our patronal feast. With Mary as the model for us as both individual Christians and as a Church, there is so much that we can learn from her life.
The scriptures tell us nothing of the birth of Mary, nor of her childhood. The fact of her Immaculate Conception is a belief which, over time, became clear from the devotion of the people themselves and affirmed by the Magisterium. Our first introduction to Mary comes at the moment of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she would “conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus and He will be called Son of the Most High…” In a mystical sense, at that moment, the Church was conceived in her womb. Truly, she is Mother of the Church. Upon her visit with Elizabeth, with a grateful heart and joyful anticipation, Mary exclaimed: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit finds joy in God my savior.”
After giving birth to Jesus, Mary and Joseph brought their child to the Temple in Jerusalem, to celebrate the joyful tradition of presenting their first born son to be consecrated to the Lord. In that same ceremony, Mary heard the prophetic words from the holy man Simeon: “…you, yourself, will be pierced with a sword.” Whatever Mary may have conceived her life to be as the mother of the Messiah, her call was given new meaning in this prophecy.
There would be many happy moments in Mary’s life, some of which are recalled in the Joyous and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Nevertheless, from that day forward, Mary’s trust in the providence of God would face new challenges. Why should the heart of the Savior’s mother, filled with nothing but love, suffer the pain and anxiety of a sword? We know of several ways in which Mary was involved in the mystery of her son’s life, some of which would test her faith as well as the peacefulness of her heart: their flight into Egypt, shortly after the Lord’s birth, to escape Herod’s order to slay the infants; the time Jesus was lost and they searched for Him for days, only to find Him teaching in the Temple; the first miracle performed by Jesus in Cana at the bequest of His mother; and, the seeming rebuff from Jesus when, having been told His mother was outside, he exclaimed: “Who are my mother and my brothers? …Whoever does the will of God.”
But, perhaps the greatest test to Mary’s faith and trust in the providence of God came as she accompanied her Son on His way to Calvary and – standing at the foot of the cross - watched Him die. Even when the twelve men whom Jesus chose to be His friends and closest collaborators lost all faith and courage, Mary’s faith never faltered. “Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.”
Just as her son, conceived in her womb, had to suffer and die in order to rise in glory, so too would Mary suffer. So, also, would the Church, conceived in her womb and born on Pentecost, experience suffering on its pilgrimage to glory.
Nearly 75 years ago, to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population, the Diocese of Saginaw was born. In those early days as an infant Diocese, history tells us that there was a mixture of joys and sorrows, anxieties and consolations, challenges and successes. Born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when the securities of faith, family, society, employment and economic stability were dramatically shaken, the faithful of the Diocese of Saginaw worked together to bring about a new community of faith, love and service.
In those early days, people were called upon to accept new ecclesiastical structures in their Catholic lives. They were asked to leave behind their allegiance to their former diocese to create an entirely new one. With the growth of the Catholic Church in this area, many were asked to set aside their long-standing and beloved loyalty to the parish of their childhood, in order to bond together with neighbors to form new parishes. In those years of economic uncertainty, the faithful of this infant Diocese responded willingly to support – spiritually, physically and financially - the mission of the Church. Families who previously built and supported one parish church, graciously sacrificed to create and support new ones. And, although it is often mistakenly said that “once upon a time, Catholic education was free,” that never was the case. The fact is that, together with dedicated priests and religious, hard-working people of all ages considered knowledge of the faith a priority and, with great sacrifice, gave of their means to establish and maintain Catholic schools. They did so in order to ensure that their Catholic Faith would be passed on from generation to generation and the work of the Church would continue.
Despite the hard times of the 1930’s and 40’s, as well as the feelings of disappointment and loss which many experienced due to the realignment of their parish churches, the faithful committed themselves to the hope of the future. Overwhelmed by such sentiments, some good people left the Church and, regrettably, turned away from the grace of the Holy Eucharist as well. Thankfully, the vast majority, though tempted to become discouraged by challenges associated with a new direction, remained faithful to the Church and her mission. The Eucharist became even more central to their lives.
