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A Word From Bishop Medley: Can it be that God dwells on Earth?

Editor’s note: On Feb. 17, 2020, the Diocese of Owensboro gathered at St. Stephen Cathedral for a vespers service in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Bishop Medley’s episcopal ordination. The bishop’s homily, which he gave at the service, is reprinted below.

“Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below; you keep your covenant of mercy with your servants who are faithful to you with their whole heart. Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!” Solomon speaks these words of praise and thanksgiving on the occasion of the dedication of the great temple. A dream come true. Decades they dreamed of the temple – and their greatest king of all, David, could not make it happen. Decades more they planned and labored. Its construction and its dedication the pinnacle of Solomon’s glorious reign.

Tens of thousands had labored for years to create what was to be the grandest edifice of the entire world known to the Israelites. And it was splendid to behold. And it is not with disappointment or letdown that Solomon acknowledges that this magnificent temple cannot contain the mystery, the might, the magnificence of God.

In fact, after these decades of design and labor and skill, one might even sense that Solomon is relieved that the endeavors of human ingenuity have but glimpsed the grandeur of God. He acclaims the obvious: “there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below,” and yet, “you keep your covenant of mercy your servants.”

So, even in the midst of great human accomplishment, it is all about God. Here we stand in our cathedral, our 21st century temple, and we gather God’s people from across 32 counties, 78 parishes, 60,000+ strong faithful Catholics, schools and universities, convents and religious houses, retreat centers and youth camps, shelters and pantries and all that we represent cannot contain a God who cannot be contained in heaven and on earth.

And thus Solomon asks, “Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?” And for generation after generation and century after century faith-filled people have answered, “Yes.” God can dwell on earth. God does dwell on the earth.

This reading from the Second Book of Kings was proclaimed in this cathedral on the eve of my ordination as bishop ten years ago. Perhaps I can speak this evening of how this reading spoke to me in 2010. Those of you who know me personally surely know that as much as I love ritual and celebration I am not altogether comfortable if I feel like the celebration is about me. And it is a challenge to be in the midst of the Church, having been called to be a bishop by Pope Benedict XVI, and not be tempted to feel like it is about me.

But upon my appointment I began to study the Church’s ancient rituals for the ordination of a bishop and could see clearly that whenever the Church prays it is about God and the community that is always coming to know God.

“Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth below;  you keep your covenant of mercy with your servants who are faithful to you with their whole heart. Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?”

So it is that we need reminders that the splendor and glory of creation, that the greatest of human accomplishments are but manifestations of a God who dwells on earth.

Ten years ago I stood in this place before you to promise that I understand that I had been sent, I had been called to serve. It is indeed a humbling moment in my life and priesthood to come to this temple, this cathedral, built of human hands and representing the temples built of human lives and to know that I was called to serve you as your bishop. And this night I stand with deep gratitude that God and you, have permitted me the blessings of ten years.

Naturally I faced an awesome learning curve. So many things that I thought I knew about the Diocese of Owensboro – but true as they were and are – there were so many parts of the story for me to discover. Catholicism in western Kentucky is a story of pioneer Catholics spreading across this vast region bearing little more than their faith and striving to build churches and schools. And for all the building none can contain the glory of God. None can house the Almighty God.

The vast parts of our story have unfolded before me. Very soon I realized the extraordinary blessings being visited upon our diocese, indeed our nation, by the continuing influx of new peoples. Pilgrims, pioneers like most of our ancestors. Peoples today who often do not look like the descendants of Europeans who came to America as a land of promise and hope and opportunity. It is a sign that God surely dwells in this land that still peoples come for that same reason.

The early Catholics on the Kentucky frontier were often here – in a genuine wilderness – because no one else wanted them. More than 200 years later we can appreciate that blessing. But it did not make frontier life easy.

All across the world oppressed and struggling peoples are seeking new homes because of violence and despair and want. Pope Francis pleads almost daily and challenges that nations of the earth where we are free to recognize and proclaim the dwelling place of God will welcome refugees and migrants.

In recent years and even recent weeks I have traveled to represent you to Catholics sustaining our church from afar. We have priests serving our diocese from Mexico, Guatemala, Nigeria, the Congo, Kenya, India and Myanmar. Without the gift of priesthood these ancient churches send us today we could not be celebrating the Mass and the sacraments across our diocese. Many churches would have to be closed without them. Too often when we see refugees and migrants our nation calculates a cost to us. Those who have eyes to see must see that the debt is ours. And I certainly am not just talking about the priests – but the witness to faith and confidence in God that these tens of thousands of new sisters and brothers bring our Church.

