Bishop Shelton Joseph Fabre is one of 10 active black Catholic bishops in the United States. The Baton Rouge, La., native was installed Oct. 30 as bishop of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana, which neighbors the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where he has served more than six years as auxiliary bishop.
Shortly before his move to Houma and as the U.S. Church prepared for Black Catholic History Month in November, the Register’s editor in chief, Jeanette De Melo, spoke with Bishop Fabre about his episcopal work, his vocation and the role of the African-American community in the life of the Church.
You began your work in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina. What are the changes you’ve seen in the city?
Most of them have been, naturally, changes with regard to rebuilding. It’s been wonderful to see some of the areas that, when I got here, were still devastated; and to see those areas, day by day, rejuvenated and come back to life has been a real grace.
The other thing is to see people’s response to challenge and great suffering and to be a part of helping people to integrate that prayerfully and spiritually and go on to heal from it.
The other side of it is to see the tremendous goodness of humanity. By that I mean to be a part of countless young people who came to New Orleans to clean a house or help a family … just to come because they knew there was a need.
What I’ve appreciated during my time in New Orleans is: the physical rebuilding, healing the lives of people after devastation and the awareness of the need for healing that still exists; but it has also been the kindness, love of the people who just came to help people.
What do you look forward to in your new diocese?
I am looking forward to the people. I have been very warmly welcomed.
I am looking forward to being a part of the faith journey of the people. I know they have a lot to teach me, and I hope I have a lot to teach them. I am open to the faith life that they share with me.
Can you share with us your vocation story?
My first remembrance of wanting to be a priest was when my pastor in New Roads [La.] said to me, "You should be a priest." But he told all the altar boys that. He probably didn’t remember, but I remembered. For whatever reason, it stuck with me.
I tried high-school seminary. I was there only three days, and I was very homesick, so I went back home and went to Catholic high school in New Roads; and I really set aside everything.
My junior year in high school, my brother, just above me, died of leukemia in 1980. (My oldest brother drowned in 1973.) … Experiences like that cause you to deal with the meaning and the role of suffering. And as I thought and prayed with my family through the death of another child, I started to wonder if I’d given priesthood a chance. Part of me wondered if going back to the seminary I might get answers to questions. I decided to go back. I went to college seminary, and here I am today.
I went to St. Joseph’s Benedictine Abbey [Seminary College in St. Benedict, La.]. Everyone who goes to St. Ben’s learns how to pray.
Then I went to the American College at Louvain [Belgium] and had a wonderful experience there. If the monks taught me how to pray, the American College taught me the theology I would need to think with the mind and heart of the Church, and I loved my time there.
Like many priests today, I had to wear many hats to accomplish the mission of the Church. I was a pastor in a large inner-city parish, and that was wonderful; and then I got called to be auxiliary bishop here in New Orleans, and that was a transition from being directly involved in parish ministry to assisting pastors in their need to enrich the faith life of the people. That was a transition that took me a while to learn.
I was telling people, jokingly: I think now I can let go of being a pastor, let go of parish ministry … and embrace this wonderful call to be a bishop. Six months after I let go, now I am moving to the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, where I will be the ordinary.
God knows what he is doing. I trust him. And I am grateful, in a sense that I had grown fully into my ministry as a bishop. Poked and prodded by the Lord, guided by Archbishop [Gregory] Aymond and Archbishop [Alfred] Hughes and formed by the people of New Orleans, I go now to Houma-Thibodaux as a grown-up bishop.
You are one of a few black Catholic bishops in the country. What does your appointment as a bishop of your own diocese mean for the black Catholic community?
The black Catholic community is a very faithful community. They love their priests and religious. They love all priests and religious. I know they are very proud of the black bishops. That shows they are integrated into every part of the Church.
I like to say African-American Catholics are a people of the book and of the sacraments of the Church. The stories of sacred Scripture, of God leading his people from slavery to freedom and being faithful, speak very loudly to them. There is a strength that comes from the sacraments and being rooted in our ancestors, the saints. There is also the importance of community and, again within that context, a real appreciation for worship (not that other communities don’t have it). [But for them] there’s a real focus on worship on Sundays, and worship takes as long as it takes. Those are wonderful gifts they have for the Church.
When John Paul II came to New Orleans, he met with black Catholics, and he encouraged them to share their gifts with the Church; and I think they do that.
Are there saints who have encouraged you along your way?
Two saints: My baptismal patron is St. Joseph. I love St. Joseph. … I think, personality wise, we are a lot alike. I tend to be shy and reserved. He never speaks in Scripture. There is a desire to do what God wants him to do quietly, without fanfare, but just do what God asks him to do. With my reserve and shy nature, I prefer to accomplish it that way. … When he is done, he just fades away, and that would be my desire when I am done: just to fade away.
[Then there’s] St. Augustine. He is patron of my home parish. He is an African bishop. He struggled in faith and came to know the Lord. He is one of the greatest theological minds the Church has ever known. He is not perfect. He had his faults and failures, as do I. He attempted to learn all he could about faith. The symbol of St. Augustine is on my coat of arms to honor my home parish and to honor all African-American Catholics who are so faithful.
What have we learned from the civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King, which celebrated 50 years this year?
I think we have learned that the issues have a personal component, and we come to understand them more fully when we meet someone who has lived through injustice or suffered through injustice. … When we encounter one another and allow heart to speak to heart, we can figure a way out of it together. We can embrace a call to justice together.
I think we have learned that we have accomplished a lot. I think we have learned we have a lot left to accomplish. There is no denying that.
Bishop Fabre, your episcopal motto is very pastoral. Can you explain it?
"Comfort my people" — that has always spoken loudly to me, from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, the first verse. In my experience as a child, having lived through the tragic death of one brother and the painful suffering of another brother … I lived through the comfort the relatives and priests and people of the parish showed to my family at that time. Though it was painful, it was not our burden to bear alone, and I always appreciated that. It was an important part of the Church for me, although the Church is far more than that.
Really, it is God’s desire for everyone to abide in his peace, present for everyone, such that it is comforting. A parent teaches values to a child. A parent may need to steer the child in the right direction, but a child always, whether they recognize it or not, takes great comfort that the parent is there. That’s what God does for us.
In the busyness of my life, of trying to respond administratively and in other ways to people’s needs, sometimes the response to bring comfort can be lost. Because the other things can press themselves up on you, when it comes to comforting people, it is something we have to take the initiative to do. It is a challenge I give to myself: to always remember that is a part of who I am as a bishop, as a priest and as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis would likely agree with you.
I think he would.