A. Good afternoon and many thanks for inviting me to spend some time at this important F.L.A.R.E. conference. I trust you have had a fruitful morning with good presentations and discussions. Perhaps my talk with the be frosting on the cake!
B. Let me begin with words of thanks and appreciation. The growing Filipino community in the Archdiocese of Baltimore is truly a blessing and it is my hope and prayer that your presence will continue to grow in our midst. Thank you for representing the Filipino community so ably by representing parishes blessed by a substantial Filipino presence and by carrying forward the mission of various ministries and groups dedicated to the preservation and growth of the faith among all those who claim a Filipino heritage. May God bless your work on behalf of his Kingdom and may today’s gathering be a source of encouragement in the leadership that you offer, not just to the Filipino community, but indeed to the entirety of the local church.
II. Identity and Communion
A. Let me begin by urging you to retain your heritage – your heritage of language, culture, and faith. I am neither a linguist nor a world traveler but a pastor of souls who strives to appreciation the beauty and goodness of the many cultures that are represented in the local church, the Archdiocese, I am privileged to serve.
B. Through the intercession of Our Lady of Good Voyage, you have brought to the shores of the United States and to Maryland a robust Catholic faith, a faith that is not simply a set of ideas, but rather a response to God’s love – a faith that believes, a faith that trusts, a faith that finds expression in loving obedience to God’s Commandments lived in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Indeed, nurturing the faith is essential if we would have ‘a future full of hope.’
C. There is an additional quality to your faith that you have identified and that I have noticed in the course of my pastoral ministry, viz., cheerfulness. Please never lose the quality of cheerfulness. St. Teresa of Avila famously said, “God deliver us from gloomy saints” and Pope Francis tells us not to look like we’ve just come back from a funeral or like we are living in a perpetual Lent . . . Through the years I’ve been privileged to meet bishops from the Philippines, including the great Cardinal Sin, who used to welcome people into his home with the words, “Welcome to the house of Sin!” I think about Cardinal Tagle’s faith and joy – I saw him twice this past summer, first at the bishops’ meeting in California where he led us through a retreat and then at World Youth Day where he had 20,000 young people on their feet. Never lose your joy, even when the going gets rough. Joy is one of the primary ways we bear witness of the faith. If we’re not happy after Jesus died for us and won the victory over sin and death, why should anyone believe us when we talk about the faith?
D. Yet another characteristic that I so deeply value is the commitment of the Filipino community to strong marriages and family life. One of my first encounters with you was a meeting of Couples for Christ at St. Joseph’s in Fullerton . . . and I know that ministry is represented here, today. Strong, united, and God-fearing families, however, are more than a cultural asset. They are God’s gift to us but this gift doesn’t come to life automatically. Like all God’s blessings, the vocation of marriage and family require a wholehearted response of faith, commitment, and enduring love. I don’t need to tell you how challenging it is to keep marriages together and to maintain strong family life in the cultural context of the United States. The legalization of so-called same-sex marriage has sown confusion and in generations to come we will reap the whirlwind. Yet, even before our society and our government took that step, the vocation of marriage and family was on the ropes in our country. We think of how many marriages are loveless, how many end in divorce, how fragmented family life has become as family members go their own way, how alienated many children are from their parents and vice-versa. We think too of how drugs have made inroads into our families, tearing them apart. Pope Francis has made marriage and family a top priority of his pontificate. He called two synods to reflect on the state of marriage and family and issued a beautiful exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love. It’s a long document but I would urge to read it, if you haven’t already. Again, the Holy Father is pointing to joy at the heart of this vocation so central to the life of the Church and so central to the life of any society that wishes to maintain itself.
E. So maintain your faith, your culture, your food, your joy and while you are daily mainstreamed into a larger culture, I’d urge you to maintain your cultural identity in this pluralistic society of ours. In urging you to do this, however, let me add a word of caution, and it’s this: The culture you and your forebears brought from the Philippines was, in large measure, shaped by the faith you profess today . . . and that is good. Pope St. John Paul II used to say that unless the faith penetrates a culture, the people living in that culture have not been evangelized. My word of caution is simply this: your culture was shaped in large measure by faith but you cannot assume that it will always be a culture based on faith. I can say this as an Italian-American. The Italians also brought a strong sense of faith and identity but they were more and more assimilated into American society, the cultural vestiges remained to some extent but sadly, for many, the faith faded away from one generation to the next. I know you are praying and working hard not to let that happen and I wish to support you in any way that I can.
