As I write this article, I am returning from the retreat for the bishops of the United States held at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. Upwards of 250 bishops were present at this retreat, which was given by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a well-known retreat master and the Preacher for the Papal Household.
It is common for the bishops of the New York State Region as well as bishops from other regions in the country to gather for an annual retreat. However, this year the bishops met as a national group rather than in their respective regions.
When Pope Francis met with representatives from our national bishops’ conference in September, he suggested that the bishops of the United States make a retreat, “a time of seclusion, prayer and discernment, as a necessary step toward responding in the spirit of the Gospel to the crisis of credibility” that we are experiencing (Pope Francis, Letter to U.S. Bishops, January 2019).
Mundelein was the perfect setting for the seven-day retreat proposed by our Holy Father. The seminary is located on a beautiful campus with hundreds of leafy acres, buildings that merge the American Colonial period and Roman architecture, an expansive library, and a magnificent chapel. I had never been to Mundelein and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to explore all it offered. These pleasant surroundings were enhanced by some mild and sunny days for a January in Chicago.
The themes of the retreat were common ones regularly addressed during a retreat. However, in the conferences every retreat master draws from his personal storehouse of spirituality, experiences, and the realities of the cultural situation. Such was the case with Father Cantalamessa. His spiritual insights, his many years of experience as a priest (he is 84 years old and 60 years a priest), and his grasp of the challenges and joys of a bishop’s vocation offered much food for thought and prayer and were deeply appreciated.
For me, the retreat was a particularly special time. It was encouraging to be with so many of my brother bishops who take the call to conversion seriously, recognizing the troubled times of the Church today and desiring sincerely to discern God’s will and direction for ourselves and for the people entrusted to our care.
Periods of silence were observed during the retreat. These privileged times invited us to listen to the still small voice of the Lord deep within us. It is refreshing to have this time for reflection. So often our days are consumed with responsibilities and obligations that we may not take the time to pause and listen to God. Even in prayer we may do “all the talking.” The silence of retreat reminds us that listening to God is an important aspect of our relationship with Him.
In addition to the times of silence, there were opportunities to enjoy one another, share stories, and offer words of encouragement. We generally talked about events in our respective dioceses and our efforts to deepen what we were hearing during the retreat. It may surprise you to know that when bishops get together they frequently speak of you — the dedicated and hard-working faithful members of their diocesan community.
We celebrated and talked about our first American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose feast we celebrated on January 4. We remembered St. John Neumann’s missionary spirit as a priest in Buffalo, Rochester, and Philadelphia on January 5. Brother Andre, the humble porter at St. Joseph’s oratory in Montreal, was celebrated on January 6. The memory of the saints is important as each of us pursues our vocation of holiness. A retreat helps us to keep the call to holiness and our eternal destiny front and center!
The retreat did not solve the problems and challenges that each bishop will face when he returns to his respective diocese. This was not the retreat’s purpose. Rather the retreat provided us with the opportunity to imitate the Lord who at critical moments in His mission withdrew to pray. In his letter to us, read at the beginning of our retreat, Pope Francis reminded us, “We know that given the seriousness of the situation, no response or approach seems adequate; nonetheless, we as pastors must have the ability, and above all the wisdom, to speak a word born of heartfelt, prayerful and collective listening to the Word of God and to the pain of our people.”
Be assured that each of you and all in our beloved diocese were held especially close during the retreat. Thank you for your prayers and be assured of a remembrance in mine. May we all embrace the call to conversion and open our hearts to the grace of reconciliation with God and one another.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.