Buon giurno! It is Monday morning in Rome, day five of the Formation Course for new bishops. There are 105 new bishops from throughout the world representing various local churches from Des Moines, Iowa, and Syracuse, New York, to Baghdad, Iraq, and Armagh, Northern Ireland. We speak in a variety of languages including English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The first four I can get by in, but on Saturday night, when at my dinner table there were three bishops from Brazil, one from Argentina, and one from Uruguay, none of whom spoke English, the fact that we still had conversations and camaraderie is truly a working of the Holy Spirit and one that humbles me deeply. Even a few minutes ago at breakfast, where our table’s common language was Italian, what a privilege it was for me to have breakfast with three bishops respectively from north, central, and southern Italy, the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, and the next American bishop to be ordained on September 27 in Des Moines, Bishop-elect William Joensen.
The theme of our course is “Shepherds of a Synodal Church.” In a certain sense, it is a fancy way of saying, “How do we work together?” But it means actually more than that. It is really all about how we, as disciples of the Lord Jesus and members of His Church, accompany one another. It is a call based on our baptism, and through ordination I am invited to help stir into flame the gift of God among the people I have been called to serve and lead and walk together with.
The above paragraph was written just before I went to our morning session. It is now lunchtime (but I am at my computer because as much as I love Italian food and meals, I can only intake so much). Our forum this morning was led by members of the Vatican Dicastery (Department) for Laity, Family, and Life headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the former Bishop of Dallas. He, along with Linda Ghisoni and Gabriella Gambino, married laywomen who are Vatican officials, gave us three very important presentations on “The circularity between the Ministry of the Pastors and the Participation and the Co-Responsibility of the Laity.” A particularly poignant description of the role of a bishop in his diocese stated, “In Lumen Gentium Bishops are not presented as the upper echelons of a social pyramid, but as belonging to the baptized People, and among all the baptized they have been chosen and consecrated precisely to help and support the faithful in their daily mission, nurturing their faith and life of grace. The greatest joy for bishops should not be that of having reached positions of personal prestige but rather that of watching their flocks’ ‘life of faith’ flourish…” (Certainly was a confirmation of what I had written before class began!)
This statement was followed by reflection on the co-responsibility of the lay faithful and some practical implications for a bishop:
1. Consult the laity. A personal conversion from “I” to “we,” not only by the bishop, but all the faithful. It is referred to as the Sensus Ecclesiae — to identify with the People of God “gift and mission” in the context of making room for the voice of the Holy Spirit in the local church. Particularly important in this movement is the Diocesan Pastoral Council (which I will meet with for the first time the day after my return from Rome), pastoral visits to parishes, and listening sessions. Underlying this is the theme of my licentiate thesis in Canon Law on synodality and how “consultation” is a serious and essential part of diocesan life.
2. Entrusting ecclesial offices to the laity. Ministry belongs to the ordained and the laity. The role of the laity in the life and administration of the local Church is not an alternative to fewer priests and religious but is a constitutive part of the Church and its mission. Of course, included in this a continuing education and formation of the People of God in what it means to be “Church.”
3. The complementarity between the Sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders — both of which are ordered to the edification of all the People of God. As Pope Francis stated in an address to the Chilean bishops on January 16, 2018, “We forget that we are part of God’s Faithful People and that the Church is not, nor will it be, an elite of consecrated men and women, priests and bishops. Without this consciousness of being a people, we are not able to sustain our life, our vocation and our ministry.” By the way, this is nothing new — 50 years ago the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) stated this defining principle of the Church.
I share these ideas with you for they help frame what I see as the mission ahead: For us together to discover what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today in the social context we find ourselves. If we are truly to walk together, I know more than ever I am going to need to make time for listening sessions with all segments of our local Church and make a priority my parish visits, which I want to encompass the weekend Mass schedule and not just one Mass. In terms of diocesan pastoral planning, both at the administrative and parish levels, I will be assessing what steps need to be taken to further assist the “flourishing of faith,” especially in our parish communities. As a priest friend once reminded, “Sometimes we need to take a step back in order to leap forward.” For me, when we make the leap in our diocese and its parishes, I would like it to reflect for us “the joy of the Gospel.”
So you see I have been working here in Rome. Sunday was a free day and I had the chance to explore Vatican City a bit and visit again the Sistine and Pauline Chapels. On Sunday evening, I was invited to a social with the American priests who work at the Vatican. It was a chance to visit with friends and make new acquaintances. Again, though, even from them I heard the words, “Know we are here to help you in your ministry.” The big event this week will come on Thursday when the bishops together celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and meet with Pope Francis. I will certainly bring your greetings to him and ask his prayers as we seek in our portion of the Lord’s vineyard to accompany one another in faith.
God willing, I will be home on Friday night and I look forward to being with the Diocesan Pastoral Council on Saturday morning and at Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Oswego on Saturday afternoon. I will cap the weekend off by celebrating Mass at the Italian Festival in Syracuse on Sunday morning, having worked on my Italian for the last ten days.
Per piacere, prega per me e vi Dio benedica!