In his 60 years of priestly ministry, Cardinal Rigali has proclaimed the mercy of God and has been the instrument of His forgiveness
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” — Matthew 20:28
Twenty-seven years ago, I began an amazing journey with a most incredible man of the Church — Cardinal Justin Rigali. Since that time, he has become my dearest friend and brother in Christ who I address as “His Eminence” and “Cardinal,” and every once in a great while, but always respectfully, “Big Red,” my nickname for him. Having served the Church and six popes for 60 years as a priest, a bishop, an archbishop, and — as a “Prince of the Church,” a cardinal — I could not have been blessed with a better earthly friend and mentor than His Eminence. Each day, I thank Our Lord for blessing us with his priestly presence and example.
There is so much I would like to say about Cardinal Rigali and his incredible contribution to the Church and the popes he has served so faithfully, and the countless people whose lives have been sacramentally and pastorally blessed by this wonderful “servant pastor” of the Church. Unfortunately, space does not permit. But having served as his priest secretary and chancellor in St. Louis, among other responsibilities, I am filled with so much gratitude for all that he has taught me as a priest, in forming and mentoring me as a bishop, and for all the blessings he has brought to us within our diocese since his retirement in 2011 as archbishop of Philadelphia.
In all these years with His Eminence, I have always been inspired by his example of prayer and his faith and trust in Our Lord. Prayer, faith, and trust are so essential to living our baptismal vocation as disciples of Christ, most especially for clergy. So, I am particularly grateful for the simple prayer that Cardinal Rigali planted and nourished in my heart as a priest that in time would become my episcopal motto — “Jesus, I trust in you.” This briefest of prayers, which Jesus instructed St. Faustina to include in the image of His Divine Mercy, is like a tiny “mustard seed” that helps our faith grow such as to move mountains (cf. Matthew 13:32; 17:20). It is expressive of the desire to abandon ourselves ever more trustfully into the loving hands of Our Lord and Redeemer as His co-workers in the Father’s vineyard (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9).
Being so close to St. John Paul II, Cardinal Rigali knew of his great love of St. Faustina, well before her beatification and canonization, and the message of Divine Mercy that the world was so in need of hearing anew. St. Faustina lived a short life of 33 years, dying in 1938. St. John Paul II calls her the “Apostle of Mercy” and describes her Diary as “a particular Gospel of Mercy” for an age that has seen and continues to witness so much evil and suffering. “It was as if Christ had wanted to say through her,” St. John Paul II tells us, that “evil does not have the last word!” This is why Jesus tells St. Faustina, “I desire that priests proclaim this great mercy of Mine towards souls of sinners” (Diary 50). And Cardinal Rigali took these words to heart.
What is Divine Mercy? Cardinal Rigali explains that
God’s mercy is simply God’s love that comes into contact with our weaknesses, with our needs, and above all, with our sins. … [God] loves us unconditionally — He loves us in our needs, in our weaknesses and in our limitations, and He loves us in our sins. He invites us out of our sins, though. He invites us to repent of our sins. He invites us to respond to His love. But this is the great mystery, the great reality of God’s mercy — His love in the face of our sins and our needs.
The reason why this message is so critical for our times is summed up in one word: peace. Recorded in her Diary, Jesus stresses to St. Faustina that “Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to Divine Mercy” (300). These are words for each of us to personally heed because we will not find the peace we long for — in our heart, in our marriage, our family, our work, our society, and in our world — until we turn trustfully to the Divine Mercy.
Peace, as Cardinal Rigali always emphasizes, is Christ’s “Easter gift” to us. The first words of Jesus to His Apostles in the Upper Room following His resurrection are words that He wants to echo within the upper room of our heart’s sanctuary — “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). Immediately after these words, Jesus entrusts His Apostles with the power of sanctifying, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” and in breathing on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23). Truly, the peace that only Christ can give continues to be offered through our priests in the confessional.
Though the center of every priest’s life and ministry is the altar of the eucharistic sacrifice, it is intimately connected to the confessional. For, as Cardinal Rigali points out, “In the very moment of consecration, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant is offered to the Father” so that “sins may be forgiven.” So the priest’s service at the altar must necessarily continue in the confessional, where God’s Mercy is poured out in a most incredible way. So, when you hear the priest say those beautiful words of Divine Mercy, “I absolve you of all your sins,” it is Christ who actually pronounces them as His “Easter gift” to you. And Cardinal Rigali further reminds us that “confession is a special time to say to Our Lord, ‘Jesus, I trust in you!’”
As this simple prayer of faith and trust is grounded in the merciful love of Christ, who became man to redeem and reconcile us with the Father, I felt my episcopal motto and Cardinal’s were linked in a special way. This connection is highlighted and visible to everyone on the cathedral’s baldacchino above the altar. On its interior side facing the congregation are the Latin words of Cardinal Rigali’s episcopal motto, Verbum Caro Factum Est — “The Word Was Made Flesh” — from John 1:14. On the exterior front side are the words of my episcopal motto, Jesu Confido In Te — “Jesus I Trust In You.” I wanted our episcopal mottos, which are linked by more than friendship, to be visible to all, for in every eucharistic celebration, the Word “dwells among us” and gives Himself to us as the bread of life. And for Jesus to truly “dwell among us” in the world about us, we must be His face, His hands, and His heart, repeating those words always, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
How true it is that “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure” (Sirach 6:14). I thank Our Lord for the treasure of Cardinal Rigali’s friendship and for the treasure he is for the blessing of the Church and our diocese. There is no better way for us to thank His Eminence for his 60 years as a priest than to take up the daily praying of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
Thank you, Cardinal, for the great blessing of your “yes” to God 60 years ago, and for being such a faithful servant of Divine Mercy.