Category Archives: Features

Mike’s Meditations: Put Jesus in Context

by Mike Van Vranken

We’ve all done it. You know, take a bit of scripture that we love to remember and use it for our own justification. And, many times, if we had used the entire scripture rather than our out-of-context phrase, the message might convict rather than absolve us. Additionally, it is so much easier to spot this type of misinterpretation when others do it rather than when we choose to do so ourselves.

Recently I read an article and made the mistake of reading the online comments. Over and over I heard their voices shouting: “Jesus said to ‘go and sin no more!’” Of course, it is an impossible command to keep. Have any of us been able to “go and sin no more?” I certainly haven’t. Jesus did say some form of, “go and do not sin any more” in the gospel – twice. On one occasion it was to a man who couldn’t walk and Jesus cured, the other was to a woman caught in adultery. Both are found in John’s gospel where Jesus mentions sin about 16 times. Interestingly, in Matthew’s gospel he only mentions sin four times, once in Mark and not at all in Luke.

Let’s put the “sin no more” comment from Jesus back in the context of John’s gospel and see how it might look a little different. I’ll use John 8:1-11. Jesus is in the Temple area and the Scribes and Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery. They reminded Jesus of the law where Moses had commanded to stone such a woman. He responded with his famous words: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Of course, Jesus is not only speaking to this woman’s accusers, he is speaking to you and me as well. In this passage, he is not allowing anyone to punish another person. In fact, I cannot remember any passage where Jesus calls on us to punish others. The story continues with the Scribes and the Pharisees walking away and leaving the woman alone with Jesus.

Stop now, take a deep breath and imagine you are in this scene watching and listening to our Savior and this adulterous woman. She is standing by herself with the Son of God. She is looking in his eyes, perhaps suspiciously wondering why he took up for her and what he plans to do next. She may be worried about his intentions. Yet, he tenderly turns to her and says: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, maybe with a scared and shaky voice: “No one, sir.” And then, in the sweetest, most compassionate words that can only come from an all-loving creator, with deep love in his eyes and gushing from his heart, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:10-11). Watch the tears begin to flow from her eyes. See and experience Jesus’ gracious and generous smile as she slowly backs away from Him and humbly walks off. Can you feel the freedom she is experiencing? Dare to ponder the joy and love that must now be running throughout her entire being. Can you witness the dramatic change that is overcoming her?

Does this surprise you to read this so familiar story this way? Would we expect anything else from Jesus? This is the man who commands His followers, several times in the gospel stories, to forgive over and over again. If He asks this from us, how much more will we experience it from Him? You may have even noticed that Jesus actually did not forgive this woman. Why? Because He never passed judgment on her to begin with. He never condemned her, so there was nothing to forgive. Rather than condemn and judge her, rather than preach to her, instead of reminding her of her sin, He confronted her with his love. He overshadowed her with his deep and abiding love. And, as St. Paul promised us: “love never fails” (1 Cor 13:8).

The entire Bible is the passionate and intimate love story of God and His people. In the four gospels, Jesus, who is God in the flesh, shows us how to live this love as human beings. Yes, He surely called us to follow Him and all that He taught us. He even summed it up for us in these words: “Love one another. As I have loved you so you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
Let’s all pray for the grace to keep God’s story of relationship with his people, especially the gospels, in their proper context. It is the context of God’s unconditional love for us, which is shown over and over again in his mercy, compassion and forgiveness, and not in forms of punishment. Our role is to share this mercy, compassion and forgiveness with each other just as He has shared it with us.

Frontier Mission Beginnings: Fr. Jean Pierre and the Bayou Pierre Community

by Dr. Cheryl White

The small community of Carmel, Louisiana is home to a rich cultural inheritance that resonates even today as an important and easily identifiable chapter of our Catholic history. Many will recognize its name as the home of a true historical jewel of the Diocese of Shreveport, the Rock Chapel, which is all that remains of a late nineteenth century Carmelite monastic community. Yet, the significance of Carmel pre-dates even that impressive marker of the past, and reaches back to the earliest days of the newly created Diocese of Natchitoches in 1853. In its beginnings are found the story of a remarkable priest, destined to become the first pastor of Holy Trinity in Shreveport, and destined to become one of the five “martyrs of their charity,” who gave their lives in the Shreveport Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873.

