We are One Body in Christ: A Pastoral Letter on My 10th Anniversary as Bishop of Bridgeport
Early in January 2001, I was working in my office in the Pastoral Center in Washington, D.C. It was about nine in the morning when I was told that the Nuncio, the Pope's personal representative to the United States, was on the line. He asked if I would meet with him at the Nunciature at four that same afternoon. I agreed, of course, and hanging up the phone, I was pretty sure I'd be packing my bags.
I like to think that I trust in God's Providence and that I am a loyal son of the Church. On that day, however, I was also a curious son. So I checked to see which dioceses were expecting the appointment of a new bishop. Two stood out: Fairfield, Connecticut and Fairbanks, Alaska. I said a little prayer that it might be the former. I'm just not that good at ice fishing and flying a Cessna.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Nuncio told me that the Holy Father wished me to serve as the Fourth Bishop of Bridgeport and I happily accepted the appointment. Shortly after I met with the Nuncio, I was in Rome where I had an opportunity to thank Pope John Paul II for naming me to such a wonderful diocese. On the long plane ride home, I also read his newly published letter, On the Third Christian Millennium. In that letter, the saintly Pope, advanced in years and ailing, expressed his hope for a new springtime in the life of the Church.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, it occurred to me that my installation as Bishop of Bridgeport would take place just a few days before spring, on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph. I thus concluded that my installation homily should echo the Holy Father's hope for a new springtime, his hope for a new season of life, grace, and vitality in the Church's life. Even as I began writing my homily, however, I knew that the Pope's vision of the future was not the idle wish of a dreamer. It was the well-founded hope of an experienced, courageous, and saintly leader who discerned the Providence of God amid global adversity and human weakness. How many times he echoed the words of Jesus, "Be not afraid!" Countless people, especially the young, responded to his proclamation of Christ, his teaching of the faith, and his defense of human dignity. As we prepare for Pope John Paul II's beatification on May 1st, let us also take heart from the courage and love of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, a Shepherd who leads the Universal Church with extraordinary holiness, grace, and intelligence.
March, of course, is a month that often brings cold weather, snow storms, and high winds. Yet it is also a month filled with the hope of spring as the days lengthen and first signs of new life appear. Just as I began here in March 2001 amid many challenges and opportunities, so now in March 2011, I recognize with you that this new springtime in the Church's life continues to require of us assiduous prayer, holiness of life, wholeness of faith, unflagging hope, and dogged perseverance in love. With St. Paul we must strain forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13).
To Give Thanks, To Assess, To Look Ahead
Anniversaries are a time to give thanks, to assess, to look ahead, and to ask for the grace of renewed fidelity and generosity in living one's vocation. On this 10th anniversary of my service as Bishop of Bridgeport, I ask your kindness in taking a few moments to join me in doing those very things – giving thanks, assessing, looking ahead, and asking for the grace to serve the Lord's Church with renewed love – so that, together, we may grow as One Body in Christ.
In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict writes: "Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine, into what I think, say, do, and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others, for better or for worse" (Spe Salvi, no. 48). Our lives are linked together not merely because we live in Fairfield County, or travel the same roads, or shop in the same stores, but rather, because we are baptized members of Christ's Body, which is the Church. St. Paul puts it this way: "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another" (Rom. 12:4-5).
In Christ, we are brothers and sisters who claim God as our Heavenly Father even as we seek to do his will "on earth as it is in heaven." It is by taking part in the Eucharistic Liturgy, by sharing in Christ's redeeming sacrifice and receiving His Body and Blood, that we are truly bound together as One Body in Christ, a local incarnation of the Church Universal here in Fairfield County, the Diocese of Bridgeport. As is the case in every diocese or "particular church," here the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative (Christus Dominus, no. 11).
Along Redemption's Road
It would be foolish for us to imagine that, on our own, we can bring about a new springtime, a new season of life and vitality in the life of the Diocese. As the One Body of Christ we rely on the grace of Christ, the Head. And while we already have been redeemed by the Death and Resurrection of Christ, still, His saving love has yet fully to take root in our hearts, which are beset by sin and unruly inclinations to sin. So, while the Church herself is holy and endowed with the means of holiness, we, the members of the Church, are often plagued by sin. Thus, we experience the need for redemption in our individual lives and as members of the Body of Christ. In fact, the purpose of the annual Lenten Penance Campaign is not only to give individual penitents ample opportunity to go to confession but also to acknowledge our common need for repentance and for the forgiveness Christ offers us in the Sacrament of Penance. I am very grateful to the priests serving in this Diocese for their pastoral generosity and charity as confessors and for their devotion to the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18).
