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A New Path

“May God Who Has Begun the Good Work in You Bring it to Fulfillment”

Mission Clarity for Saint Bernard and Christ King Parishes

 

July 14 Part 1 of 4:

 

Thank you to all who attended my April presentations as I first spoke of our parishes’ impending journey toward intentional spiritual renewal. Over summer, I thought it opportune to share more of my thoughts as we begin to move forward.

The byline on these thoughts is the response: “May God, who has begun the good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.” These words come from the liturgical ritual for the ordination of clerics which announces, not just for priests and deacons, but of every man and woman, the truth that God has put something beautiful in the heart of every person, and the command to use our time, energy and resources to wholeheartedly bring this call to fulfillment as we pass our earthly days.

I presume that you, like me, love the Church, and that you find joy, guidance, and purpose because of your personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church Jesus founded. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he handed on his mission to his disciples, saying: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20) This is the mission and purpose of the Catholic Church, and our parishes.

In recent times many peoples’ response to Jesus’ call to mission within his Church has dramatically changed as increasing numbers of baptized Catholics no longer worship regularly, participate in parish life, or even offer daily prayer. Many life-long Catholics feel ill- equipped to live as Jesus’ disciple or to evangelize other disciples. Recent data tells us that only 23% of self-identified Catholics attend Mass every week, 68% of self-identified Catholic families do not send their children to Catholic school or any religious formation program, and 50% of self-identified Catholic youth no longer practice their faith at twenty years old. Local data in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee reflect this trend, both in Mass attendance and parish membership.

Jesus’ Church is an institution built on love—God’s love for us and God’s command for us to love others as deeply as he loves us. How sad it is that people whom we are called to love are falling away from Jesus and his Church, and how sad it is that so many of us feel ill- equipped to protect people from this devastating fall. Many Catholics, including many Church leaders, have met the exodus with apathy or denial, and those alarmed by society’s increasingly irreligious nature often seem paralyzed about what to do. The Catholic Church cannot serve our needs, and we certainly can’t fully serve the needs of others—needs Jesus calls us to meet—if we live in apathy or denial about the state of Jesus’ Church and peoples’ inattention to Jesus’ invitation to encounter him through his Church. As Catholics we must face the troubling fact that as our world becomes more secular, the Church is experiencing departures from relationship with God and his Church.

Currently, the Catholic Church is experiencing the death of many parishes caused by spiritual apathy and stagnation. Many parishes today are simply managing this dying experience; in some ways one could argue that our parishes possibly are a part of this experience. At both Saint Bernard and Christ King, Masses are no longer full and the sad reality that many of our kids and grandkids are no longer practicing the faith is a very troubling burden.

In today’s culture, personal relationship with God and a community of faith have given way, to a great extent, to secular impersonal relationships. Although today’s many social media platforms claim that they bring people closer together, a dramatic percentage of Americans report social isolation, with no close friends or people with whom they share meaningful relationship. At the same time, as we encounter this crisis as Catholics, there are people who, like the tireless evangelist Saint Paul, are stepping forward and calling us to action and renewal through intentional relationship with Jesus Christ. Among the leaders calling us back to mission are Bishop Robert Barron (Word On Fire Ministries), Fr. James Mallon (author of Divine Renovation), Fr. James White (author of Rebuilt), and the Amazing Parish project, to name a few. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with these resources on the need and tools of parish spiritual renewal.

The work of spiritual renewal is best begun and nurtured at the parish because as Pope Francis observed, the parish is “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.” A parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, a parish is the place where sacramental worship, spiritual growth, meaningful dialogue, sacred proclamation, charitable outreach, and community celebration occurs. A parish is “a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 2013)

To arrest peoples’ alarming exodus from the Church and its parishes, but more importantly to fulfill the call to missionary outreach, the Church must make some adjustments. The necessary change that needs to happen does not isolate the Church from the world nor does it accommodate the world, and most certainly must never reject or distort Church teaching. But the Church must more effectively engage the world in the same manner Jesus Christ engaged the world. Jesus entered into the lives of people and called them to become something better.