F. As you maintain your identity of faith and culture, of course, I am not suggesting that you should, in any way, be isolated either in the Church or in society at large . . . quite the contrary. When we lose our identity, when we no longer know who we are, we also lose our ability to be in relationship with others – with other individuals and with other groups in both Church and society. Sometimes people think about the Catholic Church as a monolith, like a solid stone slab drawn from the same quarry. It’s more accurate and appealing to think of the Church as a mosaic – made up of individual parts, precious pieces, distinct in shape, size, and color, placed providentially to form a harmonious image of the whole Christ, Head and Body. Thus the diversity of our local church forms a unified image of Christ. Indeed, in describing the Body of Christ, St. Paul details how all the parts of the body work together for the good of the whole – so it is in the life of the Church which is the Body of Christ. Your approach to faith, to family, to language, to culture not only enrich this local church but will play an invaluable role in the revitalization of this Archdiocese, God willing, in the years to come. To that challenge let us turn our attention for a few minutes.
III. A Light Brightly Visible
A. I’m in my 5th year as Archbishop of Baltimore and it is truly a joy and privilege to serve as your Archbishop. Yet, I would also be less than truthful if I did not say there are challenges. One of the first things that was said to me when I got here was, “Archbishop, you have too many parishes – too many stores – to many outlets.” For a moment I thought I was not running an Archdiocese but Royal Farms! Other people we’re saying to me, “Archbishop, don’t you dare close a thing because the parishes you’ll close are the ones that serve the poor.” One night in chapel I asked the Lord, “What have I gotten myself into?” The answer came swiftly, “You didn’t get yourself into anything. I got you into this!”
B. After a lot of prayer, after taking time to get to know the Archdiocese, and after engaging in a lot of consultation, I decided I would follow neither of the paths laid out to me when I came here, either a “bottom line” approach to parish planning (automatically closing parishes that cannot pay their bills) or holding on to parishes that, quite simply, have done their mission. Rather, following the promptings of Vatican II and Pope Francis, it made sense to adopt an evangelization-based model of parish planning – that is to say – to reflect deeply on the mission the Lord gave to his Church and then to ask what that mission requires in the counties and neighborhoods that constitute this local incarnation of the universal Church, namely, the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
C. As we think about doing this, at least two things stand out: First, we are facing a diminished number of priests. In Fr. Jim Sorra, we have a great director of vocations and he is leading the charge in raising up great priestly vocations; I would ask you to support Fr. Sorra with your prayers and also with encouraging and fostering priestly vocations in the Filipino community. Yet, even as vocations increase, we will face shortages in times to come and it is important that we take care of our priests and that we deploy them (if I might use that term) as effectively as possible. The second thing that stands out is that many people we count as parishioners are no longer actively involved in their parishes anymore. In 1958, some 75% of Catholics came to Mass each week, 25% were absent. Now, sadly, those numbers have flipped: it’s 25% present, 75% absent.
D. Some people tell me I shouldn’t be so concerned with numbers but those numbers are not mere statistics; they represented persons, made in God’s image and called to eternal life. Our concern should be the same as St. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles. After describing the preaching of the Apostles, now filled with the Holy Spirit, he goes on to say that ‘5,000 were added to their number that day.’ Jesus would not have told us to and make disciples of all nations if he didn’t want us to bring as many as possible into his Church. So, we can’t be complacent or can we accept as inevitable the present state of affairs.
IV. Missionary Conversion
A. In fact, the Church herself is urging us not to be complacent but rather to evangelize, to spread the Gospel. This was the heart of Vatican II and the heart of every papacy since the Council, including and especially the papacy of Pope Francis. It is he who has called us and our ministries to “missionary conversion”.
B. The first word in that phrase is “conversion” – an overturning of our very existence by a living encountering with Christ, an encounter that changes how we live, how we love, what we value, how we act – an encounter that makes us more than adherents to Christianity as a system of ideas but rather disciples who active members of the Body of Christ, living stones in the temple of Christ’s Body, equipped to be messengers of mercy in a world that permits everything and forgives nothing.