Natchitoches, as the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase (established 1713) and its surrounding region, grew so much in population that Pope Pius IX created the Diocese of Natchitoches in 1853. The first bishop of the new frontier diocese was Auguste Marie Martin from the seaside village of St. Malo in the Brittany region of France, who was tasked with finding priests to serve in a remote area that still had many characteristics of the western American frontier. From a recruiting trip through the villages and seminaries of his native Brittany in 1854, Bishop Martin returned to the Diocese of Natchitoches with Fr. Louis Gergaud, already ordained in the Diocese of Nantes, and two young seminarians from

St. Brieuc, Francois Le Vezouet and Jean Pierre. Bishop Martin sent Fr. Gergaud to Monroe, where he became the pastor of St. Matthew’s. Following their ordinations in Natchitoches,

Fr. Le Vezouet and Fr. Pierre also received their first assignments:  Fr. Le Vezouet to the settlement of Many, Louisiana, and Fr. Pierre to the tiny community of Bayou Pierre (today known as Carmel).

Fr. Jean Pierre

Fr. Pierre went immediately to work to construct the community’s first Catholic church, dedicated to the Holy Apostles of St. Peter and St. Paul, as well as an adjoining rectory. In his letters and memoirs, Bishop Martin provided an appreciative account of the success of Fr. Pierre’s labor in the Bayou Pierre community, noting the growing Catholic population there, as well as Fr. Pierre’s regular visits northward to Shreveport. In the following year of 1856, Fr. Pierre was assigned exclusively with the task of a new church in Shreveport, a project which culminated in the construction of the first Holy Trinity Church. From 1856 until his death in 1873 from Yellow Fever, Fr. Pierre worked tirelessly and selflessly as Holy Trinity’s first pastor, a period that is also well-documented in the available historical record.

Visiting Carmel today, one can see the vestiges of that community’s Catholic past – Immaculate Conception Church, its adjacent cemetery, and of course, the Rock Chapel. What is not evident to the visitor is the location of Fr. Pierre’s first church – Holy Apostles, which is long gone. However, its location can be approximated based on important known historical indicators. First, the location of the cemetery, with graves that pre-date the current church structure, provides an important clue as to the location of the original church. Also, a Confederate defense map from 1862 clearly shows the location of a church on the Smithport Road (as it was known even in 1862), and this structure so noted by the Confederate surveyors must have been Holy Apostles. The land transaction between the Laffitte family and Fr. Jean Pierre, acting on behalf of Bishop Martin, is also historically documented. Finally, of course, there is always the rich and enduring oral tradition of any given community, which although not considered history in its strictest interpretation, is yet another important component of piecing together the location of a structure no longer in existence.

Because of the historical significance of Fr. Jean Pierre and the other four priests of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873, there is a plan to place a Louisiana state historical marker at the site of Holy Apostles Church. This will honor both the first mission of this martyr-priest as well as the importance of the Bayou Pierre Community (Carmel) in the overall history of the region. The cultural and historical contributions of this community go far beyond its interesting outgrowth from the Natchitoches settlement, and touch upon the single most transformative event in Shreveport history. It was the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 that determined the fate of a fledgling river-port, and yet the city survived, stronger than ever. The epidemic and its legacy will forever bear the memory of those who sacrificed all. Among them is Fr. Jean Pierre, and it is therefore more than fitting to permanently mark his first church for future generations of visitors and pilgrims.

A Confederate defense map from 1862 (LSU-S Archives).

Escape Routes: A Reflection on the Church Sex Abuse Crisis

by Kim Long

Sometimes I run. It’s true. Sometimes I run from God.

In 2002 when the Boston clergy scandal erupted I had a vague notion of what was going on. Several priests, whom I knew personally, were uncertain of going out in public in their collars, fearful of being grouped with the abusers. It was during this time period that I found myself waiting with an altar server after a holy day Mass. Everyone had gone and we waited together until his brother picked him up. A simple thing.

The next day my pastor and I spoke about the boy waiting alone . He told me he was afraid to offer the boy a ride home with the sexual abuse crisis going on in the Church. I offered prayers for the victims of what seemed a faraway crisis.

