Monday, May 29, 2017

"The Zeal to Spread the Sacred Fire"

Note: These are my reflections as part of our faculty prayer upon the completion of our first year as a high school.  

This is a portrait of Michael Portier, the first bishop of Mobile.  He is one of the three reasons Archbishop Rodi chose the name “Michael” in the creation of St. Michael Catholic High School. I am guessing the picture reflects Portier in his later years, as he is a bit heavier than was probable given the demands of his early life as bishop. 

He was born in 1795 in France, and came to the United States to become a priest in 1817. He was ordained at the age of 25, made “Vicar Apostolic” of Florida and Alabama at 32, and named bishop of Alabama and Florida at the age of 34. Our diocese began with him as our first bishop in 1829. To put that in perspective, Florida and Alabama are now 9 different dioceses. In the beginning he was the only priest of the entire 2 state area, and had three primary Catholic communities to care for in Mobile, Pensacola and St. Augustine. 

By the telling of Oscar H. Lipscomb, then Ph.D. candidate in history and later himself the archbishop of Mobile,  early travel back and forth between the three towns was quite difficult. The trip to St. Augustine required both sailing and hiking, a two week journey from Mobile. Mosquitos were a constant nemesis—Lipscomb recounts a letter in which Portier complains that “one could scarcely open one’s mouth without swallowing them” — and when he slept on the trail he had to wrap himself so tightly that only his nose protruded from his clothing, making it dreadfully uncomfortable with the heat and humidity, prompting Portier to write “the heat was bothersome, but of the two evils, one must choose the lesser.”  He relied heavily on the hospitality of non-Catholics during these trips, often lodging in their homes on the trail. Long before the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothings and the KKK in the middle 1800’s, Portier was of an ecumenical mindset: "Respecting sincerity of belief wherever he found it,” Lipscomb writes,  “he did not hesitate to praise the outstanding qualities that faiths other than his own engendered in his hardy hosts.”  (The Administration of Michael Portier, Oscar H. Lipscomb, 1963)

Early during his tenure, Portier went back to France to recruit priests to help him in his work, and brought back five, the most famous of whom was Fr. Loras, whom Portier appointed as the first president of Spring Hill College in 1830 and who later became bishop of Dubuque, Iowa.  Times were tough --there was very little money.  Yellow fever epidemics were common. In fact, the site for Spring Hill College was chosen because of its elevation, in hope to avoid the mosquito driven sicknesses so common in marshy, coastal waters. Bishop Portier worked hard. When he started Spring Hill College, a newspaper reported that “the good bishop, with axe in hand, was always in the lead”. 

He was blessed with good health during most of his ministry.  When he was made bishop, 
reflecting on his unworthiness to be called “successor to the apostles,” he  quipped that his “health was his only apostolic quality.” He lived simply in a two room wooden house in Mobile, and the first “cathedral” was a small church that was 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep. But through his faith, hard work and the blessings of grace, the Church in this area slowly grew, and in 1837 he commissioned the building a new Cathedral, which was finished in 1850 and named “Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.” That basic Cathedral, with some improvements, still exists today.  Bishop Portier lived until he was 63, dying in 1859. He was bishop of Mobile for thirty years, 1829-1859.

As the first principal of the high school named in his honor, I was particularly moved by his pledge to God during his ordination. Prostrate on the floor as part of the ceremony, Portier recounts that “I made a promise to God of strict fidelity, of devotion to his glory until death, and of constant zeal to spread everywhere the sacred fire. “

The notion of our faith as a “sacred fire,” I think, is a very compelling one. In Scripture, fire has always been an indication of God’s mighty, intimate presence—the burning bush of Moses, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the Red Sea, the tongues of fire that came upon the apostles at Pentecost. And I think it’s a very good image for us, too, in understanding the work we are doing at St. Michael. We are continuing the work of Bishop Poitier, continuing the work of the apostles and our Church, spreading the sacred fire. We are making God present and active in the life of our students and our families. 

So let FIRE be our focus of this morning's prayer service—that this fire, first of all, burns deeply in us, so that we may share this fire authentically and zealously with our students. May God continue to bless St. Michael Catholic High School as we begin deliberations for our second year. And may it --may He through us--ignite a wildfire throughout all of Baldwin County! 

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