I. Introduction: “Getting To Know You”
A. Thank you so much for taking time to be part of our Convocation. It is a moment for us to come away, to pray, to reflect, to discuss, and to relax, to enjoy one another’s company apart from the usual settings where we interact. I hope your trip to Ocean City was uneventful and that our time together will be spiritually and pastorally productive and a time when we forge closer bonds of priestly friendship with one another.
B. One advantage of the Convocation is that it gives us an opportunity to mix and visit with fellow priests we don’t have the opportunity very often to see and to visit with priests with whom we might not naturally be inclined to associate. Sometimes we carry in our hearts, even unthinkingly, a caricature of one another. To be sure it is all too easy for any one of us, myself included, to validate that caricature, to confirm impressions others may have of us – Yet, when we take time to be with one another, to explore commonalities even at the very human level – many of those impressions fade away – Often we find we have more in common than we might imagine. A few years ago at one of these Convocations, there was a helpful presentation by Fr. Ron Knott of St. Meinrad on the various cohorts of formation represented in our presbyterate. Fr. Ron made this presentation not to harden our divisions but to help us grow in understanding so that we could build bridges among ourselves. If we hope to engage in missionary conversion, we’ll need to be both joyful and persistent in building bridges among ourselves.
II. “Take Good Care of Yourself”
A. And this leads me into the most important topic of all, the mission – the mission we signed onto when we were baptized and the mission we embraced in a new way when we were ordained. I want to begin with a word of thanks. Often, when we talk about re-igniting the mission and going out in search of the 75% who are no longer regularly with us, the impression can be given that we’ve dropped the ball or that we’re not really doing anything about evangelization. Of course, that’s not true. It’s like everything else, some are farther down the path than others but many parishes have been working hard to evangelize, studying various methods and approaches, and committing serious resources to spreading the Gospel among the unchurched. For all that you do day in and day out please accept my gratitude and please know of my readiness to support you as best I can.
B. When we met last Thursday, I mentioned that the whole process of parish planning can cause us a lot of stress and anxiety. We fear that if parish lines are drawn wrongly, the communities we love and serve will be gravely damaged. We are anxious about expectations that parishes move from maintenance to mission – a nice phrase, but how do we do it on top of all the other things on our plates? And we wonder about statements to the effect that we priests would say no more than three Masses a weekend. How is that possible when parishes have been combined into a single pastorate and when the numbers of available priests will likely continue to diminish?
C. I guess that brings me to the heart of what I want to share with you. I will touch only tangentially on the “mechanics” of the pastoral plan but would rather speak for a while on how it is likely to affect us and what we need to do to ready ourselves for what lies ahead. And first of all, I’d urge you as I must urge myself to take care of ourselves. This has nothing to do with pampering ourselves or pandering to imaginary needs. It has everything to do with trying to live a balanced style of life, even in the midst of all we do and all that is expected of us. At the risk of sounding like a nanny rather than your bishop, I hope we’d take good care of our health, not as hypochondriacs but as men grateful for the gift of life and conscious of the investment the Church has made in us. So taking time to rest, to exercise, to eat the right things, to visit the doctor, to make a retreat, to take a legitimate day off, to enjoy healthy friendships, all of these things are blessings from the Lord that can enrich and enliven your life and your ministry. I confess I am not always a very good role model in these things but I hope you will see the point of working smarter not harder for the sake of mission.
III. The Spiritual Dimension
A. Largely because of the demands placed upon us, we tend to think about things from a very practical point of view. I’m not here this afternoon to recommend impracticality. I’m not here to recommend that we be dreamers who cook up grandiose schemes that will never come to pass. No, we mustn’t be dreamers but we must be visionaries. For, as the Book of Proverbs says, “where there is no vision the people perish.” Where do we get the vision, the wisdom, and the love to take one or more parishes that are perhaps holding their own or parishes that might be fading away – and provide the vision and leadership so that they become true hubs of missionary activity – headed every day to the peripheries – including the poor, the alienated, the disengaged?
B. I don’t have a magic formula; what I’m about to tell you, you already know. No plan of evangelization succeeds unless it is permeated by prayer. And the starting point for that prayer has to be our own personal life of prayer. Before we think about setting up a Starbucks on parish property or invite Crispy Cream to start baking donuts on the premises, let us, you and me, withdraw in our rooms to be alone with the Good Shepherd. I tell you who helped me a lot with this – Art Valenzano. As you know he lived down the hall from me and in my first years of service here he was an immense support and a good friend. He was mainly a good friend in the area of prayer. For you see, like a good American, in practice I can easily be a semi-pelagian … that is to say, theologically I acknowledge the primacy and necessity of God’s grace but as a practical matter I fall into thinking that I’m the primary cause and that God is but the secondary cause … Art never gave me a lecture about prayer, I just knew he was down the hall praying, like clockwork, every morning and he’d stop by the chapel on the way to Mass just to say hello. It might be the dreariest day of the year & he’s say, “It’s a beautiful day in Baltimore” or after his beloved O’s lost a game, he’d say, “The boys came in second last night.” Without mentioning the word prayer, he encouraged me to pray and to depend upon the Lord in matters big and small. Whenever I’m tempted to think I’m too busy to make a holy hour in the morning, I pray to Art Valenzano and that pretty much seems to do the trick.
