At the beginning of this month, Father John Stowe was installed as the new bishop of Lexington’s Roman Catholic diocese. As such he embodies the long reach of Pope Francis, who, in his Apostolic Exhortation, ‘The Joy of the Gospel” (JG) announced his determination to fundamentally reform the church.
There the pope said, “In this Exhortation, I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon . . . new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come” (JG 1). Francis called for “. . . conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are” (25).
Early returns indicate that in Bishop Stowe, Pope Francis has appointed a change agent like himself intent on implementing the pope’s program whose essence might be described as prioritizing the needs of the poor.
That prioritization was presaged even before Bishop Stowe’s official installation on May 5th. It was evident the night before at the vespers ceremony and reception at Christ the King Cathedral in Lexington, where the bishop-elect showed himself to be a master of symbolic communication.
In fact, the new bishop has sent at least seven clear signals that he and the pope are on the same page and that Lexingtonians can expect a welcome emphasis on social justice themes.
During the ceremony, then bishop-elect Stowe:
- Announced a “new chapter” for the Catholic Church in Lexington. The phrase, which appears in the first paragraph of Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel,” was evidently chosen to indicate the bishop’s endorsement of the pope’s agenda.
- Said that the new chapter would emphasize service of the poor. Yes, worship would also be prioritized, he promised. However, even liturgy could never ignore poverty in our midst.
- Demonstrated that conviction by prioritizing Spanish (the language of so many of the poor among us) throughout the vespers liturgy – in readings, responsorials, and hymns. In his own remarks, then Bishop-elect Stowe spoke each paragraph first in English and then in Spanish translation. At other times, his initial thought came in Spanish followed immediately by an English translation.
- Invoked the example of Jesus as the foundation for emphasizing service of the poor. Jesus himself was impoverished, the bishop said. He was an working man, a carpenter with dirty hands who enjoyed friendship with fishermen and sinners. He accompanied the oppressed and finished his life as a criminal on death row. The authenticity of Jesus’ resurrected presence was certified by display of his body wounded by imperial forces.
- Specifically identified other excluded and marginalized groups as the focus of his ministry: overlooked Appalachians, refugees from the Congo, the sexually abused (a clear reference to the Church’s pedophilic scandal), and exploited workers. The church, Bishop Stowe said, must identify with brothers and sisters of that kind or “it isn’t much of a church.”
Outside the vespers introductory ceremony, it was disclosed that Bishop Stowe:
- Has a special devotion to Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, who is considered the patron saint of liberation theology – which interprets Jesus’ gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed.
- Has decided to abandon residence in the plush quarters of the episcopal mansion. Instead he’s locating among his confreres in a community of retired priests.
It is this last action, more than the others, that signals Bishop Stowe’s intention to channel Pope Francis for us not just in words, but in deeds and life-style.
These are seven good reasons to hope that the new bishop will indeed not “leave things as they presently are.”