There’s pep in his step
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Let the record show that never before in the nearly 300-year history of St. Louis Cathedral have Catholics seen a dancing bishop.
But when Bishop Fernand (Ferd) Cheri III, O.F.M., made his first remarks to the nearly 1,000 people gathered for his episcopal ordination March 23, the hometown boy in him couldn’t resist breaking into several spirituals and even moving a few body parts.
Bishop Cheri, 63, spoke briefly after giving Communion to his 87-year-old mother Gladys, seated in the front pew just six weeks following a fall that left her with a broken right hip.
But his mom’s medical condition hardly fazed her as she jumped to her feet and began twirling a second-line umbrella as Bishop Cheri broke out into song during his remarks before the final blessing.
All the Cheri ladies – the bishop’s four sisters and his mother – were dressed in red, the episcopal color.
“I feel like King David felt when the ark of God was being brought into Jerusalem,” Bishop Cheri said, smiling broadly after being ordained the 11th auxiliary bishop of New Orleans by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
“Like David, I’m so overjoyed by God’s blessings and God’s grace and God’s mercy. I feel like I have to give a testimony,” he said.
That drew murmurs from the knowing crowd, many of whom had heard Bishop Cheri speak before in their churches or at Gospel-based revivals.
An organist began playing a few notes, indicating a joyful noise was about to erupt.
In his remarks, Bishop Cheri used the lyrics of some of his favorite spirituals to express what he was feeling inside – his 36 years as a priest and a journey that took him from ministry as a diocesan priest before transferring to the Franciscans, with whom he has served since 1992.
“Lift every voice and sing, to give all praise, all glory and honor to God,” Bishop Cheri said, reciting one song. “For I’ve come – we’ve come – this far by faith ... treading a path through the blood of the slaughter. ...
“I feel like singing my song, I feel like singing my song. Yes, I’ve been through a lot, and I’m going with Jesus all the way.”
From another spiritual, Bishop Cheri said he wanted to give thanks to the many people who had lifted him up during the tough moments of his priestly life.
“I want to give thanks to so many who have taught me and ‘brought me along a mighty long way,’” he said.
A Catholic revival spirit
After Bishop Cheri returned to his chair to extended applause, Archbishop Aymond told the congregation: “I think this afternoon we have been to
Earlier, in his homily before the rite of ordination, Archbishop Aymond looked at his fellow Notre Dame Seminary alumnus and said: “Ferd, welcome home!”
From one hometown priest to another, it was a touching, fraternal moment.
Archbishop Aymond thanked Gladys Cheri and her late husband Fernand Jr. for rearing seven children and helping see to it that all “were brought up in the faith.”
All seven Cheri children attended Catholic elementary and high schools, and all seven earned college degrees while Fernand Jr. made ends meet for his family on a postal carrier’s salary.
“Ferd, we also thank you for your faith and your priestly ministry over the years and for faithfully answering God’s call to serve the church as a servant leader,” Archbishop Aymond said.
Archbishop Aymond also noted that Bishop Cheri followed in the footsteps of former New Orleans Auxiliary Bishop Harold Perry, who was appointed the first African-American bishop in the United States in the 20th century.
“You bring the richness of the African-American tradition to our church,” Archbishop Aymond said. “Bishop Perry led a prophetic life. Ferd, you have the privilege to walk in his footsteps.” Archbishop Aymond reminded Bishop Cheri of the bishop’s threefold role: to preach, sanctify and govern.
“You are to preach the Gospel faithfully and hand on faithfully all the teachings of the church,” he said, citing the second reading (2 Tim 1:6-14) in which St. Paul reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”
“God has sent you to serve and not to be served,” Archbishop Aymond said, reminding the bishop of the words of St. Peter that God’s flock must be given “a shepherd’s care.”
A humble shepherd
“Be an example to the flock,” Archbishop Aymond said. “Be humble to those assigned to you.”
He also reminded Bishop Cheri that living as an example to others will not be an easy task. St. Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, was “well aware of his weaknesses and his sins” and knew that he “did not always live according to his preaching.”
Archbishop Aymond explained three of the outward signs of the bishop’s office: the ring as a symbol of “unconditional fidelity to Christ and his church”; the miter, a bishop’s headpiece, as a sign of a bishop’s “call to holiness”; and the crozier, or pastoral staff, representing “Christ the Good Shepherd in whose name he will lead.”
“Ferd, sometimes you will find yourself leaning on the pastoral staff acknowledging your dependence on Jesus, especially when you bear the burdens of God’s people,” Archbishop Aymond said. “When you lean on the crozier, be reminded of your motto, ‘God is My Strength.’”
Since so much is expected of a bishop, it may seem like an impossible burden.
“Can you do all of this?” the archbishop asked. “Yes, if you stay close to Jesus the Good Shepherd. As you follow him, you will be able to lead others.”
“Ferd, we are here today to pray with you and support you. We also promise to be there tomorrow as you fulfill your important ministry as bishop of the church.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at