Pastoral conversion: from maintenance to mission

Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer), commented on a recent interview with the pope by an Argentinian reporter. Addressing the area of greatest need for growth in the Church, Pope Francis said, it is in “pastoral conversion. It is still very much halfway there” (“Relaxed pope muses on Latin America…” Crux).

Ivereigh went on to define pastoral conversion as “a move from maintenance to mission, and a pastoral focus on concrete people and their needs rather than taking refuge in abstraction and legalism” (Ibid).

In his apostolic exhortation Evanglii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks of pastoral conversion in the strongest possible language. “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (27).

Pastoral conversion is a call to the Church to place the proclamation of the Gospel over and above maintaining our structures and defending the status quo. Pastoral conversion is about finding ways to include people and to implore the Holy Spirit to help us extend the grace of the Gospel to those most in need of that grace.

More concretely, and in our context, this means looking for ways to include people whose lives have fallen short of the Church’s teachings rather than simply reminding them how they have fallen short. Instead of simply repeating doctrines that we all know, striving to find ways to make living the Gospel message of the God who comes to us while we are yet sinners (Romans 5:8).

Pastoral conversion is about a willingness to let go of church buildings that served the past so as to form vital and living communities of disciples for today. It is about an openness to being misunderstood and taken advantage of—getting a little dirty as Pope Francis says—in order to walk with those who are far from God and yet searching for life and healing.

Pastoral conversion is about making space for the other, who in an age of massive emigration is often very different from us. Instead of asking what do I get out of this, seeking ways to give others what I have. Such an approach calls us to set aside defensiveness and any semblance of protectionism so we might encounter one another.

Pastoral conversion, in short, is about asking and acting on how best to share and extend Gospel grace to others, especially those on the margins of such grace. It is risky and will entail getting bruised from time to time. More importantly, it will mean the Gospel, which for many has become old news, will be made for some good news again!

Father Tony Oelrich currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

Familiarity with Jesus

Reflecting on Jesus’ statement that the members of his family are “those who hear the word of God and act on it,” Pope Francis invited his listeners to reflect on the concept of familiarity.

To gain such familiarity one must be willing to enter “into the home of Jesus, to enter into that atmosphere…those who reside in the house of the Lord are free, those who have a familiar relationship with Him are free.”

Gaining familiarity with Jesus “also means standing with Him, looking to Him, hearing His Word, seeking to do it, speaking to Him.” Pope Francis makes clear that speaking to Jesus is to have a prayer life marked by a common language, an easy back and forth.

Finally, according to Pope Francis, familiarity with Jesus is gained by remaining “in the presence of Jesus, as He Himself counsels us at the Last Supper.” How much this reminds us that faithful, Sunday by Sunday, celebrating the Mass in remembrance of Jesus is a sure way to gain familiarity with the personality of Jesus.

Jesus desires a familiar relationship with each one of us. Such a familiarity is gained by spending time with him in daily prayer, reading the gospels, faithfulness to Mass, and being in the company of his friends, especially the poor and vulnerable.

How familiar am I with Jesus? Am I comfortable in his presence? Draw near to him who desires to be near to you!

(This reflection is based on Pope Francis’ homily for Tuesday, September 26, 2017).

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

The Medicine of Place

You might have noted, things have gotten awfully loud in our culture. Our public discourse has increasingly been reduced to shouts, vulgarities, and irrationalities.

Into this ugly noise comes the gentle whisperings of J. Vincent Hansen in his little volume, “The Medicine of Place: A Collection of Epigrams and Easy Essays.”

With Hansen’s words, and the photographs of Chuck Norwood, this collection works with delicate beauty to expose the sacred truth of place, simplicity, work and the important quality of being in awe.

The importance of place is stated simply in Easy Essay CCCVIII:

It is poverty of a sort not to
want to be back home by dark.

And again, in Easy Essay CLXXIX:

A knowing physician
will yet prescribe roots—
that is to say the medicine
of place.

How about the Sparrow for simplicity mixed with place:

Each spring the Robin
is given a hero’s welcome,
but I have no interest in him;
my concern is for the Sparrow
that stayed the winter.

And when it comes to work, how true is Easy Essay CCXCVIII:

More meaningful than the
blood that entitles me to say heir
are the tools of my father that
enable me to say successor.