Over the next 30 years, as a result of their commitment to the Church and evangelizing spirit, parish communities throughout the Diocese experienced steady growth. More numerous and larger families created the need for more parishes and schools as well as a new diocese. And so, in 1971, the Diocese of Gaylord was established and the boundaries of our Diocese were re-aligned. Many individuals and parish communities again found themselves being called to endure more change and to re-orient themselves to new structures and parish associations.
In more recent years, our Diocese, like other parts of Michigan, has experienced a steady decline in both the general and Catholic population. Instead of the need to expand, parishes and schools are faced with the need to consolidate structures and ministries.
This anniversary year affords us an opportunity to reflect upon the past and remember with love all the faithful people who have been a part of this wonderful Diocese, to celebrate the blessings we enjoy today, and to anticipate the blessings to come.
At the same time, the number one topic of discussion here in our local Church these days revolves around our process of Planning Tomorrow’s Parishes. Many thoughts and concerns, hopes and desires seem to be centered on the fate and future of our parish churches and communities. I understand the uncertainty and even anxiety of so many of our good and faithful people. I appreciate how difficult this process and its potential conclusions might be for many. Nonetheless, even before we embarked on this journey, I knew in my heart that this was the work of the Lord. And, together, we have placed this process in the hands of the Lord, fully confident of His guidance and the hopeful future which lies ahead.
Some had cautioned that undergoing such an extensive diocesan and parish study at this time might dampen our anniversary celebration. I believe the opposite is true. There is no better time for us to celebrate. We have much for which to be thankful. Ours is a history filled with grace and blessings. Time and time again, the faithful of this Diocese have demonstrated a zeal for bringing the love, compassion and teachings of Jesus to others. Now, once again, the Spirit is at work among us.
We must keep in mind that this local Church belongs to Christ. Its mission is only entrusted to us…a mission to evangelize, to bring the Good News to God’s people in word and deed, to reconcile sinners to the Lord, and to be a channel for the graces and promises which the Lord has in store for us who believe. While we reflect upon the past, our eyes must be fixed on the future of this great Diocese. In particular, we must focus on our young people and be willing to sacrifice a desire to hold on to what was and commit ourselves to all that can be. I am edified by so many of our young people and excited about the prospect that they are our future leaders.
Like Mary, we cannot readily see or appreciate what the Lord has in store for us. Like Mary, we can be certain that it will involve pain and glory, challenges and hope, darkness and light. And so, like Mary, we must trust in God’s extraordinary love for us and His care for our future. To this end, we find assurance in the words of Saint Paul to the Romans, proclaimed at this Mass: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
It is providential that our anniversary year coincides with the Year of Faith called for by Pope Benedict XVI. This Year of Faith extends from this October 11th to November 24, 2013. It embraces the 50th Anniversary of the beginning of Vatican Council II as well as the 20th Anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In my Pastoral Letter, A Future Full of Hope, issued last fall, I emphasized the centrality of these two important documents to our diocesan mission.
In announcing this Year of Faith, our Holy Father stated that the aim of this year “is to give renewed energy to the Church’s mission to lead men and women out of the desert in which they so often find themselves, and towards the place of life, towards friendship with Christ, who gives us life in all its fullness.” He said that we all need to “rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter of Christ;” that, “Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.” His Holiness proclaimed: “We want this year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope.”
On this feast of the Birthday of Mary, with grateful hearts and joyful anticipation, we begin our 75th Anniversary celebration by dedicating this year’s events and consecrating our desires to the loving heart of Mary our Mother. We give thanks to God for all that has been. We seek His guidance and protection in the challenges we face today. And, with the same joyful anticipation of Mary awaiting the birth of her Divine Son, our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord and our spirits find joy in God our savior as we look forward to a Future Full of Hope.