Taking a cue from the new bishop’s episcopal motto, Cardinal Jozef de Kesel spoke in his homily for the consecration of Bishop Lode Aerts of Bruges about the love of God, but also about the conversion needed to open ourselves for that love. And, with St. Augustine as an example, the newly-created cardinal emphasised that a bishop needs a second conversion.
“Dear friends, it is noteworthy that no Gospel begins with Jesus. It starts with John as a prophet in the desert. No Gospel comes straight to the point. Apparently, one can’t begin immediately. One has to be prepared. The terrain must be made made smooth. A inner transformation, a conversion, has to have taken place beforehand. And that is what John does: he calls for conversion. He calls people to the desert, which is traditionally the place of conversion. That is where everything began. That is where Israel found its vocation. There it became the People of God. There they found how valuable they were in God’s eyes. So that is where they have to return to. There is no way to Jesus than through that voice calling in the desert. Without that conversion, we won’t be able to hear Him.
Precisely for that reason, Jesus is so harsh for some Pharisees and certain Saducees. It is more about more about a mentality than about person. This mentality has lead to the conflict that made Jesus its victim. It is the mentality of those who do not conversion. Who are content with themselves and thank God that they are not like the others. The mentality of those who say, “There is nothing wrong with us, we have Abraham as our father!”
John’s call is also directed at us and the Church of today. We need conversion. We must get rid of self-assurance. It is a grace to us that Pope Francis continuously appeals to us for this. We must not fall back on ourselves. We must acknowledge our poverty and smallness. As long as we do not acknowledge this poverty, also in ourselves, Jesus has nothing to offer to us. They will also be Jesus’ first words: “Blessed are the poor of spirit!” It is the Spirit of the Messiah of which Isaiah speaks today. The Messiah, who is inspired by a spirit of deep humanity and sympathy. “He shall judge the poor with justice … strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth”. We must get rid of all complacency. Not a Church who is only occupied by herself, as Pope Francis requests. We have received the Gospel. It is our greatest treasure. But we did not earn it. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give”.
As long as you accept it is normal that another loves you, you do not know what love is. As long as you think that you have earned and have a right to that love, you do not know what you mean to another. Only when you have dropped all pretense and know you are being loved undeservedly, only then you know how valuable you are in the eyes of those who love you. That is what God asks of His Church and of us today, this conversion, this emptying and this poverty. It is what Charles de Foucauld searched for. Last Thursday it was one hundred years ago that he died. And Augustine also experienced it in his life. He searched God with all his heart. It took a long time. He had to give up certainties before being able to surrender himself. “Too late have I loved you, but then You called and shouted (!); You have broken through my deafness and touched my heart.” So he became a Christian and a great bishop.
But oddly enough, in order to become a bishop, Augustine had to convert also. A second time! He had to soul of a monk. Becoming a priest was not something he sought at all. When he finally was one, his fame spread. In one of his homilies he said to have had so much fear of becoming a bishop that he avoided going soemwhere where the seat was vacant. But in Hippo, which he passed, he did not take into account that Bishop Valerius was old and people were looking for a successor. There was no avoiding anymore: he became a bishop.
You are familiar with his writings. You know that, when he wrote or preached about being Christian, he always did so with great inspiration and enthusiasm. But when he discussed the office of the bishop, he was always somewhat more muted. He writes about very lively: about the burden and the weight and the pressure of that office. I am not telling you this to frighten you. It can also encourage and comfort you to know that Augustine also knew and experienced it. But most of all to tell you that these two can not be separated: being a Christian and being a bishop. One needs conversion for both. But they do spring from the same source: the faith that we are loved by God, “precious in His eyes”.
Christian and bishop. The latter can sometimes be a great burden. But the former always turns it into a great grace. For yourself and for the entire faith community of which you are now the shepherd. You will, as Pope Francis says, sometimes walk ahead, sometimes among the sheep, sometimes after them. But always together and united with them in love and suffering. Knowing that there are no rulers and servants, but that we are all brothers and sisters, friends of Jesus, children with God our Father. Paul says it today: “Accept each other as members of one community”. For you are called with your entire church community to proclaim God’s love. We will soon hear it on Christmas Eve: how God’s charity appeared when he shared our existence in Christ, man among men. He loved us so much. So precious in His eyes.”
Bishop Aerts was consecrated on Sunday afternoon by Cardinal de Kesel in Bruges’ San Salvator Cathedral. Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy and emeritus Bishop Arthur Luysterman served as co-consecrators, a logical choice as Bishop Aerts was a priest of that diocese (and dean of Ghent for a month until his appointment to Bruges.
Bishop Aerts’ motto is featured in his coat of arms and comes from the Book of Isaiah (a fitting choice for Advent, by the way). About it, the bishop writes:
“We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Everyone, believing or non-believing, exemplary or not, everyone is precious in the eyes of God. It comes from Isaiah, a passage about a people in exile. Somewhat comparable to today’s circumstances. A time of crisis, there is fear and insecurity. And there aren’t very many of them left, either. And precisely then God say, the prophet tells us, that they are precious in His eyes.”
Photo credit: [1, 2] Kurt Desplenter,  Bisdom Brugge