When it comes to being in awe, read Easy Essay CLXXXVIII:

When God saw that
ignorance could not serve Him
and that Knowledge would not,
He created Mystery.

Then take in:

Should we slow down
enough, Nature has agreed
to hold our breath.

The cover of the book, “The Medicine of Place” by local author J. Vincent Hansen.

There are poems in this collection that will also ‘hold your breath’ if you give them a chance, such as The Lady Who Loved Ferns, Old Man Burnett, and The Lady Who Went Out Of Her Way.

 

Please don’t come to this book looking for knowledge. All it offers is wisdom. Don’t, either, look for spectacle. You will only get gentleness and beauty. And for heaven’s sake, don’t come here for arguments. This book will only offer you invitation, and of that, one after another.

The Medicine of Place: A Collection of Epigrams and Easy Essays. Text by J. Vincent Hansen. Photographs by Chuck Norwood. North Star Press: St. Cloud, MN, 2017.

Hansen is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

WhAM!

This past Thursday was move-in day for St. Cloud State University freshmen. Our Newman Center pastoral team greeted 450 of these young people and their families personally as they were arriving. And so, just like that, another year of campus ministry begins in earnest!

Campus ministry team at Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

In the days of preparation for this time, our pastoral team came upon an acronym that will help us stay focused on our ministry here at Christ Church Newman Center. That acronym is: WhAM!

The word wham is, of course, used to describe the sound of a powerful impact. The purpose of our ministry here at the Newman Center is to make an impact on the lives of young women and men during the transitional years of college life. The impact is made ‘powerful’ when it is characterized by the encounter with Jesus Christ still living in the company of his disciples, the Church.

The WhAM method of ministry is:

Warming hearts—this emphasizes the need for encounter in a place of care, concern, and support. Ministry begins with a welcoming hospitality and the witness of a gracious and joyfully lived faith within our community.

Accompaniment—this speaks of formation in the life of discipleship, which happens as we walk with one another, learning and mentoring, witnessing to our life of faith.

Missionary disciples—this is the goal of our ministry, the formation of one another as missionary disciples, sent out in witness to God’s faithful, abiding love for us in word and deeds of service, healing and reconciliation.

By warming hearts, accompanying one another, and empowering for missionary discipleship, we live fully our mission as the Catholic Community on the campus of St. Cloud State University and for, as well, St. Cloud Technical and Community College.

What an incredible privilege to share the joy of the gospel with young men and women at such a transformational time of their lives! Mother Mary, seed of wisdom, pray for us!

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

Fostering new growth: A reflection from Father Tony Oelrich at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders

Father Tony Oelrich is currently part of a delegation of 11 from the Diocese of St. Cloud who are attending the U.S. Bishop’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Florida, July 1-4.

Father Anthony Oelrich and Father Robert Rolfes prepare for the Opening Mass at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders July 1 in Orlando, Florida.

I have the privilege of attending with other St. Cloud diocesan leaders the Catholic Convocation of Leaders:  The Joy of the Gospel. This convocation was called by the United States bishops and brought together leaders from throughout the nation to gather and reflect on what it means to share the Gospel in today’s culture. It has been a time of wonderful encouragement and inspiration.

Certainly, an aspect of the inspiration throughout the convocation is Pope Francis’ invitation:

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them” (The Joy of the Gospel, 3).

Many of the talks, much of the reflection and dialogue revolved around how the Church in the U.S. might extend this same invitation of encounter with Jesus to people everywhere.

Delegates pray during Mass at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” July 2 in Orlando, Fla. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations are gathering for the July 1-4 convocation. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

What makes this encounter so crucial was expressed for me in the witness talk given by Damon and Melanie Owens who shared beautifully, “We will do for love what we would never do for the law!”  Indeed, the invitation to encounter and fall in love with Jesus Christ is the heart of the Church’s mission to the world.  We are hard pressed to convince people of the truth of Christ by eloquent arguments or authoritative doctrines, but to see the beauty of the face of Jesus who heals, transforms, and frees us enkindles a love that truly inspires the gift of love in return.

One of the presenters in a breakout session helped me to see poignantly how we as Church might best extend this invitation to folks today.  What we need, she said, was “An army of missionary disciples trained in the art of relationship and accompaniment.”  Those of us who cherish our Catholic faith must be willing to extend the friendship and care of Jesus to the people we encounter—in our homes, work places, schools, places of leisure.  Like Jesus meeting up and walking with the two dejected fellows on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, so too must we be willing to hear the hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments of our contemporaries in order to point out the always present love and companionship of Jesus in the midst of it all.