When the Pennsylvania abuse scandal broke several months ago, I paid close attention. My previous ignorance seemed to ignite a hunger in me to know the truth, even if it turned out to be painful – and it did.
A coworker, knowing my love of movies, recommended a film called Spotlight. When she told me it was about the 2002 clergy abuse crisis, I knew I had to see it. One of my sons walked in about the time the movie began. Afterward, as the credits rolled, I asked him if this movie shook his faith in the Church. He said, “Mom I grew up knowing about this and nothing can take away the Eucharist, especially the way you explain it.”

Sworn testimony, a condemning document from a nuncio, two heartfelt and very different homilies from two different priests, and one newscaster after another, brought this topic home in a way no movie, even an award winning movie, ever could. The sadness, the brokenness was part of me now.

Following the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, I was in a diocesan meeting where the subject was discussed at great length. One of the results of that meeting was the decision to hold a prayer vigil for reparation and healing. I knew I needed to go to the service, but there was a deep resistance within me – a bit of a hard wiring issue really – that when I have no choice, I tend to resist. Knowing I should go lessened my desire to attend. This character flaw and I are well acquainted.

The prayer vigil fell on a Friday night, the same night as a local festival. My big plan was to pray, drive to the festival, have a meat pie and hear a favorite band from my high school days sing their one great hit, and then I would drive home and hit the hay.

Sometimes I run. It’s true. Sometimes I run from God.

Entering the church I made my way into a back pew, chosen for its closeness to the exit. Kneeling, the pressure of my weight on the padded kneeler reminding me of the pain we were all facing, I prayed hard and felt an internal shift. A feeling of belonging seemed to surge within me.

Through scripture, song, litanies and moments of private prayer, I began to connect. All week I had felt at loose ends, not quite grounded in my faith, feeling the winds of change swirl and tug angrily at me. In previous weeks I assured so many people that all was not lost, and that night I was there with other members of the faithful, feeling our way in the dark.

It occurred to me that I found myself knee deep in covenant: an agreement I had made with God at my emergence from the waters of baptism. For even at the tender age of seven years, I knew I would never be alone again. Yet that feeling, one I had banked on all my life, was so far away from me, more intangible than I ever dreamed possible. Covenant had worked for me as I trusted in God’s presence, seeing it everywhere: in nature, people, the Cathedral building itself, the faces of my children. And at that moment it was revealed differently, not just serving to shore me up, but to also encourage my fidelity which had begun to look for an escape route weeks ago. I was filled with hope, faith and yes, love.

Just this past February, anonymity was stripped away as the names of the guilty were revealed. I was in shock as a former pastor from “back home” was listed among the names. I thought I would feel angry, disgusted, but instead I am just very very sad: sad for the victims, for the perpetrators, for God and for the Church.

In John Shea’s piece, “A Down and Out Disciple Meets His Match,” Jesus shows up just as a man is thinking of “divorcing him quietly.” Jesus reminds him, as Shea’s story has reminded me over the past 31 years, that “there will be no walking out of the covenant.”

The disciple in Shea’s story remained, and like that disciple I am going nowhere. At the end of the day, covenant is my foundation.

Sometimes I run. It’s true. Sometimes I run toward God.

USCCB Pro-Life Chairman Calls All Catholics to Fight with Renewed Vigor for the Unborn

from the USCCB

WASHINGTON—Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, KS and Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities has issued the following statement in response to several states moving forward with legislation that would permit a baby to be aborted at nine months.

Archbishop Naumann’s full statement follows:

“Abortion has always been built on a lie. Today, the lie is switching from ‘abortion is a choice’ to ‘abortion is healthcare.’ A law recently passed in New York not only legalizes abortion essentially for any reason through all nine months of pregnancy but removes any protection for children born alive after abortion. A similar bill was proposed in Virginia along with several other states, all in the name of women’s health.

This legislation is evil, pure and simple. And it shocks the conscience to see such evil legislation greeted with raucous cheers and standing ovations. Most grieving to our Lord of Life is that those who advocate for abortion put their eternal souls in jeopardy.

It is sickeningly dishonest to claim that women’s lives or health depend on intentionally killing their children. This is especially true for late-term abortion, which always involves the purposeful destruction of a child which could have been born alive, with much less risk to the mother, had they both received real healthcare.

Now is the time for all Catholics—bishops, priests, and laity—to fight for the unborn with renewed vigor. We must educate family, friends, legislators, and fellow citizens about how it is never necessary to intentionally kill unborn children in order to save their mothers. Local action is especially important. Though ending Roe v. Wade is a central goal of the pro-life movement, if the decision were overturned, only 11 states would immediately ban abortion; the other 39 states would still allow it.