Many of us aren’t doing so well answering Jesus’ call to discipleship; we aren’t progressing toward fulfilling our God-given mission. As pastor I find it necessary to act on the spiritual state of our parishes. As your pastor I resolve to meet this crisis—this time when so many aren’t hearing or are intentionally rejecting Jesus’ call to discipleship—by proposing a spiritual roadmap of renewal for our two parishes. The primary premise of the renewal roadmap will be our shared call to grow our relationship with God, to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, and to help others become Jesus’ disciples. This is the mission of the Church, this is the mission of Saint Bernard and Christ King Parishes, this is the mission we are called to live.

In the next three weeks, I will share with you more specifics about what our parish roadmap will look like and what it will ask of you. Desiring to ignite personal and parish commitment to Jesus’ mission, I ask your prayers, your resolve, and your active participation as together we walk forward.

July 21, 2019 (Part 2 of 4):
 
Last week I spoke to you about the crisis that faith is encountering in today’s world and our response as Catholics—a response in need of significant realignment. Soon Saint Bernard and Christ King Parishes will take on a focused spiritual renewal to strengthen our personal relationship with God and our responsibility to live as His disciples.
 
As we move forward, there is an important fact to keep in mind—each person’s discipleship will not look the same. Living as Jesus’ disciple is a lifelong journey and every person is at their unique place in their personal pilgrimage with God.
 
As Jesus revealed himself in the Gospels, notice how people come to follow him differently. Some are called in their labors, or are healed, and they immediately leave all behind when Jesus speaks to them. Some are called by siblings or friends to follow Jesus. Some hear of Jesus, are captivated, and come to follow in a more circuitous way. And some, like Thomas, are skeptical at first but then quickly come to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. And many follow only after a long time, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For disciples of Jesus Christ, from the start of his public ministry through 2,000 years of discipleship, every story is unique.
 
But in every story of holiness and discipleship, the common action is growth. It is striking how the first disciples of Jesus say yes to following him and are quickly called out into the very deep waters of the sea. Most of us have given Jesus an initial “yes,” but our “yes” is only the beginning. As disciples we all are called to steadily mature and grow, to go deeper in our journey with Jesus, to readily proclaim our faith, and to sacrifice for our faith when called to do so.
 
As we move forward, we will constantly be thinking of discipleship in terms of a spiritual roadmap, a roadmap on which people are at various points but are all traveling to the same destination—hearts at peace in union with Jesus Christ. All activities, energy, and resources even tangentially connected to our parishes will be evaluated and critiqued through the lens of our discipleship roadmap.
 
Words that initially come to mind for me on this roadmap are: Seek, Connect, Equip, Send. These four words model the first disciples’ response to Jesus’ invitation to “come follow me.” First, the disciples asked questions and spoke to Jesus (Seek). Next, the disciples gathered as small groups and larger crowds to discuss in community what Jesus’ invitation meant (Connect). Then, after Jesus taught and prepared his first followers, the Holy Spirit was given to them at Pentecost and they were given gifts and tools to bring others to discipleship and to be forever with God in heaven (Equip). Finally, Jesus’ first disciples were sent out, prepared to obey Jesus’ last words before he ascended into heaven: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”
 
Just as Jesus called his first disciples to “come follow me,” Jesus calls each of us. But for a variety of reasons, many haven’t yet fully responded to Jesus’ life-changing, life-giving invitation. Consequently, our discipleship roadmap must focus on helping people navigate their discipleship journey with Jesus Christ. First, we need to build up more opportunities for the basic “seek” step to help people encounter Jesus and hear Jesus calling them with simple inviting opportunities to those who don’t know Jesus and to those who are life-long Catholics seeking deeper encounter with Jesus. This is not catechesis, but a basic invitation to encounter Christ.
 
