NFPC News Release – Immigration, millennials, and Pope Francis’ pastoral theology form focus of NFPC Convocation

Building on last year’s theme regarding the impact of the pontificate of Pope Francis on pastoral life, the theme “Forging a Future with Pope Francis” framed the 49th Annual Convocation of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils.

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For Immediate Release
May 5, 2017 
For information contact:
Alan Szafraniec [email protected]

Immigration, millennials, and Pope Francis’ pastoral theology form focus of NFPC Convocation

Building on last year’s theme regarding the impact of the pontificate of Pope Francis on pastoral life, the theme “Forging a Future with Pope Francis” framed the 49th Annual Convocation of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. 74 priests representing over 50 dioceses gathered at the Majestic Garden Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. from April 24th – 27th, to pray, reflect and dialogue on the issues facing priests, presbyteral councils and the US church as a whole, particularly in regard to immigrants, young people, and pastoral theology and practice.

Dr. Mark Gray, Director of Catholic Polls and a Senior Research Assistant at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, was invited to report results of the recently published study by the Center called, “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century.” According to the survey, Catholics comprise 25% of the population of the US, are increasingly diverse, but less sacramentally active. There has been significant movement from the rust belt to the sun belt, with diversity reflected entirely in the north and the west. Of note is that the US Church is reaching a tipping point of becoming less than 50% non-Hispanic white with the average age 62 and over 50% Hispanic; average age 42, not including children.

Other notable trends are fewer births in general in the non-Hispanic white population with the long-term impact of smaller Catholic schools. The ratio of priests to parishes is less than 1 to 1, with enrollment in seminaries up, yet not enough ordinations to keep up with priests dying or leaving ministry. However, the diaconate and lay ecclesial ministry are growing.

The study offers insights into multi-parish ministry, consolidated parishes and parishes run by parish life coordinators, the latter having seen a decline since 2005, mostly due to bishops’ ecclesiologies. Of note as well is that a large majority of Catholics give high grades in overall satisfaction with their parishes, noting the importance of openness, welcoming, good liturgy and preaching.

On Tuesday morning Dr. Kevin Appleby, Senior Director for International Migration Policy for the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a member of the Scalabrini International Migration Network, addressed the topic of Immigration and Migration. “The church has been involved for years, really centuries, in accompanying immigrants … it is our Catholic social teaching reflected in the Gospels, papal teaching and US bishops’ documents … because church is where migrants go, if not first, then soon after; and because we as church give voice to the voiceless … and we are all immigrants.”

Dr. Appleby points out migration and immigration are a major focus of Pope Francis, with statements made at Lampedusa, his first trip outside of Rome after becoming pope, and Lesbos, criticizing the globalized culture of indifference toward the immigrant and refugee. Even in the US, Appleby says, only 55% of parishes have talked about immigration and welcoming immigrants. He highlighted statistics about those who overstay their visas, funds spent on the increase in the number of border patrol agents, the decrease in the number of migrants since the great recessions, and the estimated 12,000 immigrants in the Southwest US desert since 2000; and then asked the question,  “What does this mean?

The message he says, is “Keep out vs. help wanted. The economy still needs immigrant workers, but the system says stay away.” Dr. Appleby goes on to say, “Immigrants are pawns in the chessboard of humanity, with both sending and receiving countries culpable. They are convenient scapegoats, yet we continue to expropriate their labor and taxes to our benefit at their cost.”

“Nations do have a right to secure borders,” Appleby says, “yet a moral responsibility to welcome those fleeing poverty and oppression. Refugees and asylum seekers should be respected, as should be those who are undocumented.”

Appleby points out that the current administration is not immigrant or refugee friendly, reflected in executive orders regarding borders, interior enforcement and the refugee travel ban. They are promoting separating mothers from their children, enlisting help from Mexico to deter immigration from Central America, pushing for greater local police involvement and cooperation in enforcement, cutting refugee programs in half, and criminalizing any immigrant.

Again, the church’s response is that “enforcement only will not solve the problem, because it drives persons underground and separates US citizen children from their families. The church insists that immigration reform look at all aspects of the system. Seventy percent of undocumented immigrants have lived here 10 years or longer and have built equity in businesses and communities. “As church, we must push to restore the rule of law where everyone plays by the same rules, including employers. We must share immigrant’s stories. We must assure a welcoming atmosphere for all. Although the idea of sanctuary has no legal standing, we must be ready to do our fullest to protect people and families.”

