By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Applause? During Mass? In a Cathedral? Before that many bishops and an abbot?
It’s not supposed to happen, but the congregation that helped Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland celebrate the silver anniversary of his ordination as bishop on May 3 couldn’t help it.
They burst into applause three times.
The first happened as the bishop who served the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1993 to 2005 completed a stirring homily, despite the still lingering hoarseness of his successful fight last year against cancer of the vocal chords.
The second time happened just before the final blessing when his successor, Bishop Robert W. Finn, brought out a gold-plated Book of Gospels, decorated on the back cover with the coat of arms and motto of Bishop Boland, that will be used at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
The third time came when Bishop Boland, joking that he used to get the last word always as bishop, reminded the congregation that May 3 was the ninth anniversary of Bishop Finn’s ordination as bishop in the very cathedral in which they were gathered.
The 81-year-old Bishop Boland, who has also served 56 years as a priest, told the congregation that the anniversary of his actual date of ordination as Bishop of Birmingham, Ala., March 25, 1988, was unavailable this year because it fell during Holy Week.
So he deliberately chose the May 3 joint feast of two of the original bishops, the apostles St. Philip and St. James.
When he realized that it was also Bishop Finn’s anniversary, he said Bishop Finn was more than delighted to let Bishop Boland have the spotlight.
And after the applause subsided, Bishop Boland quipped, “Now Bishop Finn, you only have 16 more years to catch up.”
Bishop Finn, in presenting the Book of Gospels, told the congregation that it is difficult to buy presents for Bishop Boland because he always gives them away, especially money which always goes to the poor.
But the Book of Gospels given in his name at the cathedral that Bishop Boland served for a dozen years will be used for decades.
“For years to come, people will see this and people will say, ‘He came to us and he brought the Gospel,’” Bishop Finn said.
The Bishop Boland’s motto reads: “Euntes Docete Omnes Gentes” — Go and Teach All Nations.
“You have done that, and we are grateful,” Bishop Finn said.
The congregation included virtually every priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, several deacons, representatives of all four orders of knighthood in the diocese — Columbus, Peter Claver, Malta and Holy Sepulcher — and eight bishops and Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey.
In addition to Bishop Finn, the bishops were Bishop Boland’s brother, Bishop Emeritus J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga.; Bishop Boland’s successor in Birmingham, Bishop Emeritus David E. Foley; Bishop Emeritus George K. Fitzsimons of Salina, Kan., a former priest and auxiliary bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City; Bishop Emeritus John J. Liebrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher who served the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas at exactly the same time span that Bishop Boland served in Missouri.
Bishop Boland did not miss the opportunity to “Go and Teach All Nations.”
In a voice grown hoarse and weaker by a year of surgery and treatment to chase away the cancerous nodules found on his vocal chords, Bishop Boland nonetheless grew stronger in voice and conviction as the homily proceeded.
Giving thanks to his parents for “surviving for over four score years . . . on the right side of the grass,” Bishop Boland said he has not only been teaching, but learning as well.
“This bishop has learned a great deal over the past 25 years,” he said.
“Some experiences were painful, some were humiliating, but many were also deeply satisfying,” Bishop Boland said.
He cited three lessons that he has learned.
“The first lesson I learned is that one does not have to be a genius to be a bishop as long as one is smart enough to allow the Holy Spirit to do all the work,” Bishop Boland said.
“Believe me, the Holy Spirit can fashion the most magnificent of masterpieces from the bluntest of instruments,” he said.
“Looking back at the history of our church, I am absolutely and totally convinced that left to the machinations of mere human leadership, it would have disappeared long ago along with the dinosaur and the dodo bird were it not for the abiding presence of the Spirit; the Spirit who was there at the creation; the Spirit who facilitated the Incarnation; the Spirit of Pentecost who turned the scared and perplexed disciples into dynamic heralds of evangelization,” Bishop Boland said.
“We think of the unseen presence of the Spirit at councils and conclaves, but I can testify that he also cares for those of us who are incredibly fragile, too easily broken and vulnerable beyond belief,” he said.
“My second lesson was the further realization that faith is really the lifeblood of the church and the Eucharist is the heart which nourishes it,” Bishop Boland said.
He recalled St. Philip telling Jesus that the thousands who heard him speak all day had not eaten.
“You know what happened. Christ fed the multitudes more than abundantly, a reminder of the manna in the desert and a foretaste of what was to come,” Bishop Boland said.
Christ continues to feed the multitudes with the Eucharist, and by doing so abides in us, Bishop Boland said.
“He became our bread and literally placed himself in our hands,” Bishop Boland said.
“He also became, as Thomas Aquines put it so eloquently, ‘our pledge of future glory,’” he said.
“We can pray that when our time comes, he will recognize himself in us even though the resemblance may be less than convincing,” Bishop Boland said. “But remember, I told you he was merciful.”
Bishop Boland said his third lesson was the strengthing of a conviction he held since childhood — “namely, the indispensible role of Mary, Mother of God, in the daily life of her son’s church.”
He recalled the hesitancy of Jesus at Cana when Mary told him that wine for the wedding feast was running out. It marked the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and a time when both mother and son knew “he was about to leave his Nazareth home for good and future contacts would be minimal.”
“I have always believed that Jesus changed the water into wine in great abundance, it must be said, simply because he loved his mother and this gesture was a thank you to the one who had brought him into the world, formed his heart and opened his eyes to the wonders of creation and the needs of his neighbors,” Bishop Boland said.
“How could he resist the unspoken request of his mother and she knew it?” he said.
“Her directions to the waiters have taken on an eternal validity — ‘Do whatever he tells you’ — and wise are those who follow them,” Bishop Boland said.
“I can readily testify as both priest and bishop, Mary has never failed to respond positively to an appeal for help,” he said. “Apparently, she still has a lot of influence with her son.”
Bishop Boland concluded with “a message from Blessed Cardinal (John Henry) Newman.”
“He may not have written these words but he certainly made them his own. He reflected:
“‘There is an old Christian belief that
God sends each person into this world
With a special message to deliver,
With a special song to sing for others,
With a special act of love to bestow.
No one else can speak my message,
Or sing my song or offer my act of love.
These have been entrusted only to me.’”
“Now please,” Bishop Boland urged the congregation, “don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the good cardinal just meant this rather poetic message for himself or even for me.
“He had a wider audience in mind as he concluded: ‘So from my heart I want to say this to you: Please believe that you have an important message to deliver, you have a beautiful song to sing, an a unique act of love to warm and to brighten its darkness. And when the final history of this world is written, your message, your song and your love will be recorded gratefully and forever.’”