Second, through small discipleship groups of different kinds, we will continue to build up opportunities to “connect” with each other to share and support our mutual discipleship journey. Sacramental preparation for our youth and children will incorporate the importance of gathering together as disciples to discuss Jesus Christ. And as always, we continue to connect through our public prayer when we gather in worship.
 
At the “equip” portion of the journey, our parishes will invest more in going deeper to help adults and youth understand how God has called, prepared, and equipped each of us to be active and effective disciples. Opportunities will be offered to encounter Jesus Christ through prayer, scripture, and faith renewing discussions. And as always, we use the Mass and devotional life of prayer as the most concrete experience of Jesus’ presence, and to spiritually equip us for the task of discipleship.
 
And finally, our discipleship roadmap will assist parishioners to confidently know that they are to be “sent” out into the world to bring more people to Jesus Christ. By encouraging parishioners to discern their God-given spiritual gifts, we ready one another to go into the world and to serve our Church and world in more intentional ways. When people know how God has gifted them, and God has given all of us powerful and unique gifts, leaders step forward to lead in the temporal and administrative affairs of the parish, to lead as facilitators in small groups, to lead our children and youth as catechists, and to lead through a variety of other opportunities.
 
It is also at this “send” stage, that we take very seriously the importance of vocations in our parishes. A vocation is a call to holiness through a particular state in life. We all are called and sent to bring holiness into the world through our personal vocation as intentional married couples, through intentional single life, to the permanent diaconate, and in vocations to priesthood and male and female religious life. There are many who are called in our two parishes and we must provide more fertile ground to support the flourishing of vocations.
 
Life at our two parishes ideally will reflect the discipleship Jesus calls us to in the Gospels. Growth in discipleship will be the fundamental question asked of all resources and events connected to our parishes. This involves our religious education programs, which have already started to adjust. It will be the question asked of our parish schools, for which we need to invest much more in terms of their Catholic mission. And it will be the question asked of all current and future plans: how does what we’re doing grow disciples of Jesus Christ? All parish plans must reflect peoples’ different points in the discipleship journey because your lived discipleship may present differently than mine.
 
We must begin with ourselves. Think of yourself as an intentional disciple who has been touched by Jesus Christ and is constantly growing as Jesus’ disciple. Ask yourself, where would I put myself in a roadmap of discipleship? Where do I need to grow? Where do I need to strengthen my foundation? Where do I need to intentionally help others?
 
July 28, 2019 (Part 3 of 4):
 
Last week I spoke of the importance of growth in discipleship, the discipleship formation roadmap our parishes will use as we consider current and future plans, and the reality that people are at different points in the discipleship journey. This week, I want to speak a bit about the initial “on-ramp” to discipleship; the “on-ramp” will introduce something new to our parishes.
 

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April, 2008, he visited Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York City where he spoke very profoundly about how the architecture of the sacred space speaks of God’s presence in our world. He noted, with particular profundity, the stained-glass windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, saying: “From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary.” Dramatically, he then added, “But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light pass through them, they reveal all their splendor.” Correlating the stained glass imagery to the intended role the Church (parish) plays in helping people hear and live God’s call to discipleship, Benedict continued: “It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned with the manifold gifts of the Spirit.

I find Pope Benedict’s observation of stained-glass windows very powerful as a metaphor for our current task of discipleship. As a lifelong Catholic, I share a weakness with many of you—the weakness that we often underestimate how foreign and how puzzling faith can look to someone who is not yet a disciple. You may have experienced this if you’ve invited non-Catholics or non-Christians to Mass. For people who don’t yet understand the meaning of what happens at Mass, the experience can truly be confusing and intimidating. As Catholics, we understand the flow and the basic meaning of what goes on; we know what to expect and we know somewhat why we’re doing what we’re doing. But to someone who does not yet know God or who doesn’t share our Catholic faith the Mass might look vague or empty, as heavy dreary stained-glass windows look from the outside.

