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Service is the highest calling of every Christian

Archbishop Wenski's reflection at conferral of 65th anniversary papal and archdiocesan honors

Archbishop Thomas Wenski delivered this reflection during the archdiocese’s 65th anniversary vespers during which he awarded papal and diocesan honors to more than 200 local Catholics. The vespers took place at St. Mary Cathedral, Oct. 22, 2023.

Here in South Florida, the Holy Spirit continues to breathe life into that portion of the Body of Christ that is the Archdiocese of Miami. Our diocese was established by Pope Pius XII on October 7, 1958. At the time, Florida, especially South Florida was growing – thanks in part to the wider availability of air conditioning and the return of thousands of veterans who had taken their basic training on Miami Beach during World War II. But then just months after the establishment of the diocese came the Cuban Revolution. And Miami’s growth – and the pastoral challenges of this young diocese – increased exponentially. The rest, they say, is history.

As some of the overflow crowd sit behind him in the sanctuary, Archbishop Thomas Wenski preaches his reflection during the vespers where he awarded papal and archdiocesan honors to more than 200 people, Oct. 22, 2023.

Photographer: COURTESY | Sr. Elizabeth Worley

As some of the overflow crowd sit behind him in the sanctuary, Archbishop Thomas Wenski preaches his reflection during the vespers where he awarded papal and archdiocesan honors to more than 200 people, Oct. 22, 2023.

65 years later – we are still growing and making history. The pastoral challenges of receiving and welcoming newcomers to our Church are no less urgent today than when the diocese began in 1958.

The history of this archdiocese – like any history forged by fallen human beings – is full of lights and shadows. Yet, despite the shortcomings and foibles of her human members, the Church of God has continued to spread and grow here in South Florida. And, thanks to the Holy Spirit, always present in the Church, who could deny that these past 40 years have been years of grace? We can look back on these years – and on the bishops, priests, religious and the members of Christ’s faithful – with great gratitude. They have served the Church in this area well in daunting times.

And today we wish to recognize members of Christ’s faithful with papal or archdiocesan honors during this celebration of solemn vespers. Now papal honors are the ones given by the pope, and we have several members being honored by the pope with special honors. The Order of St. Gregory the Great, with Promotions, the cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontificeand the papal medal Benemerenti. Now the papal medal Benemerenti is not just given to Catholics, but it can be given to others who have made a significant contribution to this community. So one of the honorees this evening is Judge Steven Leifman, who has done great work here in South Florida in decriminalizing homelessness and reaching out to the homeless, basically giving them hope for new and better life.

All our honorees have distinguished themselves in many different ways. But they are honored not because they are different from the rest of us here. They are not different from the rest of the parishioners back in our parishes. We honor them because they are representative of the dedication and the devotion that so well characterizes the parishioners of this local Church.

Of course, the Gospel tells us not to aspire to the “highest places.” And so, as Christians, none of us should seek recognition for doing what Jesus asks of us. Jesus himself was always among us as “one who serves.” If we can associate the words, “Christian” and “ambition,” it should only be when “Christian ambition” describes the Christian’s passion to serve. For “service” is the highest calling of every Christian. Even the pope – who is the “highest” figure in the hierarchy of the Church – is rightly called the Servus servorum Dei, the Servant of the Servants of God.

In the Church, the greatest title or “honor” we can receive is that of the name “Christian.” That title is given to us in baptism. As Christians, we aspire to become what we already are in baptism, namely children of God and coheirs with Christ to the promises of his Kingdom. This is our greatest dignity – but the Church does often honor her members, and rightly so, with titles and recognitions that, while not as significant as the name “Christian,” do serve to illuminate for us the different paths that Christian service can lead someone to as he or she responds to that universal vocation of our baptism to holiness.

Those who receive papal honors this evening have distinguished themselves for their service to the Church and the broader community. Others will receive the Primum Regnum Dei award, instituted by the first Archbishop of Miami to honor those for their service in the archdiocese as a whole; and of course, two parishioners from each of our parishes in the archdiocese who were recommended by their pastors will be honored with the Jubilee Cross.

Tonight is an opportunity for us as a community of faith, hope and love to express our gratitude to God for the gifts he gives us – individually and collectively. In honoring the contributions of these members of our local Church, we remind ourselves that all these gifts are given not for personal reward but for the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ. And so, our gratitude for what has been done in the name of Christ with the help of his Holy Spirit, leads us to embrace the challenges of the present and the future with enthusiasm and confidence. After 65 years, our most urgent challenge remains that of communicating the joy born of faith and the experience of God’s love to our families, our parishes, and our communities.