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Posted Saturday, April 3, 2004 at 12:46 p.m. CST

Homily for the Mass of Christian Burial for Bishop Kenneth E. Untener

John 21: the encounter of Peter and the risen Jesus at the lakeshore

By Archbishop John R. Quinn
Saginaw, April 1, 2004

This is a solemn moment centering around a man who was very distant from solemnity or formality. Unfailingly courteous and respectful of the dignity of others, he was in himself unassuming, welcoming and friendly. Perhaps it is a transgression of his counsels on preaching, but I want to make here a comparison between Bishop Untener, our Ken, and Pope John XXIII.

Pope John had a long and quite varied life before he was pope. One of his lengthy assignments as a younger man was in Serbia where there were many Orthodox and few Roman Catholics. He so endeared himself to the Serbs by his disarming warmth and friendliness, that when he left for a new assignment after many years there, people came in great numbers to say good-bye. On that occasion he told them, "Anywhere I go in the world, if someone in need passes by my house at night, he will find a lighted lamp in the window. Knock I will not ask if you a Catholic…. Two brotherly arms will embrace you and the warm heart of a friend will make a feast for you." I have always thought of that story as an embodiment of what goodness is. And I think of it today when I think of Ken Untener: He thought of himself as a servant and proclaimed himself as servant when he came to Saginaw. But he was our brother. Intelligent articulate, immensely gifted, he spoke the language of the heart and our heart spoke back.

It is not surprising, then, that he should have chosen for the Mass of his ordination the Gospel text of John 21, the encounter of Peter and the risen Jesus at the lakeshore.. Twenty centuries of Christian contemplation of this text have opened its unending depths. It is fitting that at this final liturgy of the bishop's earthly life, we should consider its meaning ever ancient, ever new.

As we steal into that little company of Apostles by the lake, there is freshness, almost exhilaration in the atmosphere. It is morning, they are on the seashore, they have enjoyed a breakfast together. Yet there is a note of negativity: there was the difficult and fruitless night when they caught nothing. And everyone has pointed out how this episode evokes the three denials by a too human Peter of Jesus in his Passion. In a few deft strokes the Gospel sets this moment in the framework of the real life situation of the church struggling to fulfill its mission, and struggling at the personal level with doubts or contradictions or opposition or the feeling of futility and hopelessness.

It is in this context of weakness and struggle, weakness of the earthly church, weakness of her ministers, that the Risen Lord entrusts the pastoral office to Peter. In doing so, the Lord Jesus powerfully emphasizes the great priority of all pastoral service in the church, the number one quality which he exacts from the one who serves as shepherd in his church. And so the repeated, insistent question, "Do you love me more than these?" The top priority of the minister of Christ must be that he loves Jesus Christ as the center and ground of his being. Christ is the hub toward which all the spokes of his life point and in which they are fixed. This is the great tradition of the church: John Chrysostom himself affirms that nothing so powerfully opens people to receive the Gospel as when they see that you love Christ and that you love them. John of the Cross stands in this tradition when he says, "In the evening of life you will be judged by love."

Ken, our brother, faithful bishop of this church of Saginaw, can be described in the words of Cyprian, third century bishop of Carthage, "We do not say great things. We live them." The death of a bishop who so endeared himself to priests and people is a moment of deep sorrow. We are truly sad to see his passing and each of us and this church of Saginaw will miss him greatly. "We do not say great things. We live them." His death opens a door for us to reflect back on his life, which calls us not just to remember him but to be like him, to be a blessing for others, to let his life be a light for our lives.

All of us have been deeply touched by Ken and his goodness. To all of us comes his summons to live great things.

As I come to the end of this homily, I feel it is only right that I should tell you about a letter I wrote to him immediately after he received the diagnosis of his final illness. I said:

Your call giving me the sad news of your illness came as I was leaving to take part in a symposium at Boston College. I have been thinking of you continually since that moment. … What I write in this letter must be said. It is long overdue and should have been said long ago. But the time has come when I feel compelled to say clearly some things which I have long thought especially since your stay with me several years ago.

In my opinion you have given all us bishops a striking, powerful but gentle challenge to live the Gospel in a clear way. I have seen how you have been criticized and misrepresented, and how, following the Gospel injunction, you have not reacted with rancor or bitterness. 'Christ suffered for our sakes, and left you his own example ... he was ill spoken of, and spoke no evil in return ...' (I Pet.2:23) Your public discourse has always been theologically rooted, redolent of Catholic faith, and marked by the courtesy which should characterize a bishop. You have a depth and wisdom which has been a valuable contribution to the church.

Your simplicity of life is a true fulfillment of the Council's call for bishops to recognize the signs of the times and respond to the apostolic ideal of the Gospel.

You have been so effective in your retreats and workshops and given many priests a reason not to lose hope in difficult times. I have seen the personal investment you make in your priests and your genuine concern for the people of your church of Saginaw.

You are so unassuming in manner that it seems a bit out of character, but I must say you are really one of the most distinguished of bishops, a man of Catholic faith, a good shepherd, prayerful, unselfish, learned and articulate.

Now you are walking the path of the Cross in a new way and my prayer is that you will discover anew that the Tree of the Cross is the Tree of Life.

His motto as bishop was "That they may have life". Our brother and bishop has completed his baptism. He goes before us now into everlasting life marked with the sign of faith. May he may rest in peace and rise in glory.

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