Address of Bishop Nicholas James Samra
at the Dinner Event following his Enthronment as Bishop and Shepherd of Newton
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
A number of years ago, a good friend, a bishop now deceased, greeted his people at his installation in a unique way. “When you go to a restaurant a waiter comes over to your table and says, ‘Hi, I am Henry and I’ll be your server.’” Allow me to borrow these words and say to all of you: “Hi, I’m Nicholas, and I’ll be your server.”
I stand here today in my new role, your eparchial bishop as of several hours ago. Truly the ceremonies were glorious since you were present to witness another era in our Church. I am extremely grateful for the small committee who put all these plans into reality especially Deacon Paul Leonarczyk, Eparchial Chancellor, Saideh Dagher, Eparchial Secretary, Deacon Abe Zeinieh and Deacon John Moses of our Cathedral Parish and Ron Kfoury. Their work and all who assisted them is truly worthy of great applause.
I am grateful for my Episcopal predecessors, Arch-bishop Cyril Bustros and Bishop John Elya, here with us today and who have served this eparchy so well. And lest we forget our departed Bishops upon which this Eparchy was founded and developed: Bishop Justin Najmy, Archbishop Joseph Tawil and Bishop Ignatius Ghattas. I particularly remembered them in today’s Liturgy.
Since my appointment on June 6 by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI upon the recommendation of our Melkite Synod and immediately after the public announcement on June 15, many have asked me “what are your plans?” and “what is your vision for this Eparchy?” I now share with you my personal vision which I hope and pray will become your vision also and I ask for your support and prayers in effecting these ideas into reality. These are my priorities:
Vocations is number one! We are on a shoe-string of clergy to serve our Church as priests. We are grateful for our ancestors – priests and laity and bishops who came from the Middle East and brought us to where we are presently. But now we have come of age and we need priests from among our people in this American Melkite Church. Since 1971 we have been blessed with 59 Deacons at the present time, but only one priest to be ordained next year.
On my many visits to our parishes and missions when I was Auxiliary Bishop, so many people exclaimed “send us a priest for our new mission.” My response was gentle and clear: “the priest tree hasn’t ripened yet.” They would look at me confused and I would ask them, “don’t priests grow on trees?” No, my friends, they do not. Priests come from you and the faith of your communities. I beg you to pray more and to encourage your young men to listen for God’s call. You need to foster vocations in your homes, not to block them. Speak well about your priests. We are all human and sinners. And if all your children hear is a litany of complaints about your pastors, why would they even want to become priests. Be positive and encourage your young men to consider God’s call, and of course your young ladies too who may feel a call to religious life.
In our parishes we need a stronger spiritualized laity. By Baptism and Chrismation you are part of the royal priesthood – you are anointed and ordained to be other “Christs” in the world. Your role is not just to cook and bake meat and spinach pies, or just clean the Church: you share with the ordained priests and deacons to evangelize Christ and bring more people into His Body – the Church.
I hope to expand and focus on adult formation in every parish and in particular to expand our Deacon Formation Program to bring in the laity for spiritual formation. We are using Ana Maria College near Worcester, MA for the deacon formation and we have plenty of space to bring in the laity and add also to our teachers for your spiritual formation. There are so many more spiritual roles for you, our faithful, and your involvement will free up our priests from many secular tasks.
Our Churches were founded by our grandparents and great grandparents from the Middle East and we are proud of their accomplishments and proud of who we are. However, the Melkite Church is not an ethnic or social club, it is a Church open to all.
We have roots in every country in the Middle East and yet we are one people. In this blessed country we have had many inter- marriages from other cultures and people, and our Church has broken the bonds of ethnicity. We need to wipe out ethnic and social club Churches and convert them to spiritual homes for anyone who chooses to be Melkite- not just Middle Easterners.
For too many years we have run our churches on man-made ways and thinking. We need to go back now to God’s plan of stewardship – giving back to him our time, our talents and yes, even our treasures as He gives to us in abundance. Stewardship is not a program; it is a way of life. God asks that we return to him our all, and at least 10% of our treasure or money too! He gives us abundant life; our thanksgiving in return cannot be cheap but in the great proportion as He gives us! Fund raising techniques and gambling are not God’s way. The money is in our pockets. Would you accept to send your children through your neighborhood selling raffles and paying your bills from the profit? No! I doubt it tremendously. Then why do we expect our Churches to do so; if the Church is your spiritual home, then you are responsible for its bills.
The Gospel is “good news”. And it is our task to preach and live it. It is not just the job of the priest. It is yours too by your incorporation in the Body of Christ – the Church. Evangelization is necessary for ourselves and for outreach to so many fallen away Catholics and the “unchurched”.
In 1970 Archbishop Joseph Tawil wrote a Christmas pastoral letter titled “The Courage to be Ourselves”. He emphasized that although a small Church in America, Melkites should never accept being a minority. He said a minority is just a way of thinking – a wrong way in fact. We are proud to be inheritors of the Christian East and America needs us – the Christian easterners in this country – to be proud of our traditions and never fear living them. We are unique, different from the Latin or Roman traditions, but still Catholic. The West needs the Eastern Churches to be truly Catholic. Never be ashamed of who you are. This pastoral of Archbishop Tawil has been even printed, translated and reprinted by many non-Melkites. It is still alive today. We re-emphasize it now and we will live it.
To be Church, the clergy need the laity and the laity need the clergy – we are one and must walk together. Parishes, especially parish councils should not be power seeking, or contentious bodies fighting for control over the clergy. And clergy need not look for power over the people of God. We all have different opinions on many matters but we can agree to disagree and stop the power struggles. Again this is another reason for developing the spirituality of the laity.
Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have opened wide the doors to ecumenism. For over 900 years Catholics and Orthodox barely spoke to each other. We need to re-establish our dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, especially of the Antiochian tradition. It existed under Archbishop Tawil and now it is time to resurface it. We are the same people-broken by history, and we will not throw the blame on each other. The break was caused more by political disunity. We need to become closer so that when unity takes place, we are one Church. Do I believe unity can take place? Most assuredly. If God could break the clutches of communism overnight, he can certainly break the pride of many overzealous church leaders and bring back unity to His body.
God calls men and women to religious vocations. And I believe he also calls married men to priesthood. We need to study this situation in our country and develop the proper formation for men who are truly deemed worthy of this call. The Deacon Formation Program is a good program; however is not the backdoor to priesthood. Married men who are called to priesthood need the same formation as those celibates who are called. I have already discussed this issue with those involved in priestly formation and hopefully soon we can see the growth of properly formed married clergy. Of course there are also major financial issues to be looked at and we will embark on this also.
I began my talk with vocations and I end with it also. We need priests for your sanctification and the mysteries of the Church. Seminary formation is a must – please send us vocations. The Church is in our hands, mine and yours. Together we build His Body.
Let me paraphrase the words of the famous Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, whose words were paraphrased by one of our great presidents, John F. Kennedy. And now my personal paraphrase: “Ask not what your Church can do for you, ask what you can do for your Church”.
Don’t hold back the gifts of the Holy Spirit. You are the Church of Antioch – and yes! Church of Antioch in America wake up and make it work.