An Oblate Parish: St. John Neumann at 40
I am honored to be asked to preach on this very happy occasion of the 40th anniversary of a very remarkable parish!
St. John Neumann is an Oblate parish. But what exactly is an Oblate parish? That’s the question I will try to answer tonight. And the answer to that question begins with our Oblate charism, or our specific contribution to the spiritual richness of the universal church. The charism of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales calls for all Oblates to live and share the spiritual legacy of St. Francis de Sales with all those whom they serve in whatever apostolate.
Specifically, all Oblates are called to live Jesus, and particularly to minister to others in the manner in which Jesus himself, gentle and humble of heart, ministered to those he served. Thus, their approach is to be among you as one who serves –not in any way lording it over you, but collaborating with you in a common effort to preach the Gospel with both clarity and conviction; to administer the sacraments at life’s major moments; and to reach out to others beyond the doors of this Church in concrete acts of compassion and kindness.
Ministering in a Salesian manner by living Jesus expresses itself in many ways, among which are the following: (1) ministering in a joyful and optimistic manner; (2) having a genuine and deep respect for those we serve; (3) celebrating diversity, (4) fostering lay collaboration and empowerment, and (5) reaching out to the poor and those on the periphery.
- The joyful optimism of Salesian spirituality is based on the strong conviction that God’s love for creation and the human family and each one of us by name is what prompted the Incarnation. Jesus came among us to crown and complete creation and –because of the Fall–to save it as well. Thus, it was God’s love that prompted the Incarnation, not sin. This starting point is the source of our approach to salvation history and our focus on winning hearts to God through love, not fear. Joyful optimism, often in quiet and unassuming ways, colors everything in an Oblate parish, from preaching to our very manner of ministering among you.
- We Oblates respect and honor every individual as the holy image of God. This leads us to place the emphasis on “winning hearts” through love and persuasion, never force. We believe this is how God has acted with us by sending us Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, as well as the Holy Spirit who, as love, has been poured into the hearts of all believers. Like Francis, we begin by winning hearts and, in doing so, we hope to win the whole person to freely give themselves to God’s love and to a foot-washing service of God’s people. We Oblates urge, persuade, and coax, but we never force. Our approach to everything is this:” “All through love, nothing through force.” That was good enough for Jesus and St. Francis de Sales, and it is good enough for us.
- We Oblates celebrate diversity. We do not see diversity and differences as sources for division, but rather as reasons to search for a deeper and richer union among us. Francis de Sales so respected union within diversity that he invented a word to describe it: “unidiverse:” “union within diversity.” He sees union within diversity in the incredible variety of creation itself and, therefore, as somehow a characteristic of God himself. Unity within diversity is, thus, to be honored, celebrated, and fostered. We do not want or need to be carbon copies of one another. I know you have seen that diversity reflected in the personalities of all the Oblates who have served here over the past 40 years and in all those who serve here now. We are not carbon copies of one another. Far from it. Yet, within all that diversity, there is a deep unity. In every Oblate there is that certain something that defines them us as Salesian, as Oblate. This is true of all our parishes and apostolates as well. An Oblate parish may be in Southwest Florida or the Outer Banks or in Camden or Cape May or Wilmington, North Carolina or Wilmington, Delaware, or northern Virginia…If you visit any of those parishes or any of our schools or other apostolates, you will recognize that certain something that makes that apostolate an Oblate apostolate!
- Francis de Sales spent his entire life and considerable talents in an effort to empower the laity to assume their rightful place within the Church. In that spirit, an Oblate parish fosters and celebrates collaborative efforts between clergy and people. We minister together, with one heart and a common purpose. After Jesus urged us to learn from him as gentle and humble of heart, he asked us to take upon ourselves his yoke, promising us that we would find it light and easy. I love the image of the yoke. A yoke is a wooden structure that links two animals in a common effort. They pull together and work as one. Yoked to Jesus, we are unequal partners. It is Jesus who does the yeoman’s part of the work, but he takes what little effort we expend and multiples it a hundred-fold! We Oblates try to live Jesus, yoked with him in our efforts to bring the joy of his Gospel to those we serve. He does the yeoman’s work but his grace multiplies our efforts a hundred-fold. We encourage those we serve to live Jesus as well and, like us, to be yoked with him in the practice of virtue and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Yoked with Jesus, we –together—can do great things!
- Jesus was criticized for his association with sinners, the poor, the outcast and those on the margins of society. The Church at large and every local parish imitate that outreach of Jesus by a preferential option for the poor, for those the Old Testament calls “the anawim.” God has always shown a particular love for those on the margins. So has St. John Neumann’s parish. You have shared your talent, treasure and time to work for the happiness of others, especially for those on the margins. Thank you for that!
The characteristics of: joyful optimism, respect for all, a celebration of diversity, a dedication to lay collaboration and empowerment, and outreach to the poor and those on the margins constitute the characteristics of an Oblate parish. The parish of St. John Neumann –priests and people—have lived Jesus in just this way for 40 years. And you have only just begun!
May God, who has begun this good work in you, may he himself bring it to perfection!
May God be praised!