C. Pope Francis challenges us not merely to undergo a personal conversion but to convert the ministries to which we have been called. He urges bishops and priests not to be mere administrators but to be a living sign of Jesus the Good Shepherd by knowing the people we serve, loving the poor, acquiring the ‘smell of the sheep’. So too he calls for parishes to undergo a missionary conversion. They cannot be self-contained, self-satisfied communities of the like-minded, with entrenched leadership that discourages newcomers or returnees. Instead they must be hubs of intense missionary activity – energizing the 25% for the sake of the 75%! There needs to be a critical mass of missionary disciples who are equipped to go forth, meet those who are absent, accompany them on their faith journey, and welcome them into the faith community.
D. How this will be done varies from place to place – that it must be done is nothing other than the Great Commission which Christ gave to his Apostles. It is this which drives how we think about the mission of each parish and which will cause us to shift how parishes are brought together and staffed – so that a parish can be a place of outreach not merely a place to be maintained. Thus, in some instances, parishes will stand alone, in other instances, existing partnerships between parishes will be strengthened, and in still other instances, new partnerships will be formed, not for the sake of the bottom line but for the sake of mission. We need parishes that are viable enough to do real pastoral outreach, viable enough to welcome newcomers and returnees, viable enough to help married couples and families live their vocation – parishes that are not merely viable but vibrant in fulfilling their mission.
E. As we go out on mission, we have some sense of what the mission field is like. It ranges from disaffected Catholics, to Christmas and Easter Catholics, to faithful Catholics who feel torn or conflicted, to comfortable Catholics, and lastly, to missionary disciples . . . As more parishioners encounter Christ and are filled with a missionary spirit, parishes are better able to reach out to those unplugged from the faith and to welcome them not merely with a handshake at the door but by truly integrating them into the life of the parish. It’s not enough to go out and get new members; we must accompany them and evangelize them every step of the way. This calls for a fresh way of thinking and acting, a new way of being parish – missionary conversion!
V. Steps So Far
A. As you know, a lot has been done in this parish planning process, beginning with my pastoral letter, “A Light Burning Brightly” – which really does lay out the vision for the plan we are entering into. We did a survey which gave us a sense of our pastoral strengths and weaknesses, both as an Archdiocese and in the individual parishes. We shared the results of the survey with each parish together with demographic data. We asked each parish to do a mission readiness statement and produced a Guide and Change Document and a Guide Book designed to assist in the planning process as we move ahead.
B. As you know, three further and very important steps have been taken. First, we formerly called groupings of parishes “clusters” but we’ve decided to call them “pastorates” in recognition of the pivotal role of the pastor in setting a parish’s tone & mission. Second, working with a diverse group of parish priests, national experts, and members of my own senior leadership team, a model as to how these pastorates might look was proposed. Third, this initial design has already been shopped out for consultation, first with the clergy and now in regional meetings throughout the Archdiocese. It is a work in progress that will not be finalized until the consultative process concludes, sometime early next year. Nor will it be implemented all at once but over the period of a few years. We will try to implement it, in other words, as organically as possible. For example, some parishes are already grouped together under a single pastor and they are ready to move ahead rapidly. Others parishes are stand-alone but need to address the pastoral challenges I’ve outlined. Still others will come together as priests retire or are re-assigned. No parishes are slated to be closed in this initial phase but over time it will become clear that some parishes have completed their mission and that perhaps the Church needs to re-purpose that parish to meet current needs rather than the needs of the past.
C. Deciding on how to configure the pastorates, however, is only the first step. The real work of pastoral planning begins after that. To repeat, the heart of the parish planning process is not re-drawing parish lines; rather, we are re-configuring parishes only so that the MISSION might be done more effectively, so that all parishes will have access to mission outreach coordinators, good business managers, and formation for missionary discipleship, so that all parishes will also engage in the work of growing the Church. If a pastorate has 25% coming each week, why not aim for 30% next year? If a pastorate loses 80% of its confirmation class, why not aim for 60% next year? If a given parish church uses only 40% of its capacity on the weekend, why not aim for 50%?
So let me thank you once again for your devotion and dedication, both to the vibrant Filipino Catholic community of Baltimore and to the mission of the whole Archdiocese. Let us together build bridges – bridges within the Church, bridges between the Church and the cultures represented in our Archdiocese – and let us ourselves become a bridge and not an obstacle to Christ. Thus may we rejoice as we follow the Lord and lead many others to know the joy of the Gospel!
A. May God bless you and keep you always in his love!