I urge Catholics, and thoughtful Americans of all religions or none at all to advocate for local change. Sign up for your State Catholic Conference or diocesan pro-life advocacy network, which can help you communicate to elected officials. Or seek out state and local pro-life groups, including parish respect life groups, that are making a difference at the state level.

Though we live in very dark days, we know that the Lord has already triumphed over death. But we must use this time on earth to be His hands and feet. This means each of us rededicating ourselves to prayer, and fighting for the most vulnerable among us, especially unborn children and their mothers.”

Be More: Northwest Louisiana Catholic Schools Unite

by Jessica Rinaudo

The three Catholic schools in the Shreveport-Bossier area, Loyola College Prep, St. John Berchmans Catholic School and St. Joseph Catholic School, are joining forces. Together school principals, school council members, communications professionals, priests and superintendent Sr. Carol Shively, OSU, have begun meeting to discuss working together to share resources and create a unified Catholic school system in northwest Louisiana.

As part of this effort, several initiatives have launched. The first was to assemble committees, each with a different focus from finances to marketing. The marketing social media team has already begun their work by launching a Shreveport / Bossier Catholic Schools joint Facebook page, where news from all three schools, and in a particular way, news of the schools working together, can be shared with all of those who support Catholic education in the Shreveport / Bossier area.

The Facebook page launched officially in conjunction with Catholic Schools Week 2019, and each day of that week highlighted what the three schools do for their school families, the community and one another. Together the three schools are showing how their students can “Be More,” by attending Catholic schools.

Catholic Schools Week closed with an All Schools Mass at Loyola College Prep – the first to be held in many years – where the three schools celebrated Mass together.  The new Facebook page was used as a platform to live stream Father Matthew Long’s homily at the Mass, in which he fittingly spoke about how together, our schools build the future.

“We are the smallest school system in Northwest Louisiana… A lot of people would look at that and say that’s a bad thing…  But if we listen to the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we know that it’s a good thing, because we are blessed as administrators, as faculty members and as students that we have the ability to know… every one of our students, every one of our peers, every one of our faculty members. … This means we can be more like a family than an organization,” said Fr. Long.

He continued, “But you see, from that small seed of St. John’s and St. Joseph’s and Loyola is the future of northwest Louisiana. It’s the future of our community. It’s the future of our state. It’s the future of our nation. You are the ones who are being cultivated. You are the ones who are being taken care of. You are the ones who are being loved. You are the ones who are being given so much so that when you go forth, you will be able to be leaders. … Because you have received all the tools you need from these Catholic schools.”

“To all of you who are students, I think you should go home and tell your parents, ‘Thank you for making the sacrifice, thank you for loving me so much that you are willing to give me the best that you can.’”
Fr. Long also asked the Loyola students to stand up who attended St. John Berchmans School and St. Joseph School and pointed them out to all the elementary schools in attendance and encouraged them to “be one of the coolest kids in the City of Shreveport and to follow in their footsteps.”

Additionally, as part of this joint schools’ effort, Sr. Carol Shively, OSU, recently brought in a Catholic schools expert, Sr. Carol Cimino, SSJ, Ed.D, to speak to the collective group about different scenarios for both improving our Catholic schools and ways to help them create a bright future.

There are many exciting things happening for Catholic schools in the Shreveport / Bossier area. To follow along, visit and like the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SBCatholicSchools.

Vocations View: World Youth Day

by Raney Johnson, Seminarian

I had the opportunity to attend my second World Youth Day (WYD) this past January in Panama. During this trip, I was able to encounter fellow young Catholics from around the world. The theme of World Youth Day was: “He aquí la sierva del Señor, Hágase en mí según tu palabra.” These words translated into English mean: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to Your Word.” The Blessed Virgin Mary says these words in St. Luke’s gospel. This passage of scripture was specifically chosen for the theme of WYD to emphasize the “Fiat” or “Yes” of Mary to God’s calling.  Throughout my time in Panama, the speakers continually emphasized Mary’s discernment in listening to God’s call and following that call.

One of my favorite parts of my second WYD was encountering the people in my group who were trying to listen to God’s voice in the same way as the Blessed Mother. The group I attended World Youth Day with was a sort of microcosm of the different vocations in the Church. There were religious sisters, a priest and two married men in my group. The group also contained young single Catholics discerning what God was asking them to do with their lives, as well as young men discerning vocations to the priesthood and a young woman discerning a vocation to the religious life. After talking with them about their different discernments, I began to reflect on my own discernment to the priesthood during my week in Panama.

