I was out jogging on a rather crisp December morning here in Ogdensburg. As I was lumbering past one home, I noticed a man outside stringing Christmas lights on his neatly trimmed shrubs. Now, normally I don’t say too much when I’m jogging. (It takes all my energy just to breathe and put one foot in front of the other.) But, in this case, as I went by, I asked the gentleman if he was ready for Santa. His response: “I don’t know about him, but I hope I’m ready for Jesus.”
I thought to myself, wait a minute, I should have said that, after all I am the bishop. But, I didn’t. Then I recalled the words that I spoke last April 30. In my remarks at my ordination/installation as Bishop of Ogdensburg I said that the mission has been set—the joy of a journey, the struggle of a lifetime…and it’s a family affair. As we close out the year 2010 and welcome the New Year, it has become abundantly clear to me that God’s pilgrim people throughout our North Country are experiencing the joys and the struggles of living as faithful Catholic Christians, as beautiful families of faith, generously supporting one another in our common journey to the Father.
The people of God that I have been privileged to meet are, indeed, ready for Jesus. Let me share with you why I am so inspired and hope-filled as we greet the Year 2011. We are ready for Jesus, ready to follow Him, because we have faithful men of God pastoring our local parishes. There could have been no better event for me to participate in as my episcopacy began than to spend time with my brother priests at our annual convocation in Lake Placid last May. I am inspired and humbled by their continual support and their love for their parishioners. What a privilege it has been for me to install several of them as new pastors and witness the parishioners’ love and support for their shepherds. I have, also, participated in many special parish anniversaries this summer and have celebrated with parish families their proud histories. Yes, clearly, our parishes continue their faith-filled heritage of following Jesus as Eucharistic communities.
Whether it was conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation, visiting our Catholic schools, celebrating Eucharist at Camp Guggenheim, “blessing brains” at our college campuses or attending Eagle Scout Courts of Honor, I have seen young women and men, supported by proud moms and dads, grow in love of God and service of neighbor. Our youth are ready to follow Jesus.
Pilgrimages led by the Knights of Columbus and Serra Club, Marriage Jubilee, Religious Jubilee, and Harvest Masses, Dinners for Two, Family Guggenheim and Family Forums are but a few examples of how we gather and support one another on our common journey as a family of faith. Our families want to follow Jesus.
These are but a few of the reasons why I find great joy in the journey of faith happening here in our beloved North Country. We all want to follow Jesus and we are helping each other, with the nourishment of Word and Sacrament, to do just that. But it would be naïve of me to ignore the real struggles that we encounter as a Church. They are no surprise to you, I am sure.
Our diocese is suffering from a critical need for priests. Each of us must actively promote vocations to the ordained ministry and consecrated life. When was the last time you asked someone if they considered a Church vocation? Do you attend your parish’s Holy Hour for Vocations? Do you pray for our fine seminarians or send them cards while they are away studying?
The impact on diocesan planning is clear. I find it extremely difficult, even after extensive consultation and dialogue, to close a parish. That decision is never taken lightly. However, demographics and the scarcity of priests, which will become even more acute, dictate that some parishes, with long histories of strong and vibrant faith must close. It is tragic, but necessary.
Other struggles that our Diocese face include the need to increase our evangelization efforts and welcome Catholics back home to the Sacraments, back to Sunday Mass, particularly our young adults. We must better educate and form the faithful about what we believe as Catholic Christians, particularly life issues. We need to re-double our efforts to encourage more parents to consider sending their children to our Catholic Schools.
These struggles may seem pretty overwhelming. They certainly make for much work for all of us. That brings me back to that December morning jog. About three blocks after my conversation with the neighbor stringing Christmas lights, I came upon another acquaintance who has been haunted for the past several months by the specter of cancer. He was outside by his car, placing Christmas gifts in the trunk. I greeted him with a “How are you doing?” With a beaming smile, he told me that he was “doing just great, things are looking up.” I know him to be a faithful Christian. His personal struggle with cancer would not extinguish the joy, hope and anticipation for tomorrow that he exuded so easily.
What an inspiration! What the human spirit can accomplish with the gift of the Holy Spirit! No matter what struggles come our way, no matter the trial or challenge, things are looking up because as a family of faith we journey together, following Jesus as fellow companions on the way to the Father’s house.
If you recall, at the end of my ordination/installation I asked if you were ready to begin a new phase in the faith life of our beloved north country, were you ready to follow Jesus. You spontaneously responded: “Yes.” I said “I am” and then I sat down. Well, my “sitting down” days are over, but I eagerly welcome the New Year because what I’ve experienced these past several months energizes me to provide the sure and compassionate guidance to the Kingdom that I promised you on the day I became your bishop. As we welcome the New Year, let me conclude with the words that ended my remarks not so many months ago at St. Mary’s Cathedral when I repeated some of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 Easter message of hope: “let us continue our pilgrimage, bearing in our hearts the song that is ancient and yet ever new, “let us sing to the Lord: glorious his triumph.” It is His triumph! Blessed New Year to you and your loved ones!