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl smiles while speaking during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” July 2 in Orlando, Fla. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations are gathering for the July 1-4 convocation. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In a plenary address by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, we were reminded of the urgency of this need to extend Christ’s saving love to our neighbors.  We have been gifted with the friendship and love of Jesus in our lives.  “It is,” Cardinal Wuerl insisted, “our turn now!”  It is for us to share the gift of friendship with Jesus with others.  Now it is our turn to extend the gospel message of God’s always present mercy and grace to this generation, to our contemporaries.

It is hoped that the blessings of this convocation might extend widely throughout the Church in the U.S. and foster a new growth in all the baptized to become missionary disciples of Jesus Christ the Lord!

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Nine

What a very real and authentic way to conclude the days of Easter before Pentecost. Peter, in today’s gospel, looks over his shoulder and sees the beloved disciple. What, he asks, will become of him?

How often we look over our shoulder at the next person and wonder about them. What are they about in their relationship with Christ, how faithful are they, how gifted and how generous? We compare and we judge.

Jesus’ response is so telling. What difference is it to you what I will do with that one? You need only to be about the business of following me! Get your eyes off the other person, comparing yourself and judging others and set your eyes on me. Get your hearts, mind and energy wrapped up in hearing my voice, embracing my commands and following my kingdom way.

This is the first and most essential work of the Spirit in us. One of the gospel options for Pentecost Sunday (John 15:26-27, 16:12-15) gives beautiful expression to this. “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me…he will guide you to all truth…he will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”

I am reminded again of the great German biblical scholar, Rudolf Schnackenburg, who after a lifetime of rigorist study of the gospels, declared that the one essential truth permeating the whole of Sacred Scripture is that God seeks to live in friendship with human beings. “I no longer call you slaves, but I call you friends.”

The Holy Spirit nurtures in us a divine affection for Jesus Christ, the deep-seated desire to follow Jesus as Lord and as our dearest friend. The Holy Spirit sets our eyes, indeed our very lives, on Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord!

Let us pray:

Almighty God,
grant that the splendor of your glory
may shine forth upon us
and that, by the bright rays of the Holy Spirit,
the light of your light may confirm our hearts
in affection for your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ,
one God with you and the Holy Spirit
forever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Eight

St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Now that which is preponderant in the law of the New Testament, and whereon all its efficacy is based, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently, the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” He then quotes St. Augustine, who says, “What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of His Holy Spirit?” (Summa, I-II, q. 106).

The law of God is not prescriptions, directions, commands or teachings. The law of God in Christ is a person, the divine Holy Spirit living and abiding in the hearts of the baptized.

This gives us some sense of why the Church turns now, so very close to the great feast of the Holy Spirit, to this passage in John’s gospel relating the marvelous exchange between Jesus and Peter. “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me’…‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you’…‘Feed my lambs.’” Jesus, having already breathed his Spirit on the disciples, now invites Peter to discern the movement of that Spirit in his heart. The very presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Peter moves him in love for Jesus, for God and the same presence of the Spirit moves Peter out in loving service to the people of God.

The law of love for God and for neighbor is living in our hearts as the person of the Holy Spirit inclining us to love. Jesus invites us to discern this saving presence of the Spirit in us. “Do you love me…will you heed the Spirit to loving service toward your brother and sister?”

Let us pray:

O God, who by the glorification of your Christ
and the light of the Holy Spirit
have unlocked for us the gates of eternity,
grant that, partaking of so great a gift,
our love may grow deeper
and our faith be increasingly brought to life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Seven

Today’s gospel contains what I find to be one of the sweetest, dearest and most precious verses to be found in all the gospels. Turned to the Father, glancing out over the vast space of time at all the ages of his disciples, Jesus says, “Father, they are your gift to me.” Can you imagine? The divine Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, looks on you as a precious gift to him from the Father. An expression of such tender affection and loving care.

This sense of gift is a very concrete way to express the petition at the heart of this high priestly prayer, “that they may all be one.” This is what from the foundation of creation the human person was created for: to share in the communion of love that has existed from all eternity in the heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here there is nothing but generosity and receptivity. We long to have our lives, to be given our lives in such a way that we truly know they are our own. Even more, we long to have our lives received by another as a precious gift, a treasure to be cherished and delighted in.

