Mercy, Compassion, Accompaniment: Key to bringing Pope Francis’ Message to Parish Life

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For Immediate Release
May 2, 2016

Mercy, Compassion, Accompaniment: Key to bringing Pope Francis’ Message to Parish Life

A church known for its frankness on moral and doctrinal teaching is now a church led by a Pope who is offering a new definition to “frankness,” still holding to church discipline, but doing so in the spirit of Jesus Christ, a spirit of mercy and accompaniment, reflected prophetically and practically in the words, actions and contagious spirit of Pope Francis.

Thus the theme of “Keeping Up with Pope Francis: Bringing the Message to Parish Life” was most apropos for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils 48th Annual Convocation and House of Delegates. Sixty-four priests representing 40 dioceses and priests’ associations gathered at the Indianapolis Marriott East Hotel in Indianapolis, Ind. from April 18th – 21st, 2016 to pray, reflect and dialogue on the issues facing priests, presbyteral councils and the US church as a whole.

Representing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was Rev. Ralph O’Donnell, Executive Director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

Father O’Donnell highlighted CCLV’s recent collaborative projects focusing on Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States and Resources on Seminary Admissions and Psychology. A large portion of the US bishops’ focus is on vocations. Quoting Pope Francis that “the Church is the Mother of vocations,” and “the call is an antidote to indifference and individualism,” he highlighted recent studies in which statistics indicate that 93% of vocations are encouraged by a close loved one or friend and 70% were encouraged by a priest or priests. Again, quoting Pope Francis, he added, “Vocations (to priesthood and other callings) are born within the Church, grow within the Church and are sustained by the Church.”

He also raised awareness of new studies focusing on the importance of history in the development and support of vocations, history meaning priests or laity or traditions that have supported and constructively challenged the growth of vocations and the deepening of ongoing priestly ministry.

One question that arose from the group was regarding the heavy focus on vocations and the seeming lack of concern for those who are currently priests. This is a question worth raising since 70% of vocations were encouraged by priests. How are bishops extending care and encouragement to their priests?

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Paul Jarzembowski, Assistant for Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth presented a talk on “Keeping Up with Pope Francis on the Family and Young Adults.” Using the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, and The Joy of Love, Amoris Laetitia, he differentiated between the two terms, Gaudium and Laetitia. “Gaudium is an internal joy; Laetitia is an external joy, a fruitful joy. The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church,” Jarzembowski explained.

“Family communion is a path toward deeper union with God!” Yet, Jarzembowski offered, “families today are often incomplete, weakened by extreme individualism, loneliness, powerlessness, fragility of relationships, migration, poverty and exhaustion of parents coming home from work, often at multiple jobs or for extensive hours.”

In a 2015 report titled “Measures of the American Family Catholic Lifestyle,” conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Holy Family Ministries, there were a number of revelations about current trends in the culture and among those who claim the name Catholic. In a section designated “Recent Trends in Affiliation by Generations” it was found that one-third of persons in their 20’s have no religious affiliation. Among millennials, ages 18-35, only 17% attend Mass weekly.

“Our response to these disturbing trends has been defensive, often denouncing the culture and those who do not participate,” Jarzembowski said. “Yet we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness. We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye.”

“We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage,” Jerzembowski noted.

Pope Francis holds that we find the core of the Gospel of our faith in mercy, presented as a force that overcomes everything, Mr. Jarzembowski said. In Misericordiae Vultus #9, the 2015 document that announced the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis notes: “In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy.” We know these parables well, three in particular: the lost sheep, the lost coin (who are the hidden treasures that we would do everything to ‘find’?), and the father with two sons (a family in crisis). [Lk 15:1-32]. “In these parables, God is always presented as full of joy, especially when he pardons. In them we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith, because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon.”

In Amoris Laetitia it is striking how much Pope Francis places emphasis on marriage preparation (12 paragraphs) and on marriage accompaniment (14 paragraphs), especially in the first five years of marriage. This can be found elucidated in Chapters 4 and 5, which Jarzembowski recommends, should be where the faithful begin to read the document.

What is also important to note, Jarzembowski observed, is a 2008 CARA study on Lenten practices. The study shows that although only 17% of millennials attended Mass weekly, 61% did not eat meat on Fridays, 50% received ashes on Ash Wednesday, 46% gave up something, and 40% did acts of charity, traditional religious practice is still a part of the majority of millenial’s lives.

