We recently did something quite beautiful. As I said in the announcement for the recent Evangelization & Discipleship Summits, held Oct. 9 & 10 in Springfield and Cape Girardeau respectively, “We are at a critical moment in the Church of Southern Missouri.” Many of you have heard me talk about how our sacramental practices are on decline. Many of you have heard me say that we have 14 years before I have to resign: Fourteen years of grace. The question is, “what type of diocese will I hand over to the next Bishop?” Or even worse, “Will there be another Bishop?” If we don’t turn things around there will be nothing to hand onto the next bishop. But, we have 14 years of grace to try to change things.
So the Summits were our launch. Do we know the full impact of what we are doing? No. Each one of us is working within the mystery of the kingdom of God and such a work is beyond any one of us alone. What we are initiating with the Summit is just a fraction of God’s work. And let me be clear, this is God’s work. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are simply pencils in the hand of God as he begins to write anew throughout southern Missouri.
We leave the Summit incomplete, which is to say that the kingdom is not finished. If it was, we would have nothing to do. We are planting the seeds for the future! We have been the harvest of those who came before us. Those who built our churches and others who laid the foundation did their part, but they are no longer here. They have passed on to the reward. Now is our time to build on the foundation that they established for the Church in Southern Missouri.
How and what will bear fruit, we don’t know: but we know we must try. It will not be perfect, it will be incomplete, but we must begin, take steps along the way. If we are lucky, we will see just a glimpse of the works of our labor.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of the future that is not our own. These words are paraphrases of the homily given by Cardinal Dearden and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015.
To renew our diocese we need to renew the people of the diocese – from the bottom up. We need to start with and include and let the momentum begin with the laity. Each one of us hopefully understands our need for personal conversion, then parish-wide conversion, along with the conversion of the clergy – and when that occurs, we will have a diocesan conversion. What is the goal of this conversion? To be a Church on mission. We need to let the mission carry us. The Church does not have a mission, the mission has a Church. The mission is proclaiming Jesus Christ.
As our Holy Father said so well in “The Joy of the Gospel,” “The joy the gospel fills the hearts and lives of those who have encountered Jesus.”
I’ve preached many times on the word “encounter.” To encounter Jesus is the purpose for every Catholic school, every Catholic parish, every Catholic group, every Catholic institution, and if such places are not places of “encounter” with the person of Jesus, then we need to reevaluate why we are spending our energy and time with it. I’ve said many times that “encounter” is our holy father’s favorite word.
Let us begin, today
But now I’m beginning to wonder: After listening to him and reading what comes out of his office I think there’s a new word that challenges us – periphery. The holy father is calling the Church to be at the outer limits, the edge. And what will we find there? Those who are marginalized, the poor, those who have been excluded, those who nobody wants to talk to, and to them we are to bring with us an encounter with Jesus. In his book, Let us drink, the holy Father says the greatest poverty is a lack of spiritual care.
When we go out to the peripheries, we find that people are open, vulnerable, because they need God. And we have the sacraments to offer to them. It challenges our attitude toward the poor – they are not the object of our charity but rather they are our brothers and sisters, the Church, “the family of God.” And they belong to the household of God just as much as you or I. They may not know it and they may not want it – and that is where we need to be. We must be missionaries and initiate and be proactive in bringing our joy to others. I find that exciting – this call to go out to the periphery.
It should challenge us to reevaluate how we do The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), or baptismal preparation, marriage prep, confirmation prep. It should challenge us to reach out and come to know those who are no longer with us in our churches, for whatever reason.
Recently in Rome, Pope Francis opened the process for a Synod of Bishops in 2023. And to prepare for that Synod, every diocese is being called to communion, participation in mission. We are ahead of the game! Our diocesan vision of holiness, discipleship, and witness, along with our new Parish Pastoral Council Norms is exactly what I believe the Church is calling us to do and to be in this era. I think the Holy Father would be thrilled to know what we are about.
You have heard me say many times that we live in the era in which we live. We cannot help that we’ve experienced all that we have in the year 2021. And so this is our time. We need to face up to the challenges that the Church has in our culture, in this time. The good news is that we can look back and see what was experienced in the earlier era, where people did the same thing – they responded to the challenges of their time and because of what they did, how they served and “missioned,” we are here. Now it’s our responsibility to respond to the needs of our time. To quote Mother Teresa, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”