“Overall, Catholics still need a lot of education on this issue. The anti-immigrant forces are winning the PR game.” What priests can do: educate yourselves and our people; encourage using the pen and the phone to push your legislators on reform; advocate and march on behalf of immigrants; fight for each family; and, support a refugee family. There are great resources at and at


Father Luke Ballman, a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Associate Director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations (CCLV) represented the US bishops’ conference. In his report, Fr. Ballman highlighted the various vocation events as well as an annual survey on ordination classes, post-ordination survey on deacons, and survey on profession classes of religious men and women. The Committee is working to finalize the 6th Edition of the Program for Priestly Formation for approval in 2018-19. In addition, they are also finishing a Directory for the Formation of Catholic Deacons. A report on the 2017 ordination class will be released in May.

Fr. Ballman also noted other USCCB projects such as the USCCB Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, the Justice, Peace and Human Development Website –, and the document Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography.


Father Clete Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Director of the Priest-Labor Initiative housed at the NFPC, updated the priests on current efforts to strengthen the Priest-Labor movement. Fr. Kiley offered, “There are over 100 priests now engaged throughout the United States in supporting local workers as they seek to organize or simply to defend their right to work and oppose any efforts to discriminate against them. The presence of priests with workers as a spiritual and moral presence at the workplace or at marches is incredibly encouraging to workers.” Any priests interested in learning more and attending training can make contact with Fr. Kiley through the NFPC.


“There are 83 million millennials in the US, one-quarter of the population, one-third of the labor force, 44% who are people of color, 32% of those who are age 30 or under who have no religious affiliation. This population has a need for belonging and a need for answers. Can we, as a church, connect faith to millennials’ longing to belong and seeking answers?” This was the question (in a nutshell) posed to Convocation attendees by Father Ken Simpson, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in his insightful presentation titled “Millennials and the Church.” Fr. Simpson serves currently as the Vicar for Professional and Pastoral Development of Priests for the Archdiocese of Chicago, having served previously as a pastor and 15 years as Director/Chaplain of the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University.

Fr. Simpson describes the characteristics of millennials as instant, i.e., new is old in 2 weeks; always on; digital, video, tech savvy, social media and virtual; have a flattened hierarchy; constantly questioning authority and institutions; private and very selective with information input; and, delaying rites of passage. “They are hardworking (on their schedule), creative, innovative and quick reacting, multi-focused and multi-tasking, expecting immediate rewards or reinforcement, have dim prospects of exceeding success of their parents, but are still optimistic.”

As regards the culture, theirs is a reflection of the worldview, with instant and almost unlimited access to people/ideas/products/info. “They feel an alienation from once foundational institutions and structures and feel they do not need to look to any ‘authority’ for answers because they can find their own. There is modularity in their lives, that pieces of life can be rearranged as necessary. They are always watching for authenticity, for any signs of the inauthentic.”

As parents, millennials see family as a democracy; life is uploaded instantly. Parents want to observe everything about their kids, are obsessed with them. Their children are infallible. Their only source of parenting advice is other millennials.

“Millennials have a strong suspicion of religions, especially those who build their brand or try to make the sale.” In regards to participation in church, 4 out of 10 are what he calls nomads who are lost to church, 3 out of 10 are exiles lost between the culture and church and 1 out of 10 are prodigals who are lost to faith. The “nones,”those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” number 25% of the total U.S. population, 40% of millennials, and 50% of Catholics.

There are a number of reasons young people turn away from religion: religion is not intellectual/rational; science disproves religion; religion is responsible for wars/implicated in violence; and gender issues (LGBTQ/women’s roles).

Yet, Fr. Simpson says, there are reasons why young people stay connected to religion: cultural discernment; life-shaping relationships; firsthand experience; reverse mentoring (by someone who can witness to them, but not a priest or religious); and, vocational discipleship. Open windows to millennials are that they are loyal to causes and people; career is central to their identity, central to meaning; they are seeking the meaning of life (Who am I?), their place in this world (Where am I going?), their way of making a difference (What value can I add to the world?) They are also clear that the world is screwed up and that the “boomers” screwed it up.

As church, Fr. Simpson concludes, “We need to connect with millennials’ need for belonging because belonging leads to believing. We need to connect faith to their questions, to their need for answers, through the mystery, beauty and poetry of our tradition in the Paschal Mystery. We need to seek out and engage the millennial dialogue that begins with “yes…and…” Like all of us, they are looking for hymns, homilies, hospitality and hugs (belonging).”

Fr. Simpson added that Pope Francis seems to be speaking especially to millennials, and really all of us, in his shifting us from the deductive to the inductive, in his appeal to communion, mercy, conscience, care for the environment, accompaniment and authenticity.


On Wednesday morning, the delegates engaged in a lively conversation and sharing on addressing issues as regards the format of presbyteral council meetings and what makes them effective as vehicles of significant input and guidance for the ordinary.


“Pastoral theology is a distinct theology. It is not a theology deriving from moral theology or any other, but unique in its perspective and concrete in its methodology, with joy as its center. Pope Francis is giving us example daily, through word and action, how to live that joy.” This was the insightful and exciting premise presented in the final plenary session by Bishop Robert W. McElroy, Bishop of San Diego in his talk “The Pastoral Theology of Pope Francis.” Bishop McElroy has a Licentiate in Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology, a Doctorate in Moral Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, and a Doctorate in Political Science from Stanford University.

Using Terrence Malik’s film “The Tree of Life” as an example that illustrates the tension between “the two things that move us – the order of nature and the order of grace,” Bishop McElroy raised up the deep conflict and pain in the film expressed by the narrator who was mourning the tragic and sudden loss of his son. The father exemplifies the order of nature, the practical and often harsh perspective of many in our world who see life as a challenge, a battle to survive. His wife, on the other hand, exemplifies the order of grace, expressing a joy in life, which she tries to convey to her sons. The point Bishop McElroy makes is that as followers of Christ we come to “an understanding of the world as a graced place, calling us to embrace a realistic joy that acts as a prism for seeing and appreciating the richness of the world around us.” “Our task as priests,” emphasized in Pope Francis’ Holy Thursday homily this year, “is to help our people, to allow the joy of the Gospel to be poured into their lives, like new wine into new wineskins.”

“Do we live life as if we are radically dependent on God? Sometimes, perhaps often, we do not. We struggle with this. Yet we must embrace the Gospel reality that we live in the hands of a God who loves us deeply, upon whom we are radically dependent!”

“Another theme, really the core theme, in Pope Francis’ pastoral theology is the limitless nature of God’s mercy.” Bishop McElroy points to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book on mercy as a great explication of the dimensions of God’s mercy, and he is clear that Pope St. John Paul II (establishing Divine Mercy Sunday) and Pope Benedict XVI (Christ as the mercy of God; why did Jesus pick St. Peter and not St. John as the leader of the Church? To be a leader of the church, you must have failed greatly and been redeemed.) found mercy as a core theme, now lived as THE core theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate. For Pope Francis “Mercy is the primary attribute of God in relation to humanity.”

Another foundational principal to Pope Francis’ pastoral theology is “the call to sacrifice and the Cross.” He emphasizes our need to (daily) rededicate ourselves to this. He used the example of Lucien Bunel, or Father Jacques, as he was known by everybody, who was a Carmelite priest and the director of the Petit Collège des Carmes, in Avon, near Fontainebleau. Through his ingenuity, he was able to create a safe haven for students during the Nazi occupation, ultimately paying the price for housing a Jewish child at the pleading of the boy’s mother, putting the whole school at risk, yet being true to the call to sacrifice.

A key principle in this pastoral theology is the rejection of judgmentalism. Here Bishop McElroy used the Herman Melville story Billy Budd who exemplifies the perfect man who is ultimately the victim of extreme jealousy and a victim of the harsh law of the seas. “Judgmentalism is the number one sin that Jesus points to throughout the Gospels. There is no close second!”

The final foundational principle of Francis’ pastoral theology is the embrace of the sacramental life. Here Bishop McElroy references the BBC series “Beyond the Gates,” which takes place during the Rwandan massacre of the Tutsi native peoples by Hutu militia. The hero of the story, Fr. Christoffe, having experienced a dry period in his ministry, is suddenly compelled by tragic events to be spiritual, physical, emotional and sacramental support to those seeking refuge. He finds new life, and ultimately meets his death, in accompanying this community under siege. His final words to the idealistic seminarian Joseph are, “I must stay. I have seen and felt the love and suffering of the crucified Christ in these people.”

The pastoral care we extend as priests and ministers of the Gospel, Bishop McElroy exhorts, must be rooted in the Gospel. We need to feel the embrace of Christ, and ask ourselves, “Where do you need healing in your relationship to God?” Bishop McElroy laments the loss of virtue language, with the culture now focused on values. “We need to talk about the virtues of Christ. Moral law is not the ultimate arbiter of human living – virtue is.” He adds that there is a great danger and allure in rationalizing our actions. “Conscience is a call to responsibility, to living out the virtues.” We cannot fully live all the virtues of Christ. There are some we do well and we must focus on continuing to develop and grow in the virtues that we are good at living. God does not ask perfection of us; all God asks is that we do the best we can in the sometimes overwhelming circumstances of our daily life.”

Pope Francis exhorts us all to a pastoral care rooted in the Gospel that reflects accompaniment, “an art which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” (Joy of the Gospel 169) And this accompaniment demands a spirit of inclusion where “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (Joy #47) McElroy adds, “We are facilitators of grace, not arbiters of it. The Church is not a tollhouse.” This presents a special invitation in regard to controverted issues such as the moral dignity of gay men and women, transgender issues and the continued raising up of the beauty of marriage as a graced yet realistic commitment in the world.


In his final President’s Address, Father Tony Cutcher, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, highlighted the ongoing challenges of the NFPC, highlighting the process of downsizing offerings by the NFPC concordant with current interests and demands of presbyterates and priests, as well as the ongoing process of revisiting the mission and structure of the NFPC as it moves into its second 50 years of service. He exhorted those gathered to continue to promote the work of the NFPC within their presbyterates and to continue to offer insights and suggestions as the organization continues to reshape itself. He highly encouraged the use of social media to raise awareness of the NFPC in its program offerings, but also as a place to bring particular concerns of presbyterates for staff to research and seek out the wisdom of others in other parts of the country. He noted that there will be a national gathering of NFPC, NOCERCC, Jesus Caritas and the three major treatment centers in 2019.


On Tuesday, April 25, Conference attendees were given a tour of the Christ Cathedral (formerly Crystal Cathedral) campus. The Cathedral campus is the home of the Diocese of Orange Chancery Office. At a Mass presided over by Bishop Arturo Cepeda, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit and NFPC’s episcopal liaison to the CCLV, he admonished the priests to evangelize by following 5 steps: Take the first step out of our comfort zone; Engage people where they’re at; Accompany them; Empower them; and, Celebrate with them.

The group then gathered on the campus for the annual awards dinner. The 2017 NFPC Touchstone Award, presented to the priest who, in his leadership enhances the ministry of others and his words and deeds support the life and ministry of priests, whose service in the Gospel of Jesus Christ exemplifies the purpose and goals of the Federation, was presented to Father Donald Cozzens. Fr. Cozzens is a professor, writer, retreat leader, former rector-president of Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology, and former vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Cleveland. He wrote The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest’s Crisis of Soul (Liturgical Press, 2000), considered a tour-de-force in describing US Catholic priesthood at the time. In his remarks, he appealed to the older priests in the group to be as real as we can be in two ways: “Be true, honest, authentic and humble elders, witnessing to the experience of mystery and transcendence that so many in our culture are thirsting for.” And, “be trail guides, walking with, resting with, sharing blisters with, sharing stories and wisdom with those God calls us to accompany.” He suggested that there is a subtle sort of grieving that many priests are going through, prompted by the way that faith and religion has been sidelined to the peripheries by a large number of people in our culture, by the fact that we are divided at times as clergy, and that we are still grieving the nightmare of clergy abuse of children and teens. He suggested that every priest take the Hippocratic oath, “Do no harm!” He closed by asking that we be given the grace to be “masters of gratitude.”

The 2017 NFPC Mandatum Award recognized the ministry, work and witness of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, founded in 1968 during the civil rights movement. Receiving the award on behalf of the NBCCC was Father Kenneth Taylor, president, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In his remarks, Fr. Taylor recounted the history of black Catholics and the struggles that accompanied the acceptance of black Catholics and black clergy in the Catholic Church, mirroring the sad history of racism in our nation. He raised up the cause for canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first African American priest ordained for the United States, who himself was rejected by American seminaries and was trained in Rome. The Caucus, over the years, has represented the often disregarded voice of African American clergy and their congregations, helping to establish the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, co-founding the National Office of Black Catholics (NOBC), the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, publishing the Declaration on Racism and the Catholic Church and establishing the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Click here for Convocation slide show


The 2018 NFPC Convocation will be held in Chicago, Illinois from April 23–26. All priests from across the United States are welcome to attend as NFPC celebrates its 50th Anniversary.

Prepared by Father Larry Dowling, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and pastor of St. Agatha Parish.