I started to think about how three years earlier I had attended my first World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland after my first year of seminary. Then my mind went from the past into the future. I began to reflect on the next World Youth Day in 2022, and the fact that I might be a priest when it arrives. I began to reflect on my entire discernment of the diocesan priesthood, past, present and future, through the lens of World Youth Day. I imagined attending the next World Youth Day with a group of young Catholics discerning different vocations and celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass for them. This is an important part of WYD; it gives young Catholics from around the world the opportunity to reflect on what vocation God might be calling them to in the Church.

The Holy Father emphasized discernment by the youth in the Church when he celebrated Mass for us on the final day of our pilgrimage to Panama. Pope Francis encouraged us not to put off the discernment of our vocations, but to begin thinking about our vocations in the present.

If I could sum up my experience at World Youth Day, I would say that the Church is alive with young Catholics from around the world who seriously want to serve God and spread the Gospel message. So many young people are answering God’s call in the same way Mary did during the Annunciation. After attending World Youth Day twice, I hope that other young Catholics in the Diocese of Shreveport will have the same opportunity to experience this deeply spiritual event. The next World Youth Day will be in 2022 in Portugal, and I hope it will continue to help young Catholics discern their vocations.

Navigating the Faith: Ash Wednesday Quick Guide

Ash Wednesday officially kicks off the Lenten season in the Church, a season dedicated to prayer, fasting and penance. It takes place 46 days before Easter. This year, that day is Wednesday, March 6th.


Click to download and print your “Quick Guide” to Ash Wednesday!

Domestic Church: How to Have a “Successful” Lent

by Katie Sciba

The beginning of Lent feels like the New Year – it’s a clean slate paired with a handful of resolutions and a heart full of hope that this is THE year.  I’m going to stick with my Lenten sacrifices so when Easter shines in 40+ days, I’ll be beaming with Christian radiance and joy in the Resurrection. Every Lent, I start strong and convicted.

And, as with my New Year’s resolutions, in time I fall short of my personal goals for spiritual wellness, justifying a lack of commitment or even forgetting what they are. Thinking back to past Lents and ahead to upcoming Ash Wednesday, I’m considering things more practically, and I’m placing hope in Jesus that he’ll fill the gaps and draw me nearer to him. Put these steps into action for your own heart and Lent so like Jesus you’ll rise Easter morning made new and rejuvenated.

1.  Consult with God
You’re too attached to something; we all are. Maybe it’s the idea of control in your life, maybe it’s your own time, location or possessions, maybe it’s the reasons you have for not growing closer to Jesus. God has called you to a particular mission – what’s getting in the way? Consider offering that to God during this time meant for letting go of what is temporal to gain focus on the spiritual. If you’re unsure, ask Him to reveal exactly what He desires of and for your heart during Lent. What attachment needs to die so you can experience a renewed life during Easter? Ask, too, for the grace to see God’s answer.

2.  Post your sacrifices
…not online for everyone to see, but in your own world for your own benefit. Put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or inside your coffee cabinet; on the dash in your car or as lock screen on your phone. If you’re reading the Bible or a book of saintly wisdom, keep it in more obvious places so you’ll see it often. Tell a trusted few about your Lenten penance because there is strength in camaraderie.

3.  It’s not about what you give up
Well, not entirely. Lent is a holy invitation to see God clearly by walking away from distractions; and though our part is necessary, it’s Jesus who plays the more active role. Jesus is the one who heals us, who stirs us and who walks with us. Offering things up and ridding ourselves of distraction allows him more space to move in us and through us.

4.  You’re not the only one in the desert
The Lord does not compel His children or call us to do His will, then leave us to do it in our human frailty. Make no mistake, the devil will do his best to draw our attention to ourselves, but like Jesus, we’ll be accompanied by angels and by Christ himself. Jesus always offers grace to help us in what feels difficult or impossible, and because he desires our love and attention, he will uphold us. In the thick of temptation, call on Him for quick aid and grace.

In considering our own bad habits or self-indulgences, it’s common to make Lent about our failings and flaws; to make it about ourselves. Lent, however, is and always has been about the Lord. It’s about drawing strength from Him so we can continue his call for our souls, keeping our eyes focused on him and hearts near heaven.

