In reaching out to people, “you have to be a bridge builder,” Archbishop Robert J. Carlson told the Review while speaking about his efforts as an evangelist during an interview in Saginaw a few weeks before his installation in St. Louis.
The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese, where he was ordained a priest and served as an auxiliary bishop, had recently written that he has “a missionary mentality, not afraid to proclaim the Gospel, invite people to respond, and wanting to see the Church grow and thrive.”
The archbishop told the Review that the Saginaw Diocese does what is called an “October count” where every person is counted in churches four Sundays in a row.
The count shows that the number of people going to church isn’t the same as the number of people listed as Catholics in a diocese.
As a “bridge builder,” he said, “you have to find ways to bring people back. We know from the Scriptures that we have a responsibility to bring Christ to others. There are people wanting to meet Christ. Every Catholic has to be an evangelizer.”
A variety of programs exist to assist with that task, he said, and the Church needs to help people be evangelizers, especially at the parish level.
He noted that when he used to lead parish missions he would ask people on the second night of the mission to look through their neighborhood for people who are not attending a church.
His advice is to “Go over there with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and invite them (to the mission) tomorrow night. Even if they say no, they’re ahead. And if they come, invite them to church and then to brunch. It’s that simple. All you can do is open the door. They have to decide whether they want to come in or not.”
He related a story he heard while serving as a bishop in South Dakota. A woman stopped going to church right after her husband died. Some parishioners couldn’t figure out why. Finally, they decided to stop by her house and talk to her. They found out she didn’t drive.
“From then on, someone picked her up and brought her to church. Build bridges. That’s what we do.”
Archbishop Carlson said he is not prepared to say what particular challenges he faces in St. Louis, and he won’t be able to ascertain them for a while.
“The challenge right now is to listen,” he said.
People expect some initiatives right away, he said, but “after two weeks you aren’t going to see anything. You can’t lead until you get a feel. I want to know the wonderful things that are going on so I can support those, and hopefully begin to respond in areas where there isn’t something going on.”
He said there are obvious challenges in any diocese. Support for schools and vocations are two obvious examples, he said.
Handing on the faith is a big task, and Catholic schools are a great way to do that, he said. “In those areas where there’s not an opportunity (for a school) we have to make sure we have the best Catholic formation possible.”
Teaching the faith
A number of outlets are available to him to teach the faith to all the people, he said, but the best approach is for him to be present in parishes.
Being there for a Confirmation or to talk to a group or for Sunday Mass is helpful, but “even then you don’t get to see everybody. The people in the pews are only the ones who went to that particular Mass. So how else do you talk to them? Well, in St. Louis you have the Catholic newspaper, and that’s a significant way.”
In conscience formation, another way of helping people is to provide them with a document that they can prayerfully absorb, he said. “I found pastoral letters an effective way to do that.”
These pastoral letters are the work of many people who help him by suggesting topics, doing research and more, he said.
“The last couple years I sent out something at Lent just to remind people of the gift and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance. I’ll probably do something next Lent.”
Or, he added with a smile and a laugh, “I could just text message everyone my homily.”
Archbishop Carlson said in his view there are four vocations. One is marriage. A second is consecrated (religious) life. A third is the priesthood. And a fourth, though the Church has never spoken about it officially, is a generous single life.
The largest number of people are going into the vocation of marriage, “and that is a very significant vocation, which I think is a great blessing for the Church. You also have people who are single their whole life and who are very involved in the life of the Church. They use their gifts and talents in a special way also.”
If he hadn’t become a priest he probably would be a doctor, he said, because he was a pre-med student before deciding to go to the seminary.
But, he said, “I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love being a priest. And if there is someone in the Archdiocese of St. Louis who is interested in being a priest, I’d love to talk to them.”
The seminary is a good place to discern the call to the priesthood, he noted. In St. Louis, having a seminary system is “a tremendous gift because you don’t have to go very far to reflect on it and you’re still in touch with your family.”
Having a diocesan seminary is important to provide for new priests for the archdiocese and to provide a place for smaller dioceses to send their seminarians, he said.
In addition, by having the seminary, “it gives me a chance to get to know the seminarians and be involved in their formation so that we can raise up the priests who can best serve the people of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I made a commitment years ago to never ordain anyone I don’t know.”
A new beginning
Leaving Saginaw is hard, he said, because “it’s always hard to leave people behind. At the same time there are new people you get a chance to meet. It’s bittersweet.”
He noted that he’s always followed a principle — “I’m happy to stay, I’m happy to go — and “that has served me well in my parish assignments and my work. Sometimes I’m surprised when they ask me to go, but that’s why I became a priest. You go to a place, the Lord calls you someplace else.”
St. Louis is sometimes called “the Rome of the West” and “that’s pretty impressive” for someone in the Church, he said.
Wherever he goes, he said, “I can do two things: I can pray for people and I can bring the faith to them. If those talents are needed, it’s a good match. I don’t pretend to be anything more.”
Obedience, he said, “has to come out of prayer. If a person isn’t a person of prayer, it’s very difficult to be obedient. That even applies to family life and marriage. If spouses are people of prayer they will understand and be obedient to their role. If a priest, deacon or bishop is a person of prayer, God will speak to them too.”
Prayerfulness can be applied outside strictly Church matters, too, he said. “If something is going on in society and prayerfully you have considered it — and God is asking you to speak for or against it, you are called to do so.”
He noted that it was because of prayer that he started in Saginaw a mission to Colombia.
He cited as an example of obedience the time when the Church asked priests to stop using glass chalices. He put his Waterford crystal chalice in a curia cabinet and used a medal chalice given to him by a priest of 67 years who had died.
“My responsibility as a man of obedience is to respond. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions. I share them when asked and appropriate. I have strong opinions, but at the same time I am a man of the Church.”
One time, he said, he was with other bishops when they were asked a question. He responded with his thoughts.
“The person at the table seemed to listen. And it was a significant person in the Church. You don’t lose anything by that. You have to give decision-makers the best information possible so they can make good decisions.”
He said he reads as much as possible, including newspapers, magazines and articles some would consider conservative and some that people would consider liberal. He also believes in listening to and talking to people. “That’s so important.” St. Louis Review