HOUMA, La. – Speaking to a Houma-Thibodaux community that intimately understands the power of water to sustain life and livelihood, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre told his new flock Oct. 30 that Jesus’ command to his apostles to cast their nets into the deep resonates 2,000 years later as Christians face an increasingly secular culture searching for answers.
Inside a packed St. Francis de Sales Cathedral in Houma, Bishop Fabre, 50, was installed as the fourth bishop of Houma-Thibodaux by Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the United States who was representing Pope Francis.
The former auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, who served as vicar general and moderator of the curia in the archdiocese for 6 1/2 years, succeeds Bishop Sam G. Jacobs, Houma-Thibodaux’s bishop since 2003.
Bishop Fabre entered the cathedral to the strains of “All Creatures of Our God and King” and walked past his mother Theresa, 85, who was seated in the front pew along with other family members.
Bayou Lafourche, 65 miles long, often is referred to as the longest “Main Street” in the world, and Catholic churches sprouted up on either side of the fisherman’s highway for decades.
In thanking the priests and the lay faithful of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese for warmly welcoming him, Bishop Fabre said he was playfully challenged by one of diocese’s 16 seminarians during a pre-installation gathering if he was prepared to “take a pirogue ride” down Bayou Lafourche “just as Père (Charles) Menard had probably done (in the 1840s) when he first brought the faith to this area and established many of the church parishes. Since I could not swim, that would be an interesting ride,” he joked, getting laughter from the congregation.
What Père Menard modeled
As he read the history of the diocese, Bishop Fabre marveled at the perseverance of Père Menard. He said it was particularly appropriate to recall those efforts to spread the Catholic faith two days before All Saints’ Day.
“I must admit that as I have been driving along the bayous in my initial ventures into the diocese, I actually envisioned Père Menard and our other ancestors in faith traveling along the bayous by pirogue and bringing the presence and comfort of the church to so many,” Bishop Fabre said.
Before Bishop Fabre was formally escorted to the cathedra – the bishop’s chair – Archbishop Virganò urged him to stay close to his people.
Citing Pope Francis’ admonition that priests should have the “odor of sheep,” Archbishop Viganò said, glancing over at Bishop Fabre, “A bishop should stand in the midst of his people. People want to see their bishop walk with them and be near them.”
The journey in faith, he said, “begins with a call from the Lord.”
The Gospel reading for his Installation Mass was Luke 5:1-11, which provides one of the most extensive accounts of Jesus calling his first disciples.
In the encounter, Peter, James and John have been fishing all night with nothing to show for it.
“From the shallows, near the seashore, Jesus in essence tells them to trust in his word and challenges them to fish the deep, to go where they would not usually go,” Bishop Fabre said. “Peter trusts the Lord’s command given to him, and because of his surrender Peter witnesses a miraculous catch of fish.”
Bishop Fabre said that just as the first apostles were overwhelmed with anxiety and even hunger, quite often the “call of the Lord” comes when “we are most overwhelmed by life’s cares and concerns.”
“However,” he said, “if we completely surrender ourselves to the call of the Lord, we can find refuge in whatever way he assures us of his love, in whatever manner the miraculous catch of fish manifests itself for us, in the great or small ways that God assures us that he is worthy of our trust.”
There is a “personal” and a “communal” response to Jesus’ love, Bishop Fabre said.
It is personal when Jesus asks us to go deeper into “those experiences where we find our fears, disappointments and fatigue, to those places in our lives that may seem to us to be too overwhelming for spoken words.”
“Peter knew that he was an expert fisherman, but apart from Jesus Christ that night his efforts came to nothing,” Bishop Fabre said. “Jesus makes it clear that in addition to expertise, what is always needed is a strong, trusting faith in him that guides our actions.”
The communal dimension of Jesus’ call may be even more important now than ever, Bishop Fabre said.
“As we examine the many needs of our culture and society today, perhaps it can seem to us as though the deep has never been this ‘deep’ before,” he said.
Referring back to his episcopal motto – “Comfort My People” – that was taken from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, Bishop Fabre said it is up to the church to “bring the comfort of Christ to those people and situations known to us and those people and situations that are new to us.”
Bishop Fabre specifically mentioned some of those challenges: increasing secularism, poverty, struggling marriages and difficult family relationships, disregard for human life and attacks on religious freedom.
Bishop Fabre praised the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese’s cultural diversity, and he prayed that responding to God’s call individually and collectively would strengthen the local church.
“What a blessing to join together as individuals and as the church in Houma-Thibodaux to respond in trust to God’s call to go out into the deep,” Bishop Fabre said. “We can therefore expect the miraculous blessings promised to those who recognize that what is needed is not always expertise, but rather simple, trusting faith.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.