Thursday, October 22, 2009

Abp. John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., Muses on 25 Years as a Bishop (10 in Winona)

Wednesday, Oct. 28 marks the 12th anniversary of my appointment as the 10th Archbishop of Portland. Sometimes people will ask me, “What do you do as a bishop?” It’s a question I ask myself, especially on an occasion like this one. What indeed have I done? What have I allowed the Lord to do through me or in spite of me? By the time I arrived as your archbishop in 1997, I had already served 3½ years as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago and 10½ years as the diocesan bishop in Winona, Minn. I certainly couldn’t plead ignorance. Much to the contrary, I was already exceedingly aware of the many challenges and pitfalls.

St. Augustine was the bishop of Hippo back in the fourth century. He wrote words that were true then and remain as true as ever today about the office, which has been mine among you. He wrote, “The day I became a bishop, a burden was laid on my shoulders for which it will be no easy task to render an account. The honors I receive are for me an ever present cause of uneasiness. Indeed, it terrifies me to think that I could take more pleasure in the honor attached to my office, which is where its danger lies, than in your salvation, which ought to be its fruit. This is why being set above you fills me with alarm, whereas being with you gives me comfort. Danger lies in the first; salvation in the second.” A common paraphrase of Augustine’s words is this, “For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian.”
St. Augustine did not feel that it would be an easy task for him to render an accounting of his service. Nor do I. Yet some day I will have to stand before the Lord and answer the query that many of you have directed my way, “What have you done in your ministry as shepherd of the flock of western Oregon?” What have I done? Good question. One thing is certain. I have prayed a lot, probably more than I ever prayed in my life. In fact, as the years have gone by, I find myself devoting more time to prayer each day than I did in my earlier years. The tasks incumbent upon my office place demands upon me that far exceed my own personal abilities. But I also firmly believe, as did Mary when she was called to be the Mother of Jesus, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

And so I pray. I have prayed with you and I pray for you each and every day. I pray that together we will truly be the Body of Christ, making his presence felt in this very secular world of western Oregon. I have prayed with you in every church of the archdiocese, on festive occasions, at celebrations of the Eucharist, in times of great joy and also in times of great sadness and shame. Because you prayed with me, I myself was uplifted and always returned to my other duties with a greater sense of purpose and pastoral zeal.

The Second Vatican Council reminded bishops that their ministry is a collaborative one. It requires a very visible and vigorous presence among God’s people, not only in liturgical celebrations but also in a host of meetings, at significant moments in the life of parishes and institutions, with members of the clergy, those who have embraced the consecrated life, pastoral ministers and parish leaders, with brother bishops, at both national and international gatherings, even, at times, in the service of the Holy See. As a result, I know the highways of western Oregon extraordinarily well and my frequent flyer miles were never greater.

Because it is my responsibility to preach and teach, I also spend hours working on homilies, pastoral addresses, instructions, talks for retreats and days of recollection and many other reflections which I am called upon to share in public. I am not the world’s most clever writer or speaker and so I promised myself early in my ministry that the least I could do is prepare my remarks. Then there would be a beginning, a middle and an end which would hopefully not be too far away from the beginning. I also spend a lot of time preparing my weekly column for the Catholic Sentinel and writing other papers that are sometimes required of me in my ministry as bishop both here in the archdiocese and in service of the universal church. There are always reports that have to be prepared for one group or another and, of course, every five years for the Holy Father concerning life and ministry here in the archdiocese. Correspondence via e-mail and snail mail also takes a lot of time.

Because I have come to learn that parishioners think they have a good bishop when they have a good priest, I spend a lot of my time working with our priests and deacons and also promoting vocations to the ordained ministry. I also do my best to promote similar efforts on behalf of religious communities. Three good priests have been vocations directors during my time. When I came we had 14 seminarians. This year we have 42 plus two seminarians from the St. John Society, which we are supporting and including in our pastoral care. Even though we have enjoyed modest success in recent years in recruiting candidates, there is still a great need for priests here in the archdiocese. I pray for an increase in the number every day and I am grateful for the wonderful support I receive from many of you in promoting vocations to church ministry.

Willy-nilly, I have spent a lot of time as a fundraiser, trying to provide the financial resources that are necessary to support the many ministries that are so essential for the life of the church. Because of all our litigation and bankruptcy expenses, I shall be always remembered as the bishop who gave away the financial resources of the diocese. I hope that over the next five years we can help rebuild some of those resources. Fortunately our annual Archbishops Catholic Appeal has done well since my arrival. But this year it’s down with 2,000 fewer donors and a $300,000 decline in pledges. I know I have to provide the leadership to try and turn that around. Like most parish priests, I do not delight in prodding people to live up to their stewardship responsibilities, but that is a task which is part of the job and one which is more necessary than ever in our present situation. And so I keep asking.

What about the pastoral priorities of the archdiocese? Six years ago the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council asked me to make faith formation at all levels, youth and young adult ministry, and the strengthening of multicultural ministry as the primary goals here in the archdiocese in our efforts as disciples together in the evangelizing mission of the church. The reduction of staff at the pastoral center and fewer financial resources to support these ministries have made it difficult for me to implement these goals adequately. But many of the parishes have picked up on what the archdiocese has been unable to do and for that I am most grateful. Furthermore, my colleagues in archdiocesan leadership and in service as pastoral ministers have, at great personal sacrifice, carried on nobly and made significant inroads in strengthening the kinds of assistance we are able to offer our parishes in an effort to achieve these goals.

In spite of it all, the 12 years have been a truly blessed experience. I have been wanting on many occasions and there are always people to remind me of that. I fret about the unity of the church. I am aware of so many divisions and the unfortunate lack of civility on the part of many in expressing their dissatisfaction. In that same sermon I quoted earlier, St. Augustine also said, “My obligations involve me in so much turmoil that I feel as though I were tossed by storms on a great ocean.” To which I many times have said “Amen.” But, by the grace of God, I still love my vocation as a bishop and those of you whom I am privileged to serve. I pray on this anniversary that my ministry will be a fruitful one and that, when the day comes when I stand before the Lord to give an accounting of my stewardship, he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And if he can’t say that, I hope he will still let me sneak in the back gate of heaven. God bless.

All Saints Day and The Year of the Priest

The history of the Church is filled with stories of individuals who were canonized because of their courage and their holiness. All of us know that there are countless others who are saints even if they are not among the canonized. The Feast of All Saints, a holy day of obligation, is meant to honor their memory.
As we celebrate the Feast of All Saints on Nov. 1, we celebrate the lives of “those who have died and gone before us into the presence of the Lord.” They have provided models for Christians through all of history.
During this Year of the Priest, many of the faithful have asked what they might do to honor the priests who serve in this Archdiocese. The Feast of All Saints seems a particularly appropriate time for me to request the special prayers of our people for these priests. Today I ask that the Feast of All Saints be a special day of prayer for priests. May all those priests who minister in the Archdiocese of Portland one day be counted among those whose feast we celebrate on All Saints Day.

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