Just as we find attractive the goodness of people on their way toward holiness, so too, we can be discouraged by the failings and sins of those who have not lived up to their high callings, including members of the clergy who have abused children and young people. This has deeply wounded the Body of Christ and has called for responses of healing and reform. The past ten years have been marked by strenuous efforts to remove offenders from ministry, to create a truly safe environment for our children and young people, and to reach out to victims.
These years also witnessed the misuse of parish funds in a small number of instances. This spurred on the development of a nationally recognized, state-of-the-art parish finance system. In addition to a revised parish finance and administration manual and a clear chart of accounts, parish finances are managed on a uniform and secure on-line program. Parishes with incomes exceeding $400,000 are reviewed by external auditing firms; quarterly and annual financial reports to parishioners are also mandated. A similar system has been instituted for Catholic schools throughout the Diocese. While these measures and others are good and necessary, they do not absolve any of us, me especially, from continuing to ask the mercy and protection of God as we look to the future.
Continuing to build trust remains a great challenge. This isn't just a matter of hoping that negative headlines will subside or that people's memories will fade. Far from being something passive, restoring trust means first and foremost asking for the grace to be trustworthy. It also means recognizing that some have left the Church because of scandal and then praying and working for their return. It requires that we reach out to those who, while remaining, find it difficult to support the Church's ministries, such as our inner-city schools and charities, to name a few. By prayer, openness, necessary reforms, and love, we must bear witness to the importance and worthiness of the Church's God-given mission.
Sometimes people say that, while their faith in Christ is intact, their trust in the Church has been shattered. Yet Christ and the Church are inseparable, as the Head is to the Body. Throughout the long history of the Church there have been saints and scoundrels, high points and low points, yet our forebears kept the faith. They recognized that, despite human folly, Christ continues to love His Church and to lead us, the members of His Body, in the ways of holiness. Like those who have gone before us, each of us has a responsibility, even in difficult times, to build up the Body of Christ by professing the faith, sharing in the Mass and the Sacraments, praying each day and participating in the mission of our parishes, schools, charities and programs of service.
As a pilgrim in history, the Church is often buffeted not only by internal strife but also by external tragedies. One has only to think of the tragedy of 9/11 in which so many residents of Fairfield County – relatives, friends, and colleagues – lost their lives. Indeed, many of those who died and many of those who lost loved ones are fellow parishioners, members of the One Body of Christ. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we shall honor both those who died and those who survived that awful day, even as we shall redouble our prayers for peace and justice in this complex and troubled world. At the same time, we shall honor the first responders whose heroism will forever be etched in our collective memory.
This past decade has also been a time of challenge for religious liberty. In these days, we are witnessing an irrepressible yearning for freedom in the Middle East. Yet we also we recognize that many of our fellow Christians in the countries like Egypt and Iraq are being persecuted and systematically driven out of the region. Consider, for example, the plight of the Coptic, Chaldean and Palestinian Christians. Even as we pray for them, we no longer imagine that our own religious liberty rests secure. Last fall, I wrote a pastoral letter on religious liberty (www.bridgeportdiocese.com), which described those challenges in detail. It remains true that every generation must struggle for freedom and exercise it, if it is to survive.
Thus we united as One Body in Christ with the other dioceses in Connecticut in turning back an unconstitutional bill that would have re-organized the Catholic Church in Connecticut along the lines of the Congregational Church. We fought back when the Office of State Ethics tried unsuccessfully to put arbitrary limits on our right to defend our religious liberty in a public rally. We have struggled with the decisions of state courts which seemingly changed their own rules of procedure midstream so as to accommodate the untimely demands of various news organizations. And we have had to struggle continuously against bills introduced by State legislators that aim to impose upon the Church unlimited liability for sexual abuse claims while holding state-run schools and programs exempt. These struggles have not only tested our unity as the Body of Christ, but in many respects, they have helped to forge it. I thank all of you who have united in response to these challenges and ask God to give us the strength to maintain that eternal vigilance which is the price of freedom.