C. We pray to attain personal holiness but also pastoral goodness and generosity. In prayer we allow the Holy Spirit to root out of our hearts whatever it is – whether hidden or visible – that which hinders the mission, that makes us less than clarion witnesses to Christ and his love. In prayer and reflection before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, we draw close to the Lord to deepen our own missionary conversion and to recover amid the trials of daily living true joy in the Gospel, a joy born of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is not a luxury but a necessity. When I think I’m too busy to pray, there may be a deadline of some sort looming but more often than not I’m avoiding the Lord’s glance, I’m avoiding a dialogue with the Lord that may be difficult or unsettling. Prayer is not always a bed of roses.
D. So let us pray the Liturgy of the Hours, do some lectio divina, spend time of mental prayer; let us earnestly pray for the mission of our parishes and for our own missionary conversion and that of our co-workers. Without prayer, all the techniques in the world will do us no good. We can go to Amazing Parish Conferences, we can read Divine Renovation, we can even read Rebuilt and talk to the author – he’s here with us! – but at the end of the day the mission demands that we be missionaries – sent by the Lord whom we know and love and serve. And to prevent self-deception and to find the mercy we need, I earnestly beseech every one of you, if you don’t already have a spiritual director, please seek and find one and visit with your director regularly. I don’t know what I’d do without a director, a soul friend and a confessor and without the regular reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. These are things we should commit to, not merely as individuals, but rather as a presbyterate and we should support one another in these commitments, so that we may be spiritually united in accomplishing the Lord’s mission here & now.
E. It will also be vital that you lead your people in prayer. In the materials you received over the weekend that has summarized the plan and the consultations thus far, there is a prayer for evangelization on the inside of the back cover. I’d ask that you have your people pray this prayer at every Mass and that you begin your day asking your staff to join you in this prayer. It’s brief, its simple, but it reminds us of what we’re all about. The bottom line is this: If Jesus felt the need to pray before he preached and healed, can we imagine that we have less need than he to pray? Prayer and apostolic fruitfulness are directly linked. Prayer and vocations are linked. Prayer and pastoral charity are joined at the hip.
IV. Two Obstacles To Avoid
A. While we’re thinking about prayerful foundations, let me suggest two subjects we might bring to our time of private prayer. The first is the tendency to look at what has been laid out, a plan that, to be sure, has many moving parts, and then to look for the flaws in the process and flaws in the design with an eye toward rejecting the whole effort and going back to business as usual. Constructive suggestions and active participation in the consultative process is good and indeed I’d truly encourage you and your staff to engage – and as we journey together we can learn from one another and we can make adjustments as necessary. We need to realize, of course, that these processes do not drop down out of heaven and that no one on earth can devise a process that will be pleasing to everyone and that no plan can be devised that everyone will agree with. There’s bound to be things we’d do another way, things that are inconvenient, and proposals we think need to be changed. But let us not allow the mechanics of the process, whatever its flaws may be, to veer us from being renewed in the mission of evangelization, and in seeing the creation of pastorates not as an end in itself but rather as a means to missionary conversion and authentic pastoral planning.
B. If there is another spiritual danger that lurks it is the tendency to be insular. We may sing “No man is an island” but sometimes parish communities may be such. It’s understandable that people want to be with people they know and like and that a parish community can be a comforting and a welcoming place. Yet it can also be a place where old friends resist new friends, where new volunteers and co-workers are not really welcome, and where a kind of smugness and self-centeredness can reign.Sometimes we can even act like the Hatfields and the McCoys! We have to break down barriers among parish communities and build bridges if we would hope to find a way to welcome back those who are absent and if we would hope to be a light that is brightly visible. Any division is the enemy of evangezliation. Every division dims the light of Christ in our midst.
A. What I really hope and pray comes out of this convocation is a deepening of our unity with one another centered around mission as well as renewed confidence that the Lord is with us and that he is only too ready to make our efforts on his behalf fruitful and that there are many people who are waiting to be asked, waiting to be invited to engage in the Lord’s mission.
B. Again, I am very grateful for your friendship, your support, your kindness and I am proud and grateful to serve with you and for you day in and day out. God bless you, dear brothers, and keep you always in his love!