“Can it be that God dwells on the earth?” Yes, yes, and we can see and experience this every day.

In 2017 I visited Mexico and encountered the Church there – most notably at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe where on any given day tens of thousands of faithful come in prayer and marvel that through St. Juan Diego our holy Blessed Mother found a way to remind suffering people that God dwells on the earth.

Just last week I returned from pastoral visits to India and Myanmar. The purpose of my travel was to express gratitude for what these cultures share with our Catholic Church in this diocese. I was received into the homes and at the tables of the families of  our priests and seminarians as a celebrity. Again, that’s not my nature- but in prayer I humbly come to know that to them a bishop from another part of the world was the face of Christ to them. That is my vocation with them and with you. Undeserving as I am of such distinction – that is the experience of Church. On February 9 I was received at a parish church by more than one thousand people singing and dancing and bearing gifts. Their Church, without pews or chairs, seated probably 800 – sitting on the floor young and old alike. But the men, woman and children stood six and eight deep outside around the windows to listen to the word of God. There can be no mistaking God indeed dwells on the earth.

One of the great sadness of our Church in our day are well observed statistics of the decline in Church life and sacramental participation. Hardly a week passes that some parent or grandparent does not speak to me of the consternation that their children and grandchildren are not in and with the church. We can examine this to death. We live well in the United States. When we live well, the age old temptation is to believe that we have achieved everything on our own- and thus God is pushed further and further aside.  Surely God dwells on the earth- but if we do not have eyes to see.

When I see the crowds overflowing at churches in India and Myanmar I find great hope. Jesus’ great commissioning was to go to all nations and proclaim His word and to baptize. Over 2000 years the Church has done this. The Christian population of both India and Myanmar is very small-perhaps 2-3 %. Yet what marvels God has wrought that faithful believers from these countries – where it is not always easy to be Christian as a tiny minority – are today going forth to evangelize the world.

Thus Solomon’s question: “Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?” And down through the ages we have answered his question with a resounding yes. From the first verses of the first book of the bible we are reminded that we have been created in the image and likeness of God, little less than a God according to the psalmist. And it is this marvel that has driven men and women to build altars, temples, churches and shrines to the greater glory of God. The most primitive of peoples identified sacred spaces, marked those places, made pilgrimage to those places and adorned those places as holy. It is more than mere ritual and tradition that drives us to light a sanctuary lamp or strike a bell where we may encounter the person of God. It is our essence as human beings.

One of my favorite memories of the rites of my ordination happened here on the ordination eve. Bishop John McRaith blessed several objects that would become important insignia of my new office and calling. My ring, my miter and crozier. Also that evening I signed at the altar a profession of faith and an oath of fidelity. In my office today is a picture of Bishop McRaith and Sr. Joseph Angela Boone witnessing this moment. They remind me of those who were at my side ten years ago and not tonight. My mother and my brother, David. Archbishop Thomas Kelly. Everyone here misses someone who was with them ten years ago. But if God dwells on the earth, these dearly beloved are not so far away.

While loved ones have passed from this world, all of us every year and every day encounter new people who remind us that God dwells on the earth. A bishop is called to be a father, a brother, and a friend to priests. I still strive to know how to do this – but I know that the blessings I receive far outweigh any I might hope to impart. The consecrated women of our diocese have been good and faithful servants and have taught me much. I am blessed with the faith and service of the staff of the Diocese of Owensboro. Only a couple of generations ago their service and ministries were almost always carried out by priests. And with humility and gratitude we have found that they can be done even better. And the faithful Catholics across this diocese inspire me and give me hope. I am especially proud of the four thousand young people I have confirmed, so pleased that God has used me to bring to them the gifts of the Holy Spirit. At least four thousand times I have laid my hands upon the heads of young people to call upon God’s Holy Spirit to enter them. God does indeed dwell on the earth.

If God dwells on the earth we can hardly pray that we do not acknowledge Mary, the Mother of God. Ten years ago as my head was spinning with the attention and lauds visited upon me found my greatest inspiration was Mary. Chosen to be the Mother of God she traveled in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth who greeted her, “Blessed are young among women.” Might that go to your head? And in her beautiful responding prayer Mary says something that might sound conceited. She says, “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” Look at me. I am special. But instantly her perspective is gained, “The Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is God’s Name.”

These profound words of Mary have been my motto as a bishop. “Holy is God’s Name” lest I ever should forget that God is the source and giver of all good gifts I pray only that those gifts bestowed upon me and this local church will always answer the human longing, “Can it be that God dwells on the earth?” Yes, yes, yes.

Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro

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