DETROIT — Bishop Daniel Flores, 45, of South Texas, the former rector of Corpus Christi Cathedral, became the youngest bishop in the United States when he was ordained auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit on Nov. 29. Less than two weeks later, Pope Benedict XVI named an even younger man to be bishop: Father Shelton Fabre, 43, a priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La., as the next auxiliary bishop for New Orleans.
Earlier in 2006 two other priests in their 40s became bishops: Alexander Sample, of the Diocese of Marquette, Mich., and Daniel Thomas, auxiliary of Philadelphia. What these four men have in common is that the first 20 or more years of their formation and priestly life were lived under the papacy of John Paul II. Additionally, they are joining the U.S. episcopate at a time of serious moral challenge.
Bishop Flores discussed his formation and new challenges in an interview with Register correspondent Ellen Rossini.
What influence did John Paul II have on your decision to become a priest?
I was discerning a vocation toward the end of my high school years. At that time, prior to thinking about the priesthood, I was thinking about the law as a career. Pope Paul VI died in 1978, and I had just finished a Search retreat. John Paul II was elected, and his pastoral style manifested itself as he began to speak and travel. This corresponded to a desire I had to look for a vocation that would call out in me a complete dedication. I saw in him that lively dedication that was very attractive.
Which of his charisms meant the most to you personally?
His pastoral charity. I was always impressed at the beginning of his pontificate with his ability to speak the truth clearly and without any rancor. It didn’t always find a favorable reception, yet he spoke with great charity. What he did was to preach and teach with no compromise to the faith, yet with a great sense of compassion for the human condition. We are in need of a Redeemer. Our weaknesses are many, yet our Redeemer is great.
Which of his writings meant the most to you as a priest and pastor?
His first encyclical Redemptor Hominis had a longstanding impact, and set the charter for his pontificate, that the life of the Church is a continuation of the work of the Redeemer.
Another writing that impacted me is the apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris [The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering]. It talked about illness and the meaning of human suffering and is still a text we can go back to and meditate on very frequently. He seemed to have a tremendous compassion about how any kind of suffering unites us to Christ and that there is great dignity in that. The modern world tends to see suffering as meaningless and that those who suffer have nothing to offer us.
This (document) was rooted in his contemplative spirituality. The assassination attempt happened when I was still in college. For a kid of about 20, that made a big impact on my mind. His act of visiting the would-be assassin was particularly impactful for a young person.
Fides et Ratio [The Relationship Between Faith and Reason] is an extremely important document, and the current Holy Father is carrying forward that theme. And anything John Paul II wrote about the Eucharist, I devoured. His focus on the Eucharist was crucial in helping me keep the Eucharist central in my time in seminary. I used to tell the seminarians, “Gentlemen, you must have a personal relationship with Jesus in the Eucharist, or you will not survive the priesthood.”
You have to have an ongoing conversation with Christ based upon the reading of the Gospel and personal colloquy with Christ. Adoration of the sacrament and visits to the sacrament make it possible for us to have that in an intimate way. That’s where preaching comes from, that’s where the sense of the importance of acting according to the mind of faith, the whole evangelical mission of the Church, comes from.
One of the chief crises of recent years has been the clergy sex abuse scandal, and the underlying issue of homosexuality in the priesthood. What are your reflections on this issue and how do you as bishop intend to address it?
When I was a vocation director, one of the things that struck me about many of the men in seminary is the quality of the men who are stepping forward. They show a great love of the Church and a great dedication. That’s an important dynamic of grace that’s going on right now.
A bishop’s responsibility is that you’ve got to know your seminary, how it works, select very good faculty who are well formed in the teaching of the Church in regard to what constitutes a suitable candidate and to support the faculty in those judgments. The bishop needs to know the seminarians, who’s applying, and get at the heart of the motivation for serving the priesthood. The Vatican instruction of 2005 [“Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Sacred Orders”] is a very clear guidance to bishops and seminaries.
No one has a right to ordination, but the Church has an obligation to make the discernment as to who is suitable. That is the responsibility of the whole Church, but the bishop in particular has to do everything he can to encourage men who are willing to dedicate themselves heart, mind and soul to the mission of the Church (and not those with) any other agenda, selfish motivation or seeking to be served.
The nuptial meaning of Christ’s relationship to the Church theologically is the first thing.
Christ is the groom who offers himself up. To be able to relate to the mission of Christ requires (the priest to say), “I am in Christ, who is the groom.”
The kind of man who would make a good husband and father is the kind of man we want in the priesthood, the same kind of selfless love. That’s at the heart of the Church’s understanding of the mission of the priest. We don’t have a religious vocation crisis so much; what we’re having is a deeper challenge with regard to forming generous vocations, period. The stresses on the priesthood are the same stresses on married life.
Ellen Rossini is based in