He also highlighted the growing engagement of young people in World Youth Day noting that the event is not just celebrated in one city where the Pope is physically present, but in every diocese where youth can gather to pray, reflect, and be encouraged in their ongoing faith-life development.

“Overall,” Jarzembowski added, “Francis calls us to a culture of dialogue and accompaniment in the spirit of mercy and love.”

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“The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.” This is how Dan Misleh, founding Executive Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant began his presentation, “Keeping Up with Pope Francis on the Environment.”

“We tend to look at environment as something beyond ourselves, when we are very much a part of that environment,” Misleh observed. He went on to say, “We are in a huge struggle to integrate human values into the continued rampant growth of technology. We are losing the battle as the dominance of economics and technology sidelines all else.”

Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Sí, makes it clear that our internal life is important in addressing the external crisis. The environment is a moral, social justice and poverty issue. “We need an ecological conversion,” Francis tells us. Such conversion is rooted in the Eucharist, which “joins heaven and earth, embracing and penetrating all creation.”

Misleh presented a brief video (found at www.creation.clearpath.org) giving personal testimonies to the effect of environmental jobs on the fishing industry in Florida. He encouraged use of these resources for education at the parish level. He also encouraged every parish and diocese to seek ways to educate and encourage positive changes in energy conservation, recycling and other strategies that create a local base of engagement, a “creation core team” that can collectively make a difference in the dangerous path we are on.

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A panel discussion followed the talks. Fr. O’Donnell, NFPC President Fr. Tony Cutcher, Mr. Jarzembowski and Mr. Misleh were joined by Michael J. O’Loughlin a regular writer on contemporary Catholic issues including religion and politics and author of The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters which looks at the Francis papacy through the Pope’s use of social media. (You can follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.)

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“Having had mercy, God called him.” This quote from St. Bede referring to the call of St. Matthew, adopted by Pope Francis as his papal motto, reflects the “centrality of mercy” permeating the pontificate of this Pope. Such is the observation of Father Thomas Rosica, a priest of the Congregation of St. Basil and CEO of Salt and Light Media Foundation, who wrapped up the 3-day Convocation with his lively keynote presentation.

“Francis, like St. Francis of Assisi, has a love of the poor, of peace, and of care for creation,” Fr. Rosica observed. “Against a backdrop of fear, terror, destruction and growing isolation in our world, Francis offers that mercy is the only antidote.” He quotes from G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi: “St. Francis must be imagined as moving swiftly through the world with a sort of impetuous politeness; almost like the movement of a man who stumbles on one knee half in haste and half in obeisance.”

Fr. Rosica shared a story about giving a talk in Texas where, prior to the talk, a woman came up to him and introduced herself as the Apostle of Mercy for the state. After his presentation to the group, he opened for questions and the first one to raise their hand was this woman’s husband who asked, “Why are you talking so much about mercy and talking about immigrants and poor people?” Surprised by the Apostle of Mercy’s husband’s question, Rosica offered, “’What kind of mercy are you referring to? To which the man persisted, “Not that kind of mercy!’”

Rosica offers that Pope Francis’ striking symbolism in raising up the essential and integral value of mercy is becoming substance. “It is the foundation of everything he does. It challenges hypocrisy head-on. It is not an add-on, but an attribute of God. Mercy is mentioned 32 times in Evangelii Gaudium!”

Rosica highlights Jesus’ use of the famous reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in his appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth. He notes that Jesus omits the last part of that reading, “and the day of vengeance of our God”  (Is 61:2) Rosica adds, “Mercy is a balm against hatred, fear and oppression. It makes the world less cold and more just. It invites a restorative justice, contrary to the retributive justice which pervades our world.”

He suggests that the announcement of the Year of Mercy on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council was quite intentional: “The ecumenical council will reach out and embrace under the widespread wings of the Catholic Church the entire heredity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Its principal task will be concerned with the condition and modernization (in Italian: aggiornamento) of the Church after 20 centuries of life. (Pope St. John XXIII in an address to a group of Blessed Sacrament Fathers, June 1961) It was also striking that the holy door he opened at the beginning of the Year of Mercy was not in Rome, but in the Central African Republic, in the midst of the poorest continent on the earth.

Pope Francis offers the image of the field hospital, a place that exists where there is combat, a place that recognizes and welcomes the wounded, stops the bleeding, and offers support for ongoing healing. Following Jesus requires an infinite openness, going where Jesus went, embracing sinners, touching people’s minds and hearts, accompanying each other on life’s journey. It requires challenging self-righteousness, the tendency to condemn the faults in others without recognizing and confessing our own faults.

Rosica suggests that Francis invites faith communities to become “islands of mercy in a sea of indifference.” In reflecting on the Pope’s latest document, Amoris Laetitia, he suggests starting with Chapter 4 where Francis encourages the reader to reflect on prudence, wisdom and discernment in regard to the moral and ethical decisions we make. We must do everything in our power to compassionately support individuals and couples in the formation of conscience that is properly informed by the teachings of Christ and in the church’s interpretation of natural law and those teachings. “Francis tells us,” Rosica says, “that fidelity does not demand a one-size-fits-all legalism. Having winners and losers is never productive. Instead we need to accompany, dialogue, together sort out God’s desire for each and all of us. That is why we need to help couples embrace and live the fullness of conjugal love.”

Rosica is clear that Pope Francis upholds the definition of marriage, acknowledging that there may be unions that are loving and life-giving, but they are not the same as marriage. He also reinforces the consideration of natural remedies for birth control because they respect the integral nature of the body and mutuality in relationships.

For Pope Francis, this time is a revolution of the tenderness of God. Rosica would add, “It is a revolution of normalcy, of what should be regular, normal Christian behavior.”

Fr. Rosica finally challenged priests to read and take to heart Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which requires us to examine our own pastoral practices in light of God’s mercy. He observes that he is sometimes asked by priests whether he is a John XXIII or a Vatican II or a John Paul II priest. Referencing 1Corinthians 1:10-14, he encourages everyone to be a priest, first and always, of Jesus Christ. Again, from St. Francis of Assisi: “Consider God’s humility; give him your whole heart! Like him, become humble yourself, so that you can be raised up by him! Hold nothing back for yourself so that he, who gave himself completely for you, can take you completely as his own.”  (from a letter written in 1220 A.D.)

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In his President’s Address, Fr. Tony Cutcher, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, highlighted the ongoing challenges of the NFPC to promote its excellent programs on improving presbyteral councils and the 7 Habits workshops. He entertained suggestions from the priests gathered as to how best to continue to promote the NFPC in its mission to “serve the communion, brotherhood and solidarity of bishops, presbyterates and priests.” He encouraged councils to share their council notes for editing and publication in the NFPC This Week e-letter, and for council secretaries to share the weekly NFPC communication with all priests in their presbyterate. He also mentioned an initiative to gather previous NFPC presidents for a discussion on future direction.

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After a Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church (Old Cathedral) presided over by Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR, the group gathered for the annual awards dinner. The 2016 NFPC Touchstone Award, presented to Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI. In his absence, the award was accepted by his brother, Father Wendelin Rolheiser, OMI, a priest of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-LePas, Canada.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Tex. His 21 books, articles, lectures and retreats have deepened the spiritual life of millions of people. His best known work, The Holy Longing (Doubleday, New York) is considered a “tour de force” in foundational Christian spirituality. The Touchstone award is presented “the priest who, in the view of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, is one whose service in the Gospel of Jesus Christ exemplifies the purpose and goals of the Federation. In particular, his leadership enhances the ministry of others and his words and deeds support the life and ministry of priests; thus he is, as it were, a Touchstone for genuine, quality priesthood.”

The NFPC Mandatum Award recognized the work of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate as an organization enhancing the ministry of presbyteral councils, seeking to expand on the issues and concerns of priests, championing the NFPC’s mission and goals in the public square. For 52 years CARA has conducted hundreds of research studies, reflecting their mission to increase the Church’s self-understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision makers; and, to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Washington, DC staff: Thomas P. Gaunt, SJ, Ph.D., Executive Director accepted the award on behalf of CARA. Special recognition was given to the late Dr, Dean Hoge who for many years championed the work of CARA and NFPC. He died in 2008.

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The 2017 annual NFPC Convocation will be held in Anaheim, California from April 24 – 27, 2017. All priests from across the United States are welcome to attend.

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