“Father, they are your gift to me.” Notice the honor and affirmation, the blessing being expressed here. Jesus seeks to fill us with his deepest blessing, the blessing he himself receives from all eternity and in time at his baptism when the voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, on him my favor rests.”

To be filled with the awareness of being loved, is to be freed to turn to another and see the beauty, dignity and goodness inherent in them, to see that they too are gift to be cherished, honor, and affirmed.

To live in this profound disposition of giftedness, is to begin to generate a circle of community and unity that is the desire of Jesus’ heart for us, “that they may all be one.”

Another ancient title for the Holy Spirit is Gift. God Father and Son pour out the Spirit as Gift to us to awaken in us the truth of our being gift to Christ, awakening us to the giftedness of each person we encounter.

Let us pray:

Grant, we pray, almighty and merciful God,
that the Holy Spirit, coming near
and dwelling graciously within us,
may awaken us to the gift you have made us
and the gift that each person is.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Six

The world looms large in Jesus prayer today. “I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the Evil One.”

World here is not world as cosmos, that created reality fashioned in goodness by an all good God. Nor is it the complex network of relationships that sustain the cosmos in unity, love and purpose.

Rather, “the notion of ‘world’ serves to unmask the demonic universe of refusal and rejection” (Quoted by Francis Martin, “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me,” The New Evangelization, 67). The world is everything in the culture, society, the economy, education, our personalities that resists the God who comes to us in love, friendship, grace and as Lord of the Universe. It is that fundamental inclination within us, as already witnessed in the garden of Eden, that declares our independence from any need for a god outside ourselves. The world insists on finding all meaning within itself, apart from its source and summit, the living God.

This is the ‘demonic energy’ that Jesus intercedes against for us. Jesus prays that our lives might be held in an essential receptivity to the self-revealing God. He prays that we not close in on ourselves because of the aggressive response of the world to such receptivity to transcendence.

Here again the Spirit plays his essential role for us. “The witnessing action of the Spirit consists in the activity by which he brings us into living contact with Jesus, who, forever fixed in the act of love in which he died, is the abiding Revelation of the Father, and as such is the Truth. The action of the Holy Spirit takes place in the Church through the liturgy and the sacraments, by his direct action in the souls of the believers, and…by the ‘works’ of the disciples in their own witness to the truth” (Ibid., 64).

How does the world act upon me to keep me from trusting God? What are the pressures I feel to find my purpose and happiness in what I can do and acquire by my own resources? Are there times of fear in my life that keep me from living faith, fear flowing from the sense that the world is greater than God?

Let us pray:

Holy and divine Spirit!
Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Your spouse,
bring the fullness of Your gifts into our hearts.
Comforted and strengthened by You,
may we live according to Your Will
and may we die praising Your infinite mercy.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Five

The gospel today brings us to the great High Priestly Prayer from chapter 17 of John’s gospel. In this prayer we are given a glimpse into the prayer being offered by Jesus before the Father for his disciples until the final consummation of all things. This is Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father interceding for his church.

Jesus prays that his disciples be given eternal life, and “this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” To know, again, is to enter into a living and vital relationship with the one known. “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world,” which is to say that we have been graciously granted access to the very person of God, who Jesus called his Father.

To have life that is fruitful, full, filled with meaning and purpose, and indestructible is to live our lives in an abiding and authentic relationship with God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:14-16).

How many of us spend a great deal of time ‘trying to find ourselves,’ to ‘prove ourselves,’ to gain the acceptance and approval of others, to show that our lives have value. All the while, this is being offered to us as gift. Jesus pours out his Spirit that we might know the truth of who we are. The Spirit reveals the truth of who we are and the true value of our lives: we are the children of God the Father who is the source of eternal life for us. There is no need to ‘find ourselves,’ because our very selves have been revealed to us in Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit! Speak Spirit, in the depth of my spirit, revealing the truth to me of the Father’s love and dependability. Let me cry out from the deepest part of my soul, “Abba, Father!”

O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of truth,
Who are everywhere present and fills all things,
Treasury of good things and Giver of life,
come and abide in us,
and cleanse us from every impurity,
and save our souls,
O Good One.
Amen.
(Traditional Orthodox Prayer)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.