Advent, Deacons, and the Humility of God

Advent begins in less than a month. The Deacon magazine is preparing for this holy season. Here is my contribution.

The themes of Advent come to us every year and find us in a different place. Just think back to last year’s Advent when most of us had never heard of COVID-19. This year, Advent and its themes resound in new ways. Not only is the world different this year, we ourselves are different. This fact is true every year, of course, but for most of us never in such a dramatic way.

Advent focuses our attention on the humility of God. We don’t often think of God as humble, but consider it closely. Think of what our God has done. We sing during Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” Our God is not only with us, our God has emptied himself into our human nature.

St. Paul reminds us to imitate Christ and to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:3-8).

Humility (from the Latin humus, “earth”) means being “grounded,” knowing who we are, with no illusions of grandeur at one end or a false, groveling humility at the other. Humility means being in relationship with “the other”; as St. Paul said to the Philippians, we are to see others as more important than ourselves and tend to others’ needs before our own. This, too, is a participation in the humility of God. God is always about pouring forth: God brings life; sustains and provides; heals, restores, and saves — all so we can share that life with God forever. The Son of God tells us often that he came not to be served but to serve: again, this reflects the humility of God.

What does that mean to us deacons during this year’s Advent? First, the Son of God teaches us that humility means not clinging to things, things that might even be ours by right. Therefore, for us who are baptized into the life of the Trinity and ordained into the servanthood of Christ, we must be similarly kenotic: no honor, glory, reputation, status.

But why did Christ pour himself out like that? To what end? And why should we?

Christ emptied himself so as to use that humanness to connect with us, to have human hands to touch us and heal us, human eyes to see us, even a human heart to burn with love for us. He uses that emptiness to elevate us, to fill us with his own mercy and compassion. He shows us how we, even in our own human weakness, can lift up others and bless them. Those who have strength give that strength to those who are weak. Those who have resources can raise others out of poverty. In short, whatever skills, strengths and gifts we may have, through the grace of God, are to be used for the good of others. Gifts received are gifts to be re-gifted to others.

The first week of Advent calls us to be on watch, to be alert to the actions of God. We watch for God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of our people. Our God is coming to us and does so not with trumpet blasts and military parades welcoming the conquering hero; we must be alert to God’s coming in a manger, in the powerless form of an infant. Around us are people who are themselves struggling due to depression, illness or loneliness. What can we pour out for them?

The second week of Advent calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, and the first reading from Isaiah begins, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Only when this is done do we “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” by filling in the valleys and bringing low the mountains. We are to give away, to pour out comfort to our sisters and brothers. The approaching holy days were challenging to many people even before the current pandemic and other crises that we face today. What will best give comfort to God’s people? What do we “have” that can be given for the comfort of others?

The third week of Advent focuses on John the Baptizer. Everything John did, even before his birth, pointed the way to Christ. His life and ministry was all about the One who would come after him. What a sublime act of humility: to constantly point away from oneself to highlight the Word of God! We are to do no less. John humbly surrendered his own ambition, family, even his very life to make sure Christ was proclaimed to the people.

Finally, the fourth week of Advent offers us the chance to encounter the humble young woman of Nazareth, Mary, as she receives the news about God’s plan. The great mystery of the Annunciation is that she could have said no! Salvation history hinged on that wonderful, humble fiat. Mary holds nothing back and pours everything she is into accepting that divine Will. Through her humility, the humble Christ comes to us.

Throughout Advent 2020, may we consider the humility of God. The disciple of Christ seeks to follow the Lord’s path, and this demands no less a kenosis on our part as deacons. In his reflections on Advent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas” (Westminster John Knox Press, $16): “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness. … In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.”

What would our Church look like if every member, from the newest neophyte to the pope, from bishop to novice, from cardinal to deacon, from curial prefect to parish staff volunteer, laid down “all power, honor, reputation, vanity, arrogance, individualism”? What if each and every member of the Church lived out St. Paul’s admonition to live “in humility, treating others as better than yourself”?

Have a Blessed and Humble Advent

Pope Francis and His Critics: Pastoral Perspectives

No one could have predicted the crises we face today, and they are slamming us all at once. Even before the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were challenged by the erosion of credibility of all institutions, including churches. Our national politics were continuing their toxic descent into entrenched partisan screeching, and no one has been left unaffected. Add the pandemic to the mix and we have entered a whole new reality, affecting each and every one of us. Just when we need to come together to help each other through all of this, safety demands we be kept apart.