Stewardship: A Reflection

by Mike Van Vranken

After living 93 years as a faithful Catholic, Ashley passed from this life to her heavenly reward. She was immediately whisked away to the throne of Jesus where she expected to explain her actions on earth and receive his positive, eternal judgment. She was somewhat surprised with his first question: “Ashley, tell me about the people who ministered to you during your life.” Curiously, she explained how she thought he’d want to know all about what she had done. He promised: “We’ll get to that. For now, tell me about all of those who helped and assisted you.”

“I have to begin with all of the wonderful priests,” she said. “They lovingly and compassionately were always there for me; in times of joy, sadness, pain or happiness. They fed me spiritually, emotionally and were truly your presence in my life. From childhood to my death, they made such a spiritual difference in my earthly experience. I can’t thank you enough for them.” “So, how did you thank them?” Jesus asked. “Oh, I prayed for them daily, baked them cookies, and sometimes even had Masses said for them.”  Jesus lovingly gazed at her, “How did you care for them when they were old and retired?” Curious, she said: “The Church took care of them when they retired.” With gentleness and love, he touched her arm and asked: “But weren’t you part of the Church?” She stood in silence, somewhat embarrassed. She had a deep reverence for and connection with those retired priests, but never thought she could give enough to make a difference for them in their retirement days.

Smiling, he asked her: “Who else ministered to you?”  Beaming, she told him about a poor and vulnerable family who were dear friends of her’s, who needed assistance. She explained how Catholic Charities of North Louisiana not only provided financial help, but also furnished financial training. They even made available children’s necessities from Gabriel’s Closet. She said: “And I always wanted to support our Catholic Charities with donations, but their budget needs were more money than I could give.”

Their conversation continued. She spoke of the wonderful people who work in Hispanic Ministry that provides so much for the active and vibrant faith lives of the rapidly growing Catholic Hispanic community; a community that includes her husband’s family. “We were always so grateful for those who helped with special outreach to Latino Catholics,” she lovingly told Jesus.

She told him about volunteers in Catholic Schools and the many unpaid workers who help with Youth programs. These ministers were so important to her own Catholic upbringing, as well as the faith formation of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She described adult education programs, the beautiful worship celebrations, pro-life ministries, college campus ministries, and the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“All of these people ministered to me in my life,” she told Jesus, “either directly to me and my family, or indirectly to friends I knew and loved.  I am so grateful and appreciative of every one of these beautiful workers and volunteers who provided so much during my lifetime.”

Jesus stood up from his throne, took Ashley by the hand, and they walked into another heavenly room and sat down together. He reverently looked into her eyes and said: “I wish you had been more engaged in helping all of these ministries be available to the thousands of people in North Louisiana.”  She said: “Well, I wish you had told me you wanted that – and even wish you had given me reminders that it was your desire. Besides,” she continued, “you know I never had a lot to donate to so many different ministries. As important as they all were to me, how would I have been able to help them all?”

In his loving, compassionate voice, he softly shared that he reminded her every year of ways she could be engaged in the work of the Church helping these ministry groups. She asked: “When did you remind me of a way that someone like me could be engaged in your work by helping with all of these wonderful works of mercy?”  His response came with more love, tenderness and mercy than she could imagine: “When I gave you, each year, the Annual Diocesan Stewardship Appeal, I was giving you a grace to allow you to be engaged in many of the endeavors of my Church. One small donation, or a monthly gift of just a few dollars, would have connected you with the work of my people as much as someone else giving millions. It was never about the amount you could give. I knew you had such a generous heart that you longed to be able to support these ministries. I never wanted you to be left out. Through this Annual Appeal, I gave to you, and I continue to give to everyone, based on his or her own abilities, an avenue to be fully involved in my Church.”

Please prayerfully visit with God, asking Him who He wants you to be as His steward of the Annual Stewardship Appeal. Then, sit quietly, and wait for his response

Prayer Before Action A Reflection on the Bishops’ Retreat

by Father Peter Mangum, Diocesan Administrator

We just celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and have brought the Season of Christmas to a conclusion. May the graces of that blessed season of peace and joy remain with us throughout 2019!