The Multiplier Factor
In reflecting on the challenges facing the Diocese, I sometimes meditate on Jesus' miraculous feeding of the 5,000 recounted in Mark 6:30-44. All that the disciples had on hand were "five loaves and two fish" – yet Jesus said to them, "you give them something to eat!" Taking what little they had, Jesus abundantly fed the multitudes.
Yes, there are days when I feel something of the dismay that the disciples must have felt when they heard Jesus say this. "So few are the resources compared to the needs!" I am wont to say. Yet, over and over again, I have seen how the Lord multiplies the gifts He gives to members of this Diocese. He has endowed the Church with His living Word, with the Sacraments, and indeed all the means of holiness and apostolic vigor. He has enabled us to root our profession of faith in that of St. Peter and his successors. The Lord has touched our hearts with His grace to cleanse, enliven, and uplift the natural gifts and talents He has bestowed upon us. And in parishes, schools, Catholic Charities, and other ministries which are part of this particular Church, the Lord continually raises up men and women who not only place their talents but indeed their very lives at the service of Christ's redeeming mission. Here I am thinking especially of so many devoted priests and deacons, religious and lay people who are deeply engaged in the mission of the Church to evangelize, to catechize, to sanctify and to serve the needs of the poor. I am especially grateful for the eight new religious communities that began to serve here in the last ten years. Reflecting on these gifts and on so many co-workers in the Lord's vineyard, "how, indeed, shall I make a return to the Lord for his goodness to me?" (Psalm 116:12). How can I adequately thank the Lord for the privilege of serving this portion of his flock, this family of faith?
More Than We Could Ever Ask or Imagine
Allow me, then, in a spirit of thanksgiving, briefly to discuss the "multiplication" of your generosity as exemplified through several diocesan ministries. For the Lord's grace at work in our midst is indeed "accomplishing immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).
Inspired by countless saints who gave their lives to promote the dignity of others, your support of Catholic Charities enables those living in poverty to begin reaching their God-given potential. Early on in my service here I visited the Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport, one of the largest soup kitchens in Connecticut. While I was helping to serve food and greeting visitors, the Director of the Merton Center said simply, "This is a place where men and women can be the people God meant them to be." It is not enough for us to say that Catholic Charities is the largest, non-governmental source of charitable and social services in the County. What must be said is that the "engine" that drives Catholic Charities is the dignity of each human person understood by reason yet wondrously confirmed by Christ, the Son of God who assumed our humanity. Whether you visit the 22 new apartments of low-cost housing on the Merton campus or help serve a meal at the New Covenant House of Hospitality in Stamford, or learn about the mental health and family counseling services which Catholic Charities provides to those in need, you see our reasoned and faith-filled convictions about the dignity of the human person being put into practice. We don't merely preach about human dignity. It's at the heart of what we do on a daily basis as the One Body of Christ.
The teaching of the Church on human dignity is evident also in our Catholic schools. Dedicated to helping parents as the first educators of their children, our Catholic schools unremittingly strive for excellence. First and foremost, they strive to be excellent partners in helping form our young people in the faith of the Church and in the practice of the faith, for it is in being an active part of the One Body of Christ that our young people discover the depths of God's love for them and thus their human dignity and their vocation in life. Our conviction about the human dignity of our young people also demands that our schools be academically excellent, and they are. Since 2008, twelve of our elementary schools have received the United States Department of Education Blue Ribbon Award, meaning that our students' scores rank in the top 10% of all schools, public or private, across the nation. To the best of my knowledge, no diocese or public school district has more Blue Ribbon Schools than the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Is this because our schools are the wealthiest? Far from it! Here again it is question of multiplying gifts. In 2004, in a talk at Fairfield University, I invited the laity to work together in a new way with clergy and diocesan officials to strengthen our schools. I am grateful to God for the wonderful response that invitation received. Our parish priests, our Superintendent of Schools and her team, our principals, teachers, and staff, our parents, advisory boards, and most of all our students – all collaborate and give generously of themselves in making our schools second to none in faith, academic excellence, security and love.