All of this has had profound effects on how we are called to be “Church” today: how we gather (or not), how we pray (no singing), and how we continue our mission of spreading the Good News.

Threatening to pull us even further apart, critics of Pope Francis have been doubling down on their accusations against him and his leadership of the church. These critics are adding even more confusion, anger and uncertainty to an already chaotic time. I recently contributed three reflections to Where Peter Is. Here are the links:

Part One is The Spirit of Vatican II: Out into the Deep” was published on Wednesday, August 19.

Part Two, “Reacting to Archbishop Viganò: A Pastoral Reflection,” was published Friday, August 21.

Part Three, The Matter of Words,” was published Monday, August 24.

“Do As I Have Done”: The Eucharist Has Consequences

A Holy Thursday Homily During a Time of Pandemic

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Pope Francis said, “God saved us by serving us.” He recounted all the times in the liturgies of Holy Week that we hear of the Christ who serves: for example, Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”(Phil 2:7); the servant who washes the feet of his disciples; the suffering and victorious servant on Good Friday, and Psalm 42:1, where God says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold.” God saved us by serving us. The Pope continued that while “we often think that we are the ones who serve God” it is God who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first. Pope Francis said, “It is difficult to love and not be loved in return. And it is even more difficult to serve if we do not let ourselves be served by God — the lesson that Jesus taught Peter in the Gospel proclaimed tonight.

God serves us by giving his life for us. In the first reading tonight, we read of the first Passover, when God first saves his people and eventually leads them out of slavery into a new life. In the second reading, we have St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, in which Jesus tells his followers that the bread they are eating is his body which is being given up for them, and that the wine is his blood establishing a new Covenant with God. And in the Gospel Jesus washes the feet of disciples, a task so menial and filthy that even a slave could not be ordered to do it. Jesus goes even further, and reminds them that this act of service is more than what it seems; that it is a sign of his own pouring out of his life for them — and for us. Jesus tells them that they must do the same: “as I have done for you, you should also do.”

Simply put: The Eucharist has consequences. The Body and Blood of Christ is not given to us simply to adore, as important as that is. Rather, the Eucharist signifies a whole new relationship with God, a relationship to be lived out in service to others. God saves us by serving us; like Peter’s mother-in-law, once we are saved, we must save others by serving them, in imitation of Christ. “As I have done for you, you should also do”: The Eucharist has consequences.

Tonight we are celebrating this Mass of the Lord’s Supper under circumstances none of us could have imagined a few months ago. Yes, we are celebrating Mass and we are doing what Jesus commanded us to do in the second reading: we are doing this in remembrance of Him. But something is missing tonight: YOU! Without you here, we are unable to do what we customarily do at our parish: wash each other’s feet, as Christ commanded. This day is sometimes called “Maundy Thursday”. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum”, which means a “mandate” or a “command.” Jesus commands his disciples to do as he had done: to wash feet, to pour out healing, comfort and care in service of others. In this time of “social isolation”, of “stay at home,” of being kept apart from one another, how can we follow Christ’s example in pouring out his life in such a concrete way as washing other people’s feet?

The Pope reminds us that during this time of pandemic we must be our most creative. In what concrete ways can we, in our “sheltering in place”, touch others in service? Some have suggested that maybe we could read this Gospel at home and then wash the feet of our family members. If you don’t want to wash feet, then perhaps wash each other’s hands instead. But maybe there are other ways, too, that fit your situation even better. Perhaps “wash feet” by reaching out to “clean up” or to “wash clean” a broken relationship, to “pour ourselves out” to a person who is isolated, or ill, or alone through a phone call or even something as simple as a text or e-mail. For example, speaking as a Grandfather myself, perhaps all grandchildren could check in with their poor old grandparents with a phone call, Skype, or even a text! Remember, the best way to overcome our own isolation is to reach out and serve someone else.

The Eucharist has consequences. THIS Eucharist has consequences. Tonight, those of you joining us through YouTube or Facebook will partake in the Eucharist through the proclamation of God’s Word and through Spiritual Communion. For all of us, this Eucharist here tonight has consequences no matter how we are celebrating it. No matter where you are, no matter how many of you are sheltered in the same space, no matter how confused, cranky, frustrated, or ill you might be, now is the time for us to imitate Christ and follow his command to reach out and serve someone else, in any concrete ways we can.

Go, wash some feet!

Palm Sunday 2020: Servants in a Servant Church for a Suffering World

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday in ways no one could have ever imagined, although there have been times in the life of the church when our ancestors had similar experiences. Pope Francis has given a wonderful Palm Sunday homily [here] to a world weary of illness, isolation and violence. His words remind us all of some very important truths, and for those of us who serve in the particular order of deacons: our service can only truly be understood against the more fundamental reality that the church herself is a servant. Indeed, peeling the layers back even more, we remember this Holy Week that we are a servant church precisely because our God — who is love — is Servant. As Pope France put it succinctly, “God saved us by serving us.”

Jesus — Second Person of the Trinity — “who came to serve, not to be served.”

All of us who are baptized disciples of Christ, are immersed into the life of God and are called to “the imitation of Christ,” who came to serve and not to be served. The Holy Father recounts how often, especially during the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, Christ — the Second Person of the Trinity — is referred to as a Servant. Created in the image and likeness of God, we are to live as Christ did: pouring out his life for the health and salvation of others. In a moving passage, Pope Francis reminds us:

Dear brothers and sisters, what can we do in comparison with God, who served us even to the point of being betrayed and abandoned? We can refuse to betray him for whom we were created, and not abandon what really matters in our lives. We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains. The tragedy we are experiencing at this time summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love. So, in these holy days, in our homes, let us stand before the Crucified One – look upon the Crucified One! – the fullest measure of God’s love for us, and before the God who serves us to the point of giving his life, and, – fixing our gaze on the Crucified One – let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.

All of this applies to each and every one of us. What, then, can it mean to those of us who are deacons? It is a potent reminder to us that we are ordained, not simply to do what all of us are supposed to do as a result of our sacramental initiation (discipleship), but as a result of our ordination at the hands our bishop, to renew our commitment to be true leaders in service (apostleship). We are not ordained to serve so that others do not have to! We serve first as a result of new life in Baptism; we serve further as animators (to use St. Paul VI’s word) of that service by others. We share in the bishop’s own diakonia, a diakonia first lived through Paschal Mystery of Christ which we celebrate this week.

I encourage everyone, but especially deacons, to pray over Pope Francis’ wonderful homily today. May this Holy Week during a time of global pandemic be for all a time of renewal, of overcoming death, of new life in the Christ.

Deacons at Mass During the Time of COVID-19

Over the last several weeks, deacons and others have been wrestling with the notion of deacons assisting at the various live-streamed Masses going on around the country. Two major questions have emerged:

  1. Should deacons be assisting at all at these Masses?
  2. If deacons are present at Mass, should they abstain from receiving Holy Communion?

First, should deacons (or, really, ANY other ministers besides the priest) be assisting at a live-streamed Mass?

I would begin with a caveat. It depends! There may be logistical or other factors which would make the assistance by a deacon problematic. For example, if a sanctuary is so small (such as a private chapel in the rectory) that the deacon cannot remain some feet away from the priest, then perhaps he should forego assisting.

However, in general, it seems to me that whenever possible, the deacon should be present and assist at Mass. The liturgical witness of the deacon’s ministry at the Eucharist is important and a vital sign of the diaconal identity of the Church. As one of the bishops said at the Second Vatican Council, “The Church has a right to all of the graces given to her by God, and the diaconate is one of those graces.”

On a practical level, of course, the priest and deacon should be sure to discuss in advance the specifics of their liturgical “choreography.” As most of us realize, our normal positions vis-a-vis the presider can easily be adapted keeping “social distancing” in mind. Sure, we will temporarily be a bit closer when we hand the gifts to Father, but we can immediately return to a safer distance. On a personal level, I assisted and preached at last Sunday’s live streamed Mass from our parish, and Father and I were able to maintain a safe distance from each other while still carrying out our respective ministries. Given the layout of our sanctuary, it took very little adaptation to make it work.

Second, if deacons are present, what about Holy Communion? Should deacons abstain from receiving Holy Communion; in fact, CAN the deacon abstain?

Looking at these questions from a technical perspective, it is possible for the deacon to abstain from receiving Holy Communion. The only minister who MUST receive Communion is the priest-presider, since it is he who is offering the sacrifice in persona Christi — and the sacrifice must be consumed. This, however, is a minimalist approach to the Eucharist. For many years, many people did not receive Communion at every Mass for a variety of reasons. It was Pope Pius X who encouraged a greater reception of Communion by the people; this effort continued and was emphasized at the Second Vatican Council, so that now nearly everyone receives Communion at every Mass they attend.

But what about the Deacon, especially in today’s situation? I think we would all agree that it is best if the assisting deacon were to receive Holy Communion. This is true on many levels, including the sign value of seeing the deacon receive. Now, how might that be done safely today? It seems to me that one legitimate option would be for both priest and deacon to receive by means of intinction, with the deacon then consuming the remaining Precious Blood and purifying the sacred vessels. I realize that other deacons and priests are using the more traditional (at least in the Latin Church) approach, but intinction seems to offer the safest method, in my opinion.

I used the expression “sign value” above, and I think that’s an important consideration. Our sacraments are public; they are, as the Baltimore Catechism used to have it: “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” Part of the outward sign of the Eucharist is the ministry of the ordained, which should be exercised in as complete and fulsome way as possible.

So, if at all possible, “it is good for us to be here” at the side of our priest-brother for the Eucharist, even while we remember to stay at a safe distance. And, if we’re there, we should receive Holy Communion, using the safest means available.

Just one deacon’s opinion.

Service of a Different Kind: The “Code Girls” of World War II and After

While in self-imposed quarantine, I have been enjoying Liza Mundy’s wonderful book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers of World War II. The book has particular relevance for me. From 1971-1993 I served as a US Navy cryptologist, and two of my tours were at the National Security Agency, where I had the privilege of meeting one of the ladies featured in the book: Ann Z. Caracristi.

World War II: The young woman on the right is Ann Caracristi

Ms. Caracristi had been an English and History major in college, and during World War II she joined the Army Intelligence Service (which would later become the Army Security Agency) and was a standout at breaking Japanese codes. After the war she remained “in the business” and when the National Security Agency was created she joined its ranks. By the end of the 1950s she was already a “supergrade” civilian official. I first met Ms. Caracristi in 1978 when I was taking US Navy cryptologic direct support teams to sea on combatants of the Atlantic Fleet. I was a young Lieutenant at the time and she was the Chief of what was known as “A Group”: the offices directly involved with the former Soviet Union. There were a couple of occasions, following particularly significant patrols, where my crew and I would be asked to brief Ms. Caracristi on the operation. It was always an honor and a bit intimidating to do this, given her staggering intelligence and experience. We were also always struck by her genuine concern for our own safety and welfare on patrol.

2012 Hall of Honor Inductee:
Ann Z. Caracristi

By the time of my second tour at NSA, this time as a Navy Commander, Ms. Caracristi had retired, having finished her career serving as the Deputy Director of the entire National Security Agency. Her name was still whispered with respect throughout the Agency.

So, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, I highly recommend Code Girls. Who knows? You may find someone you know in its pages!

“Victory Gardens”: Deacons and the Pandemic

“The Deacon” (the-deacon.com) is a national magazine focused on the ministry of the Deacon in the Catholic Church. Formerly known as “Deacon Digest”, the name was recently changed by its publisher (Our Sunday Visitor) to parallel its long-running partner, “The Priest.”

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, “The Deacon” is offering a series of articles from a variety of authors with reflections and suggestions on dealing with the pandemic through the lens of the diaconate. I was asked to submit something to this effort.

It struck me that in dealing with our current crisis, we can find inspiration from some of the approaches our parents and grandparents took to meeting the crises of their times. One of these was the idea of the “Victory Garden” (sometimes called a “War Garden”) During this particular Lent, we too are looking forward to the Victory, both the victory over the Corona Virus, but ultimately the Victory of Christ over sin and death through His Resurrection.

You can read my entire piece here. Thanks to editor Deacon Dominic Cerrato for this wonderful series.

Thirty Years a Deacon: “How Can This Be?”

Fr. Tom Henseler, Deacon Harry Clyde, Fr. Jack Smith, myself, Cardinal Hickey

A couple of days ago, on 25 March, I celebrated 30 years as a Deacon of the Catholic Church, ordained on 25 March 1990 by the late Cardinal James Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, DC. It was the Fourth Sunday of Lent as well as the traditional date for the Annunciation. Mary’s words, “How can this be?” resonate for anyone called to ordained ministry: each of us knows only to well our weaknesses, our sinfulness, our unworthiness.

The past 30 years have been filled with grace and blessing. In ways I never could have imagined thirty years ago, God has brought me into contact with God’s People in so many different places and situations. We have laughed and cried together (fortunately, I think the laughter has far outweighed the tears!), as together we try to walk the various paths we have been given, but paths that ultimately lead back to God.

With deep gratitude for these first thirty years, I thank God, my family, and the People of God, and I renew those promises made at ordination so many years ago, pledging to serve to the best of my abilities as long as God gives me strength to do so.

Holy Mary, Mother of Deacons, pray for us!

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Forty Days: Our Lenten Quarantine

Lent-BannerA friend wrote recently, “What a Lent this has been!”  The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting life — and death — worldwide, and in ways few could have imagined a few short months ago.  Those suffering from the virus are quarantined at home and in hospitals, with others “in an abundance of caution” are quarantining themselves at home.  As I write this, several cities have effectually shut down, with all of us being asked to remain at home except for essentials like food and medicine.  A new term, “social distancing” has found its way into our lexicon.

All of this has hit us Christians as we have entered into the holy season of Lent, the “forty days” of preparation and reflection leading to Easter.  With health officials advising us to avoid groups larger than ten, and with uncertainty about the various modes of transmission of the disease, bishops around the world have suspended the public celebration of the sacraments, including the Eucharist.  We clergy would normally be gearing up for Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  Now, even those celebrations cannot take place with an assembly, and many bishops have priest alonedeclared the sacraments of initiation which would normally be celebrated during the Easter Vigil will now be postponed until Pentecost.  For those of us in ministry, clergy and laity alike, all of this goes against every fiber of our being.  This is just not the way things are supposed to be!  And yet, here we are.  “What a Lent this has been!”

And then it hit me.  The word we’re using so frequently now, “quarantine”, can perhaps help us make some sense of this.  “Quarantine” derives from the Latin (and then Italian) word for “forty”.  By the mid-17th Century, it was associated both with the forty days of quarantine-post3Lent but also with something completely different.  Ships arriving from foreign ports to ports such as Venice would be forced to remain offshore for forty days to make sure they were not carriers of plague or other illnesses.  Only later did “quarantine” come to mean any period of enforced isolation.  It’s original meaning revolved around those forty days.

Jumping even further back in time, the number forty in Hebrew carried its own significance, a significance we find well documented in Hebrew scripture.  In Hebrew usage, forty represents any period of human testing and preparation for a future mission.  Consider a few examples: the forty years Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert; the forty days and forty nights of the great Flood; or, in the New Testament, 40the forty days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry.  In every case, the people involved were not merely times of penitence and testing.  There was more to it than that: there was always a significant new mission or relationship at the end of the forty days: the Israelites entered in the Promised Land; after the Flood, God enters into a new covenant with Noah and his descendants; and, after his temptations, Christ begins his public ministry.  Our forty days of Lent lead us to the new life given to us at Easter, a new life that is intended to be lived out in a new way in our relationships and caring for each other.

nurturing the churchIt is here that perhaps our current reality can piece all of this together.  Lent is, in truth, a quarantine.  It is a period of forty days in which we forsake our normal ways of doing things in order to prepare for the new life of Easter.  We endure isolation and discomfort during this quarantine, not simply for the good of our physical health but our spiritual as well.  This quarantine, we hope, gives us a chance to eliminate the disease of sin in our lives, and to help us grow stronger and ready to meet the demands of living as the “priests, prophets and kings” our baptisms have called us to be.  We have been immersed into the life of the Trinity, which means we too must live as the Trinity lives: by giving life to others and providing for them (God the Father), by pouring out our own lives for others (God the Son), and for advocating for and enflaming others with the love of God (God the Spirit).  That’s quite a task, and it demands that we be in good shape to carry it out!  That’s the purpose of Lent; that’s the purpose of our spiritual quarantine: to rid us of the disease of sin and grow in spiritual health.

During this time of quarantine, we pray for all who are suffering from the Coronavirus and their families.  During this time of quarantine, we pray for those who are suffering from its long-term effects, such as those who have lost their jobs or other fallout from this crisis. During this time of quarantine, may we seek healing on every level so that, once strengthened on every level we may enter into our new Easter life with joy and enthusiasm.praying hands

Of +Wilton and Washington: A Personal Reflection

Wilton_GregoryAs much as I enjoy writing, I have grown weary and wary of blogging.  Today must be different.  Today, a man with whom I have prayed, worked, and socialized for some twenty years has officially been named the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.  Since I am a Deacon of the Archdiocese, my friend has now become my bishop.  Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Chicago, and longstanding Archbishop of Atlanta, now assumes his greatest challenge yet.

I am certain there will be those who question this appointment; I am not one of them.  I am certain there will be those who will point out any flaws and failings of the new archbishop; I am not one of them.  For any naysayers out there: give the man a chance.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory.jpg.jpg_37965856_ver1.0_1280_720

Then-Bishop Gregory as President of the USCCB, seated next to Bishop Bill Skylstad, the Vice President.

I write because I believe I know the man.  As he has said on several occasions, “we have history.”  I first met him while he was serving as Bishop of Belleville, Illinois and I was working on the drafting committee of a USCCB document on deacons in the United States.  As a young teenager, I had attended my first year of high school seminary in Belleville, and we chatted about that.  A couple of years later, I served on his diocesan staff in the Diocese of Belleville as he assumed the presidency of the USCCB.  Immediately after, I applied for a senior staff position at the USCCB and it was then-Bishop Gregory who called to tell me I had the job.  Over those years at the USCCB we worked closely on any number of projects and every encounter was special.  After he was sent to Atlanta, he invited me on several occasions to come to the archdiocese to speak at convocations, to conduct a formal study of the diaconate in the archdiocese, and to give the annual retreat to the diaconate community.

Atlanta SERV 09 with Wilton

Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta with students and faculty of Saint Leo University. I’m the tall guy in the back.

After I had assumed a teaching position at Saint Leo University in Florida, he invited a faculty colleague and me to bring a group of undergraduates to Atlanta for an “alternative Spring Break” serving the poor of inner city Atlanta.  Even though he had just suffered an injury which caused him to cancel a number of appointments, he insisted on welcoming our group to his own home, and he personally served us refreshments and visited with us all afternoon.

 

I believe the appointment of Archbishop Wilton Gregory is about as perfect a pastoral assignment as could be made.  The Archdiocese is a beautiful, diverse, complex and dynamic place.  It demands an archbishop who is a good navigator of its swirling currents.  It demands a pastor who will, as he said this morning in his press conference, focus on spiritual healing as well as the concrete realities necessary to proclaim the love of God to all and to restore hope to those who have no reason for hope.   If there is one trait the marks Wilton Gregory, it is his ability to listen.  I don’t think he’d mind me sharing this story.

I had recently joined his diocesan staff in Belleville as the Director of Pastoral Services and Ministry Formation.  Two days after starting, I was informed by the Vicar General that I would, of course, be facilitating the overnight Diocesan Pastoral Council meeting the next weekend!  The bishop, of course, was going to be there to participate, but it was my job to run the meetings.  That was the first I had heard about it!  Since I had only a couple of days to prepare, I called the bishop’s office to speak with him.  Naturally and significantly, he wasn’t in the office; he was traveling someplace in the diocese visiting parishes.  I called his cell phone and left a panicky message.  Not long after, the outer door of our building opened and immediately I heard, as he came walking down the hall, “Hi, Wilton!’ “How’s it going, bishop?”, “Wilton, thanks so much for the card!”  Finally, he got to my office.  He was dressed casually, and he dropped into a chair.  He remarked that he would be dressed just as casually for the weekend meeting of the DPC because he wanted to be as informal as possible so people would be comfortable and open with him.  He said, “Bill, my job this weekend is to listen intensely to what folks have to say; your job is to run things so that they can speak and I can listen.  It’s that simple.”  The man who everyone called “Wilton” wanted and needed to be himself and to be a pastor.

And it was that simple.  The love and mutual respect that I experienced that weekend, even while discussing some very touchy subjects, is something I will never forget.  His generosity of spirit, so beautifully on display with our students, continues to influence their own development in ministry to this day.  His deep love of God, his integrity and honesty, and his profound willingness to make himself vulnerable for the sake of others, are all gifts that he brings to Washington at a time when we need it the most.

Archbishop Wilton, welcome to Washington.  Those of us who know and love you are praying for you and ready to assist you in your new ministry in any ways we can.

 

Lenten Jerusalem Cross