Homily for the episcopal ordination of Mgr Rafic Nahra

By: Pierbattista Pizzaballa - Published: April 30 Sat, 2022

Homily for the episcopal ordination of Mgr Rafic Nahra Available in the following languages:

Most Reverend Excellencies,

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Dear Mgr Rafic,

May the Lord give you peace!

"Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" ... "Feed my lambs" ... "Tend my sheep" (Jn 21:15,17).

This brief and intense dialogue between the Risen Lord and Peter holds the meaning of what we are celebrating here today. Jesus gives Peter a new mandate: to shepherd the flock of God. This mandate comes with a single condition: to love Jesus.

Peter has experienced failure: he has betrayed the Lord, denied Him three times. It is not by chance that in today's Gospel he renews his promise of love to the Risen Christ three times. Peter's betrayal, infidelities and fears are not an obstacle to the mission entrusted to him; they did not upset the Risen One. In a certain sense, Jesus, in today's Gospel, entrusts Himself to Peter, because He delivers into the hands of the fragile leader of the Apostles the mandate to make known to the whole world the face of God. Jesus wants, from now on, to be known and encountered precisely through the testimony of these fearful and so "human" disciples. Primarily he wants them to be filled with the Holy Spirit, that is, to be united to Him, to love Him. The rest comes later.

Today, dear Rafic, you too are given by the Church the mandate to shepherd the flock of God. Today you too are being united to the mission of Peter and the Apostles, that of becoming the first witness of the Risen Lord. Before your anointing, you will be asked only one thing: do you really love Him? In spite of your small and great betrayals, in spite of the limitations that you certainly have experienced during these years, in spite of everything, in short, the Church today asks only one thing of you: do you love the Lord? Above all else, this is the testimony that the Church expects from you.

I am sure that during these weeks of preparation, following the announcement of your appointment, you have read much about the meaning of being a bishop, and much will have been said to you. We know that it should primarily be a pastoral office. But we also know that much of your time will be taken up by the administrative aspects that come with such an appointment. Knowing you, I know you will do as little of that as possible. I imagine we will see you more in parishes, schools and various other meeting places. We hope so.

Allow me, then, to add my own reflection to the ones you have certainly already made and received. Just one; a brief one.

A bishop must certainly be a good administrator; he must certainly be present in the pastoral, social and political life of the people entrusted to him; he must know how to guide the flock of God in the life of the Church; he must teach and he must keep the faith intact; in short, he must know how to deal with the different instances of ecclesial life and of the society in which the Church is inserted, defending the rights of God and of man. This is clear.

But above all, he must learn to be a "father".

A father first of all for the priests. The identity of priests is constitutively linked to that of the bishops. A priest cannot thrive alone. His ministry descends from and is linked to that of his bishop. His mandate, his pastoral service, his mission in the Church makes sense as long as he is united to his bishop. Ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia. The Church is formed around the bishop, it is true, but it is his first collaborators, the priests, who make the mission of the bishop visible and tangible. So, love them, as the Lord has loved you. It will not always be reciprocal, and you will not always be understood, as Jesus was not with his own. But this must not become an excuse to stop your love. Be present among them, make them feel that you are there and that you love them. The rest will follow. The pastoral life of the Church will be all the more effective the more it is founded on a true relationship of Christian friendship between a bishop and his priests.

Be also a "father" to all the faithful. Do not create too many barriers between you and the people. A certain distance is sometimes necessary, to preserve your own inner freedom and not let yourself be overwhelmed by the situations you can sometimes be exposed to. It will be important, however, to find the right balance, the one that leaves you open, without making distinctions or preferences, to the many needs of the faithful, to their requests, even if there are sometimes untimely, exaggerated or difficult. Make sure that everyone feels you are close to them, present, capable of sincere listening. This will make you vulnerable, and will often make you feel powerless, because you will be unable to respond to the many needs they will bring to you. But it is a vulnerability that you need, because it will remind you that your mission, your service, your mandate are not your prerogative, your possession. They are entrusted to you, and it is to the Lord that you must entrust in prayer much of what is handed over to you. In this way, you will learn to share, and not to feel that you alone are responsible for the mission.

Do not confuse "fatherhood" with simple "friendship". The father is more than a friend. Being a father involves knowing how to generate: first of all the faith, but also the life in the Church. You will have to learn to teach priests and the faithful to grow and become solid adults in the Church, to teach them to pray and to experience the Word of God. But you will also have to learn to correct mistakes, to call to obedience, to say the necessary "yes" and "no," and – above all – to teach forgiveness by forgiving. The love of God that you have experienced is first and foremost forgiveness received. And as it was for Peter in today's Gospel, so may it be for you: may everyone, priest, faithful, religious, anyone, in short, who encounters you, feel heard, loved, forgiven; may anyone, through you, experience God's listening, forgiveness and love.

Your episcopal ministry will be expressed in a specific context: Israeli society. It is a complex world and, like all our different pastoral realities, it is experiencing profound change, with many difficulties and tensions. I give you only a few indications:

  • Christian formation. I am not sure that our catechisms, our schools, our various pastoral initiatives are capable, today, of adequately teaching Christian faith to our young and not so young. There is much talk of "identity" these days, especially in the complicated social context in which you are called to operate. I am convinced that it is Christian formation, knowledge of one's faith, and a solid religious identity that precede and build a solid social and political identity, and not the opposite. It will be your task to help our Church to identify, in this particular pastoral region of ours, forms and paths of formation suited to our times and to our young people, in order to make them capable of dealing, as Christian adults, with Israel's multireligious and multicultural society. At the same time, I must also add that I am convinced that pastoral strategies will remain useless if they are not accompanied by a sincere and true witness of faith, which must be first of all yours and that of the priests.
  • Young people. I have met several times groups and movements of young people. It is not true that they are all far from the Church, or that they are not interested in religious reflection and faith. There is also a sincere desire to experience, to encounter the Risen Lord. Perhaps young people today are not interested in speeches about Jesus, religious theories, or abstract discourses. They are looking for a credible witness. Today the Risen One is encountered above all through witnesses.
  • Finally, I perceive among our faithful a sincere desire of participation. Know how to involve everyone in the life of the Church. We are on a synodal path, where there is much talk of participation. Let it not be just a formal exercise to respond to the requests of the ecclesiastical authority to fill in some questionnaire.

Synodality and participation are the way of being of the Church. We said earlier, ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia. We can add that the bishop alone does not make the Church. Nor does the priest alone make the parish. Nor do the faithful, without the pastors, make the Church. It is certainly much simpler and more efficient to decide for oneself, to direct and command. But in the end, it is also a sterile way, which does not generate life in the Church, because it does not make us encounter Christ. Help, therefore, this part of our Church of Jerusalem, on which we count so much, to become a truly great and beautiful community, who participate, where communion and sharing become little by little a tangible reality.

Dear Rafic,

The whole Church in Jerusalem gathers around you today. May your episcopal ministry, which begins today, become a source of life, joy and resurrection for that part of the Church of Jerusalem that is in Israel. May all see in you a reflection of that love between the Risen Lord and Peter, which today's Gospel has presented to us.

By her obedience, the Virgin Mary made possible in this Holy Place the work of Redemption. May she intercede for you, accompany you with her maternal blessing and make you a collaborator in the Redemption.


†Pierbattista Pizzaballa

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem