Welcome Transcript



Welcome to Chicago! I regret that I cannot be with you personally to celebrate a great milestone in the history of the NFPC—fifty years of service to the priests in the United States and to the Church. Congratulations and God bless you as you move into the future.

For a few moments, I want to share with you my sense of why the NFPC and the priest councils it represents are so important for the life of the Church today.

A number of years ago, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam captured the attention of many people with his book Bowling Alone, a study of the collapse and—his hope—the revival of American community. He used the image of bowling leagues that until not so long ago flourished in our country. For a variety of reasons, bowlers abandoned leagues and turned to bowling alone. Others abandoned other forms of communal activity, for example, fraternal organizations and even—in our area of close concern— participation in church organizations. For Putnam, this has meant a diminishment of social capital, a kind of social impoverishment. This movement toward “bowling alone” has fed into our individualistic tendencies, loosened our social cohesion, and made it more difficult to move forward together.

I think it is fair to say that presbyterates, priests’ councils, and the NFPC itself have been affected by that tendency to “bowl alone.” It takes on a different shape, and we can call it “ministering alone.” And there are plenty of reasons for this tendency to take hold: we are fewer in number; we have to deal with more and more complex demands; we may very well harbor suspicions about some of our brothers in ministry; and, finally, we are not that convinced that we really do need each other to minister well.

But in the great and proven tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, I say e contra, but on the contrary. There are compelling reasons for us not to minister alone but to minister together and to find the forms and structures that facilitate that. Let me offer you some of those reasons.

The Second Vatican Council did not envision the renewal of priests one by one. Rather, the Council always spoke of priests in the plural and retrieved the sense of presbyterate and thereby reclaimed our earliest roots as an apostolic community around Jesus. We are from the earliest time meant to be together and to serve together. So, we have come to know one of the great words of the Council: “collegiality.”

Secondly, in our own day, Pope Francis has revivified the vision of the Second Vatican Council by recalling the whole Church to synodality, literally, walking down the road together. We teach, we learn, we speak, we listen—and all this framed in our life together.

Finally, there are tasks ahead of us, truly, immense challenges that we can only meet if we are together and if we move together. For example, we are called to meet the challenge of evangelization, a re-proposal of the Gospel and Jesus Christ within the Church and to the world. This will require a kind of creativity and sustained effort that can only be the result of a collective effort guided by the Holy Spirit. In light of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, we are also charged with shifting the gravitational center of our ministerial efforts to families—something no one of us alone can do. Finally, there is a large array of social concerns that are intimately connected with our life in Christ and the proclamation of his Gospel: immigration, health care, and violence in its various forms of gun violence and domestic violence and the violence of war on the world stage. All these challenges require our sustained and unified effort.

In the end, we cannot minister alone. The NFPC and the priest councils and presbyterates it represents are more necessary now than ever to foster collegiality, synodality, and collaborative ministry in the mission of the Church.

In his apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, Saint John Paul II lays out the reality and our responsibility: “The ordained ministry has a radical ‘communitarian form’ and can only be carried out as ‘a collective work.’” (n. 17) It is up to us to accept that reality and take up our responsibility in the course of ministry. NFPC and our presbyterates are essential instruments to keep us on track. No bowling alone, no ministering alone.