This same commitment is found in our Cathedral Education Cluster, which brings hope to students and families through six elementary schools in inner city Bridgeport. Simply put, these students are educated in an environment that promotes success and encouragement far beyond what they would receive in the public school system. Many if not most of these students attend Catholic high schools where the graduation rate is 100% and where almost all the graduates go to college. In the last three years, for example, 100% of the graduates of Kolbe-Cathedral High School have gone on to college. I proudly invite parents to see the wonderful work that is going on in all our diocesan college-preparatory high schools – Notre Dame, St. Joseph's, Trinity, Immaculate, and Kolbe-Cathedral. This Diocese is also strengthened by the splendid education provided by Fairfield College Preparatory School and the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
Recently, I was asked by a young girl what I would have wanted to become had I not become a priest. People smiled when they heard her question and I did too – but my reply was very simple: I have no greater joy in life than being a priest. I have never seriously wanted to be anything other than a priest. I am proud to stand should-to-shoulder with the priests of this diocese – some of the most talented and dedicated men I have ever met. This joy motivates me to ensure that your generosity provides an outstanding formation program for young men who are being formed for the priesthood. Thanks to your prayers and generosity, some 38 men are preparing for the priesthood in our Diocese. Please continue to pray for vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life.
The Office for Pastoral Services is responsible for assisting parishes in vital areas such as RCIA, catechetics, and youth ministry. Our young people benefit from the great dedication of parish directors and coordinators of religious education as well as our many volunteer catechists. Working closely with diocesan catechetical leaders, the Office for Pastoral Services last year organized a Catechetical Congress that welcomed nearly 700 people. It also convened the first Convivio retreat in any diocese in the United States for 250 young people, and completely restructured the St. Cyril of Jerusalem Program for Catechesis so that all parishes would have professionally recorded classes about the Catholic faith on DVD as well as online. In order to better employ the gifts and talents of lay people, a Facilitator Training Program was launched so that parishes would have laity professionally trained to guide parish ministries. Mention should also be made of the thoroughly revised Marriage Preparation Program, which is being carried out at the diocesan level and also in parishes. This past year it was a special grace for our Diocese to welcome two Sisters of Life who are directing our Respect Life Ministry. The Ministry for People with Developmental Disability continues to grow. We are one of only a very few dioceses around the country who offer professional help to parishes in preparing children and adults with developmental disabilities to receive the Sacraments of Initiation.
Helping the Diocese Grow as One Body in Christ
Your financial contributions to the Annual Bishop's Appeal fund these and other ministries. Sometimes, however, parishioners hesitate to give to the Appeal because they think it is used for administrative purposes or to cover legal fees and the like. That is simply not true. What is collected for the Appeal is used to fund Catholic Charities, Catholic Education, Religious Education, Priestly Formation, Services for Retired Priests, Continuing Education of Clergy and other ministries directly connected with preaching the Gospel, worshipping the Lord, and serving those in need. I am especially gratified to witness the prudent steward-ship of those who direct these various diocesan ministries, thereby stretching and even multiplying the resources at hand.
In addition, the Diocese has worked hard to keep administrative costs low. It froze the defined benefit lay pension plan and instituted a defined contribution plan. The priests' retirement plan has remained sound, even during a time of financial turmoil. Continued efforts are underway to contain and even drive down the costs of health care insurance. In addition, you should know that the dedicated men and women who work at the Catholic Center do so at a considerable financial sacrifice. We are in their debt.
Looking to the Future as One Body in Christ
As we look ahead, we wonder what the future will bring. Trusting in God's Providence, we ask for the grace to respond to whatever challenges and opportunities lie in store for the Diocese and for our journey of faith as One Body in Christ. Prudent foresight, however, suggests that we consider the following.
First, the heart of any diocese is its parishes. Most Catholics experience the Church in and through their parish communities. It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges facing the Church today is ensuring that parishes remain not only operationally viable but also apostolically vigorous. Thus, I am discussing with the Presbyteral Council models by which parishes can assess their vitality while reaching out anew to parishioners who, for whatever reason, no longer practice the faith. In this connection, I began a process, now well underway, to study urban parishes with the goal of strengthening pastoral ministry and using personnel and material resources as wisely as possible. More will be said of this later.
Second, the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Mass, is the heart of every parish. Indeed, it is the "source and summit" of the Church's life. The Presbyteral Council and most priests with whom I've spoken believe that the introduction of the newly translated Roman Missal later this year is an opportunity to help parishioners grow in their understanding of the Mass and the Sacraments. The new translation aims to unfold for us more amply the richness of the original Latin prayers, which, though compact, are suffused with biblical allusions and doctrinal references. A small committee of priests is assisting their brother priests and deacons in studying in the new translation and in helping parishioners understand more deeply the nature, structure, and beauty of the Church's liturgy and its central importance in our lives as followers of Christ. For it is principally through the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Mass, that we become One Body in Christ. When we consume the Holy Eucharist, we become the "multiplication of the loaves and fishes" through the various ways we live our faith and serve the needs of others.
Third, I am most grateful to all who share in my ministry of the Word of God, most especially my brother priests and deacons, religious sisters, parents, principals and school teachers, directors of religious education and catechists, and youth ministers. You and I must daily pray for the grace not only to teach the faith but to bear witness to it by word and deed. For we recognize that the vitality of all the Church's ministries hinges on the faithful proclamation and systematic teaching of the Word of God. It is the golden thread that runs through every activity and ministry of the Church: the liturgy, evangelization, catechesis, the renewal of family life, outreach to the young, vocations, and service to the poor, to name a few. Each of us must ask for the grace to be hearers of the Word and doers of the Word, and thus witnesses to the Word.
Fourth, we have to recognize that a goodly number of priests will reach so-called "retirement" age in the next few years. This includes the large ordination classes from the 1960s. While priests may lay aside certain leadership and administrative burdens, no priest ever really retires, for the priesthood is not a job but a way of life, a vocation. Clearly, the Diocese will have to redouble its efforts to ensure that there will be a sufficient number of priests to serve our parishes. Even as we give thanks for the momentum in our priestly formation program, so too, we must intensify our prayers for an increase of vocations to the priesthood in our Diocese and must work together to encourage apt candidates to respond to God's call. At the same time, we are grateful for deacons, religious sisters and lay persons who contribute greatly to the pastoral vitality of our parishes. In a spirit of gratitude for their priestly service, we will need to provide for priests in their advancing years by expanding the Queen of the Clergy Residence and establishing an additional facility at St. Joseph Manor in Trumbull.
Finally, our Diocese is working to strengthen its communications capabilities. Much has already been done, including re-vamping the Fairfield County Catholic, improving the diocesan website, and moving into Facebook and other forms of social communications. It has now also become possible for parishes to communicate with parishioners by e-mail and the Diocese is also building its e-mail network. These and other technological advances, however, need to be matched by a renewed determination to bring the Church's faith into the public square, to show how revelation and reason shed light on our daily lives and on efforts to create a humane society, a civilization of truth and love. It is also up to us to move beyond the negative images of the Church and instead to portray her vitality as evidenced in wonderful works of evangelization, catechesis, education, worship and service of the poor. Currently a small task force of communications professionals is working with the diocesan director of communications to develop an ongoing communications plan.
The Intercession of the Saints
The Lord never ceases calling us to live our faith to the fullest by putting it into action. When we place ourselves and our resources at the service of the Church's mission, they are not only multiplied, they also shine with glory of the Lord's truth, beauty, and goodness. For that reason, we should look to the future with confidence, especially as we see the vocations and youth programs gaining traction and many other signs of new life and hope all around us. Nonetheless, we must be attentive to our need to grow as individuals and as a people in the ways of holiness. Because there are empty pews in our churches, we have more work to do. Because some have been lost and driven away, because some have simply allowed their faith to fade away, we must be Christ for them through our prayerful witness to Jesus and His Gospel. If we have the financial means and God-given talents, we must respond generously to the needs of all God's Holy People.
Ten years ago, I entrusted the pastoral care of this Diocese to St. Joseph, the Guardian of the Holy Family, and confident in his intercession, I once again call upon this great saint and Patron of the Universal Church to intercede for us. I also invoke the prayers of the Patron of this Diocese and Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine. With the help of their prayers and united ever more closely to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Star of Evangelization, may we continue to grow together as One Body in Christ.