I think back to the Baptism of our Lord, which concluded the Christmas season. What was Jesus doing right after He was baptized? The Gospel of Luke tells us: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,” He saw the Holy Spirit descend and heard His Father’s voice, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus speaks with His Father, and then Heaven opens above Him. Prayer first. The next thing Jesus did, according to Sacred Scripture, was to go off into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, “filled with the Holy Spirit” it says, where He prayed and fasted, (“went on retreat” we could say) and only then did He start to teach!

The importance of prayer before action is seen throughout Sacred Scripture: the need to be prompted by the Holy Spirit and filled with the Holy Spirit before acting is essential to move forward in the way God wants us to.

How wonderful our long tradition in the Catholic Church is regarding the necessary relationship between prayer and action, and the importance of prayer preceding action (a lesson for us all). How many of us come up with our plan of action and then get on our knees and ask the Lord to help us accomplish it? But we’re supposed to get on our knees first, find out what the Lord wants us to do, and then, guided by the Holy Spirit, we get to work.

I was away the first week of January with the bishops of this country on a retreat at a seminary north of Chicago. This was at the request of Pope Francis who wanted all the leaders of dioceses (as a group) to take time together in prayer (as a group) on the crisis of faith and conscience and credibility related to the abuse scandals, cover-ups and lack of action. The pope was so insistent on this that he sent Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the very holy Capuchin preacher to the last three popes, to direct the retreat under the theme of “He Appointed Twelve, to be with Him and to Send Out to Preach” based on Mark 3:14. Here’s the same pattern: Jesus appointed 12 disciples (whose successors are the bishops) first to be with Him, and only after that to go about the ministry!

photo/ Catholic News Agency

At the very start of the retreat, an eight-page letter was handed out to us from the pope, dated the day before. It was written to the bishops for the beginning of the retreat. In it he says that the bishops’ “credibility… cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.” (emphasis mine) This is precisely what the bishops, acting in a very American pragmatic way and without praying first, were trying to do back in November at the USCCB meeting where Pope Francis told them to postpone the vote for new procedures. He goes on to say that the Gospel demands a change of heart, and that the time and space a weeklong retreat together can provide for silence, prayer and penance is so essential to undertake necessary reforms, and to receive the grace, courage and freedom to reform themselves and the Church.

The pope’s goal was to draw the group of very different men and their ideologies, theologies, ecclesiologies and ways of doing things, closer to one another and our Lord to seek together to find the wisdom and strength necessary to meet the great challenges ahead.

I must admit, I didn’t realize how divided many of the bishops actually are, against each other, or against various groups of bishops, and even with their issues concerning the pope. I asked several bishops about this and they simply responded, “Yes, it’s true.” The pope knows it is true, as he addressed it in his letter, and he knew that huge decisions the bishops face could not be made by a group who were divided; they could not come up with a plan of action and just pray it worked.

Our retreat master, a man steeped in Sacred Scripture and the early Church Fathers, spoke to us several times each day, both in formal conferences and in the homilies at Mass. There was time for quiet reflection, including silent meal times, adoration, Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as talks about the need for “Intimacy with Christ” as our first priority and what it means for the successors of the apostles “to stay with Jesus” on a personal and existential level, and to share Jesus’ “Ardent Prayer for Unity.”

We all participated in a beautiful Penitential Service led by one of the cardinals, themed “The Church on Her Knees,” highlighting the need to personally seek forgiveness and seek forgiveness as a group. There were multiple opportunities for confessions throughout the week, to which many of us availed ourselves.

Through it all, every bishop was so aware of the pain of everyone who has been let down by the Church.

The pattern was established for us all: Prayer and discernment first, then action. Retreat was essential — not to surrender and hide from reality, but to retreat to all that is real and most important, mindful that the future does not rest with any of us alone, but that it belongs to God.

A lasting conversion for the Church will not come without prayer. So this retreat ahead of next month’s Vatican summit on this very issue, (and the gathering of U.S. bishops in June) has given the bishops an opportunity to pray before acting, to heal divisions, work together, and discern the path forward under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit we heard about at the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, who prepared the Son of God for ministry, but only after He prayed and spent time in retreat.

Now that the prayer and reflection has happened, my prayer and yours (I am sure) is that the bishops have the grace to understand where God is leading the Church and the courage to go there!

In our own lives we hope to follow the same pattern: to get on our knees first and find out what the Lord wants us to do, then, guided by the Holy Spirit, we get up and get to work.