Your Eminence Cardinal Simonis, your excellencies Archbishop Msgr. Eijk, Msgr. Van den Hende and Msgr. Hurkmans, and all brother bishops, priests, deacons, all workers in pastoral care, beloved religious, honoured Commisioner van de Donk, honoured Mayor van der Velden, honoured Governor Tieskens, representatives of parishes, dear family, and all brothers and sisters in Christ,
It is a remarkably short Gospel reading, but it contains, as indeed always, exactly enough for today. When it starts with the words “In those days Jesus said to his disciples” it may seem as if Jesus, without cause, broached all kinds of subjects with his disciples. But of course there is a context for every text, a situation in which the words are placed, and which can help to better understand them. Let’s start with that context. Preceding the short Gospel is a statement about scribes and Pharisees. We know scribes and Pharisees. To us it seems as if the Gospel has two parties: one the one side the good, Jesus and His disciples, and on the other side the bad, the scribes and Pharisees. That is a heavily distorted image and also a very illogical one. About Himself, Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it. The scribes who know the Law well, and the Pharisees who work for a strict adherence to it, would then be the natural allies of Jesus. But they are not. Jesus heavily criticises them. Jesus levels a double reproach against them: (1) what they tell others to do, they do not do themselves, and (2) what they do, they do out of ambition, not for God. That is what precedes this short Gospel reading.
Now, it’s always easy to criticise, it’s easy to overthrow something, but then you must do it better yourself. And exactly that is what this short Gospel is about. Jesus knows that there are great dangers inherent to leadership and responsibility; human authorities can lose track, can derail. When Jesus unmasks that, He does so to shed a better light on true authority, He shows how it can be done and how it should be done, according to Him. In that, He is very radical: we are all unconditionally under God: one Master, one Father for all. No one is exempt: to God all are equal.
Jesus then summarises it in these words: “The greatest among you must be your servant”. And what being a servant then exactly means, He has shown very convincingly because He has given His life. He gives His life for His disciples, who He has come to call His friends. And even more than friends: He calls them family: My mother, my brother and my sister – He says – are they who do they will of God. Jesus is servant of people’s joy to the end: gives His life; His criticism is therefore not limited to words, but He actually shows how it has to be otherwise. To be servants of the happiness of one another, according to God’s plan. In the Church, that goes for all without exception.
That, I think, dear people, is the key for us to understand what brings us here together today. The Diocese of Breda gets a new bishop. What does that mean? It ultimately means that God, in His love, gives us to each other. Through a decision from the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, a diocese and its new bishop come together. Of course, human work also came to bear, but in the Church we believe that the Hoy Spirit guides the decisions of the pope, and the results are always joyful when we devote ourselves to – as Jesus calls it – do the will of God. And concretely it means for us: to be servants of each other’s happiness according to God’s plan.
The first thing that is required for that, is getting to know each other. Our lives are part of salvation history, a plan which God has started, a plan which Jesus gave a decisive turn by being servant until the end and therefore a plan that continues into our time. The history of salvation is a great adventure. People have experienced great things in that plan of God’s. Mary never expected to be the mother of the Saviour, but she agreed to the adventure and through her yes and her obedience to God she became a servant to the happiness of the entire world. World history took another turn because of her and a New Covenant was created. In their time, all the saints took that adventurous step to be a part of God’s plan of salvation. In the Church’s liturgical calendar we commemorate today Saint Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Dominican. A great man: great in scholarship, greater still in modesty and tireless servitude. The Church still enjoys the fruits of his personal effort. And we in the 21st century, you and I, we are now part of this history of salvation and it is now our adventure. I for one do not pretend to be worthy of this service of being a bishop, but I want to trust God’s wisdom, who works through people and I want to begin his adventure to get to know the diocese and be a servant of the salvation that God wants to give us.
“The greatest among you must be your servant” A second aspect of being a servant is that we take Jesus’ criticism on the religious leaders of His time to heart and that means: that we first do ourselves what we want the other to do, and that what we do then, we do for our own honour and fame, but out of love for God and the other. That sounds simple and logical, but it is a great challenge. It is actually always true, but in our time it seems to be more true than in other times: As Church we are facing serious challenger and there are no simple solutions. It is good, the, to hold on to who we are. Our identity is not decided by criticism from people who do not like us or the Church. What we will do together in the months and years ahead of us, how we will answer the challenges of our time, that will decide who we really are. To accept the challenge of our time means to always begin with what is absolutely certain: with Christ, with His love for us, which He has proven by giving His life, and which makes us a Church, always to begin with Christ who is the only one who can enable us to follow Him.
As Church we therefore continuously celebrate the Eucharist: That is truly, as the Second Vatican Council called it, source and summit of our lives as faithful. To participate in the Eucharist requires every time that we make a clear choice: for Christ, for each other, and that we always draw the consequences from it for a life of service. May God grant us that.