Keeping Pope Benedict’s stained-glass imagery in mind, we must be purposefully cognizant about how our parishes welcome and assist people who are first awakening to God’s presence and call. As we seek to personally grow as Jesus’ disciples and fulfill Jesus’ call to bring others to him, we need to pay close attention to those who are new to exploring a personal relationship with God and/or the Catholic faith. An integral part of our parishes’ spiritual roadmap must include an “on-ramp,” a very basic invitational process that allows individuals to ask questions and slowly learn more about what a life with Jesus Christ means. One method that has been used for years in both non-Catholic communities and in Catholic settings is the Alpha process.

Alpha is an 11-week set of meetings which includes a meal, a high-quality video, and small group discussion. Alpha begins by grounding us with the same questions we all ask: Why am I here; Is there more to life than this? Over time, the Alpha process introduces the proposal that Jesus Christ is the answer to every human question.

Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Jesus Christ has been described (in the Book of Revelation) as the Alpha and the Omega, which means the beginning and the end. The Alpha process is designed only to be the start of the process of the discipleship journey, not the end, not the answer to every question, and not the end of a journey of faith and to the Church.

The Alpha process is new to both our parishes and will be regularly occurring several times per year. Alpha will start at both parish locations late this summer and I strongly encourage everyone to be part of the Alpha process.

From experience in other settings, to be successful, Alpha will have two needs on our part. First, Alpha requires all of us to foster a culture of invitation. Alpha is designed to be respectful and hospitable to one who is at any point in their journey of life. At our parishes, it must become our habit to be intentionally inviting to our friends, family members, neighbors, and others by asking them to consider deepening their relationship with Jesus Christ by joining Alpha. And we must accompany them as friends, as many of Jesus’ disciples came to a new life because of a relationship with someone they trust.

The second need for Alpha to be successful is the continued development of a “handoff” process. This means there must always be a place for people to grow in discipleship once they’ve completed the Alpha series. An integral part of our parishes’ renewal roadmap must be opportunities such as small groups for Alpha participants to continue to grow as Jesus’ disciples. This will take some work.

I am excited to finally undertake Alpha. I and other parishioners have researched and observed Alpha’s process and impact in other environments for several years. I strongly invite and encourage every single person to take part in an Alpha session soon. Alpha will take place simultaneously at both Christ King and Saint Bernard locations. Our first round of Alpha will be a time to work out the wrinkles, so come help with your participation. Watch the bulletin for details.

Wherever you are at in your journey of discipleship, Alpha provides a process and a space to remember why we are disciples in the first place, and to reacquaint ourselves with Jesus Christ. This is only a good thing.

Next week I will conclude these thoughts on our parishes’ spiritual focus moving forward. This week I ask you to seriously think of two people you could invite to attend Alpha with you this fall. Watch for more information on the start of Alpha, sign up and start inviting!

August 4 (Part 4 of 4):
 
Over the last three weeks I have spoken of my desire that we invest more deeply in the spiritual renewal in our parishes. In some areas this is already taking place, but if we seek to build a culture of faithful and active discipleship, we need to become more diligent to encourage, support, and prepare Jesus’ disciples.
 
If I were to sum up my dream for our two parishes, it is that Saint Bernard and Christ King Parishes very clearly live a mission-oriented culture rather than a maintenance-oriented culture. Parish culture is created by what we will tolerate, what we will reward, and what we will not tolerate. A maintenance-oriented culture is one in which our concern is primarily caring for our flock, the parishioners. A mission-oriented culture is a choice in which the parishes, while caring for the flock, mobilize to turn strongly outward to reach those on the outside, especially those who do not yet know God or do not have a relationship with God.
 
The troubling statistics present for the Catholic Church show us that we can no longer remain complacent as growing numbers turn away from relationship with God. Becoming mission- oriented will require a change in outlook, and in some cases, a change in habits and practices at both parishes. As your pastor I am called to initiate and navigate our spiritual growth and wellbeing. As pastor, I know I can’t let us stay where we’re at. Many of you have sacrificed time, and money, and much energy to ensure the Catholic faith flourishes through our parishes. I can’t let the good that many of you have given, and will give toward becoming communities of called and purposeful disciples, not bear fruit. My call is to be a good steward by leading us to mission, by calling us to change to more actively focus on answering God’s call to those He asks us to love on the outside. To look to the outside is the very essence of the Catholic Church, to look to the outside is the Church’s mission effectively lived through her parishes.
 
I am continually reflecting on ways to be more focused on our core mission as mission- oriented Catholic parishes. In order to live some of the hopes I’ve spoken about over the last few weeks, and discussed at my April talks, I want to be transparent in some of areas that I, and our staff and volunteers need to tolerate, reward, and not tolerate, if we hope to successfully navigate our renewal roadmap toward culture change.
 
• First, we must see our geographical area, broadly and widely visualized, not just as parishes, but as “mission field.” And we can focus on this mission field more effectively as Christ King and Saint Bernard Parishes working as one. I am grateful so many of you have patiently understood and encouraged this vision. Moving forward, events will continue to happen for both parishes at both sites without keeping count. Our buildings are located 2 miles apart, which for many is walking distance; we are not different cultures and I am unwilling to tolerate language that suggests this. Everything we’ve done together has been better than apart. We are broadening our geographical and spiritual scope to meet all the souls we are called to love, and we must put aside ourselves for the good of the whole. The more we are focused on Jesus, distracted by Jesus, the less we will be distracted by a particular building or fears of being uncomfortable.
 
• Secondly, there will be more intentionality about the time and energy of clergy, and that of our staff. Looking outward will be our focus. We frequently cling to expectations of clergy and parish staff from the past, while many of these patterns no longer suit today’s needs. Time and energy of clergy and staff and volunteers in relationship to being mission-oriented will impact, among other areas, how we look at daily Mass, Sunday Mass, and other events.
 
• Thirdly, we must focus our limited energy and resources on the few things that are most focused to this goal. For example, I am happy we have allocated the resources to hire Emily Linn as our Director of Formation and Discipleship for Adults for our two parishes. This new role will concretely assist in our discipleship roadmap and what I’ve been writing about the last weeks.
 
• Fourth, in our language, in what we say and in what we do, we must focus always on those outside. There are ways we operate that seem fine to us but really look strange to someone who is looking from the outside. I will challenge us often in this way.
 
• Fifth, we must have a sense of expectation that everyone is accepting one of our many invitations to discipleship. Some may choose not to do so and we continue to love them as they find somewhere else to meet their needs. This is not inhospitable; our purpose is clear and there is a place for everyone who wants to say yes to discipleship. For those who say no to every tool of discipleship, to even the most elementary demands of Christian morality and charity, these may not be the schools, religious education programs, or parishes they desire. All are invited but we can’t accommodate interference with the mission Jesus commanded us to fulfill—be his disciple and form other disciples.
 
Discipleship is an entire reworking of the self, according to the call of Jesus. Imagine, five years from now, our parishes filled with people who seek to volunteer, give freely to the Church, and practically glow when telling others about our parishes. Imagine our parishes filled with people growing closer to God every day, people whose lives are changing because of our weekend message and who cherish the community they belong to. Imagine our parishes filled with people who have a clear discipleship path and who are living God’s message in following that path.
 
Here is the question: are we willing to change to make the above happen? What is more painful: to remain where we are or to change and move toward a healthier culture oriented to our original purpose which is the Great Commission—to be disciples, to go out to make other disciples, and to tell everyone that God is always with them.
 
As always, I invite your continued discussion about what mission orientation means. It is our relationship together over the years that has prompted me to call us to this renewal at this particular time and I invite continued conversation and prayer.
 
I am asking you to pray deeply about how you will answer Jesus’ call to be his disciple and go make disciples. I am asking you to make a choice and step forward to lead with hope, to decide we can do better, to do something different. You’ve invested your very lives in the faith, let’s direct our energy to do even better. As our parishes work together all the right people are here. “May God, who has begun the good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.”
 
Fr. Phillip