ChristLife National Conference
St. Philip Neri Parish
A. I am delighted to welcome you warmly to the ChristLife National Conference and to greet two close co-workers in the Lord, Fr. Erik Arnold & Dave Nodar as well as the entire ChristLife team, headquartered in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Let me also say a word of welcome to the dioceses and parishes represented here, including parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. When I began serving here four years ago, 9 parishes were part of ChristLife whereas today there are 60 … I take no credit for this happy development, I only want to join you in thanking God for the growth of this ministry not only in this local Church but in many other places as well. As always I want to thank Father Michael DeAscanis, Pastor of St. Philip Neri and his generous and effective staff for hosting and welcoming us this in these days.
B. I know you have a full agenda today and I will be respectful of your time. Yet I also want to share a few reflections with you that I hope will go to the heart of the ChristLife ministry and will perhaps reflect the experience of many of you here today.
II. Personal Relationship with Christ
A. I grew up in the mid-West and for a time my family lived in Western Kentucky. In addition to a smattering of Roman Catholics and Protestants, there were quite a few evangelical Christians and many of them were my friends. They knew I wanted to be a priest & that my family was dyed-in-the-wool Catholics. So they delighted in asking me (all the time) if Jesus was my Lord and Savior. And they wanted to know if I were saved. After you’ve been asked both questions many times and have answered consistently in the affirmative, you may get the idea that your questioners don’t quite believe you.
B. And maybe it was well that they didn’t quite believe me. I certainly loved the Lord and felt close to him and wanted to devote my life to serving his Church. I was also a reasonably well-catechized young man with a penchant for theology. Yet the question about Jesus as my Savior and about my personal salvation seemed to be just a bit foreign to the Catholic faith. Like many Catholics, I filtered out its directness and its challenge to the quality of my relationship with the Lord.
C. Well, the questions never stopped. A few years ago, I was on a plane bound for Michigan when the man next to me asked, “Are you a priest, or something?” “I’m something alright,” I responded, “and yes, I am a priest.” He wanted to know if I believed in Christ and if I accepted him as my personal Lord and Savior. “Doggone it,” I thought, “can’t he see my Roman collar, not to mention the ring and pectoral cross?”
D. You know, it’s a good thing this question continues to haunt me. Pope Francis has challenges me with essentially the same question, not only by his preaching and writing but also by his personal example. He pushes me, as a bishop and as a Christian, to confront the question of whether my relationship with the Lord is warm and life-giving or cold and formal. He urges me to reflect whether I’ve invited the Lord into every corner of my soul and if I’m allowing the Lord to transform me from within, such that I will love what He loves and distain what he distains. Pope Francis challenges me, as does the whole of Scripture and Tradition, to die to myself, to crucify whatever in me is contrary to the Gospel, to take up my cross and follow in the footsteps of the Savior. Being asked the question continually about Jesus as Lord and Savior is a good thing. Absent that question, I’d be on the road to perdition.
III. My Hopes as a Bishop
A. I hope that none of us is on the road to perdition. When I read St. Paul and think about his ministry as an Apostle, and apply his teaching and example to my life as a bishop, I ask: “What was his biggest anxiety?” Was it building that new cathedral in Ephesus or balancing the budget over there in Thessalonica? Probably not! He had plenty of issues and struggles with the churches he founded and served but his great anxiety was that Christ be formed in them. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says: “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me!” And he adds, “He loves me and he gave is life for me!” Having confessed his own faith, he says to the Galatians, “My children for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!” (4:19).
B. So, as you gather for this ChristLife Conference, my fondest hope for you is that your relationship with Christ will continue to grow, such that it will encompass every aspect of your own life and the lives of the many people whom you are seeking to touch. It’s not merely a matter of knowing about Christ or trying to follow his example; rather it is a matter of having Christ formed in you, so that his words, his truth, his love is not something you put on but rather the ChristLife emerges from the deep recesses of your soul where only the Holy Spirit can fully penetrate. So I want you to be haunted by the same question that haunts me: Have I opened my heart to Christ? What barriers do I put up? Do I believe he loves me and his given his life for me? Is the Lord truly central in my life, more than any other relationship?
C. This is truly my pastoral priority as Archbishop of Baltimore. Last year I wrote a pastoral letter entitled, “A Light Brightly Visible” to guide a parish renewal and planning process now underway. As part of that effort we did a survey and one of the things we asked parishioners was about the centrality of Christ in their lives. Only a small percentage answered that Christ was at the center. Perhaps they felt, as I did long ago, that the question was “too Protestant”. Perhaps they do not understand, as I must always strive to understand, that there is no other name by which we are saved (cf. AA 4:14). You are here because you know that the authentic renewal in the Church’s life can only be found by rooting it more deeply in Christ’s life. When a critical mass of parishioners discover Christ and become convinced he offers a love unlike any other love, and come to a faith that is intensely personal but not private, then the evangelization becomes not a fancy five-syllable word but a living reality.
IV. Missionary Conversion
A. Today we hear lots of complaints about institutional, “organized” religion. I like to tell such critics that I represent “disorganized” religion but to no avail. Currently there is an anti-institutional tendency afoot in our culture, a generalized mistrust of large institutions, including the Church. If you don’t believe me, you can read my mail (and answer it if you like).
B. The Church is not merely an institution. It is the Holy People of god, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, that came into being when Christ poured out his life upon the Cross and the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary and the Apostles at Pentecost, endowing this tiny community with all the means of salvation. So we profess our belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”. Yet, as Pope Benedict so clearly taught, organized ministries, especially charities, has been a part of the Church’s life from the very beginning. And Church institutions—parishes, schools, hospitals, charities—do immense good. Often it is the Church who serves most effectively the poorest of the poor. Yet institutions, even church institutions, and their leaders, can stumble and fall.
C. That is why you and I need to heed what Pope Francis said in “The Joy of the Gospel”, where he told us that not only individuals but also church structures and institutions need to undergo what he calls “a missionary conversion”. We think of people undergoing conversion but not institutions yet we know the difference between a parish that is alive and joyful as opposed to a parish that is in the doldrums. Missionary conversion means that that our parishes and all our institutions become less like clubs and social organizations concerned with internecine squabbles – living off of past glories, and undergoing a slow and painful death— and instead become “outward bound”, centers of missionary zeal, comprised of a critical mass of parishioners who, in the words of Fr. Arrupe, have fallen “in love with God in quite an absolute way.”
D. I’m passionate about what our institutions are meant to be: parishes that are vibrant places of faith, worship, and service, that evangelize, that reach out not just to the churched but to the unchurched; schools that touch not only the minds but also the hearts of their students and evangelize the families from which they come; how can we miss Pope Francis’ pastoral love and concern for families, the most basic “structure” of both church and society? Charities that evangelize by bearing intention witness to Christ’s compassion!
A. You are at this Conference and you are part of ChristLife because you share that same passionate love for the Lord and for the Church. You are here because you want to deepen your love for the Lord, to claim him anew as Lord and Savior, to rejoice in his saving love in the midst of the Church, and to bring home with you not merely a few strategies and plans but rather a renewed joy and courage born of the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Christ, crucified and risen, such that many will be added to the number of those who believe.
B. Thank you for being here. Pray for me and please count on my prayers for you! May God bless us and keep us always in his love!