a new pastor's reflection
Dear Good People of Saint Bernadette,
As the different chapters in our lives are written, I recognize one thing for myself. I always feel at home at the altar. I am grateful to gather around your beautiful altar with you.
Perhaps you noticed, one of the first things I felt compelled to do was to uncover that amazing altar. Someone told me I should write about this – that many of the newer members of the parish might not even know its significance. Ours is the altar at which Saint John Paul II presided on the Mall in 1979 – it is a world treasure, a sacred relic. There is a little picture of that Mass on the Mall on the south wall of the vestibule. Over time the green wood seems to have cured, and split, and twisted pretty dramatically which, for me, makes it even more stunning. I imagine the real wood of the cross, which was the first altar. It is an honor for us to celebrate the Mass here.
Of course, the altar is only the starting point. It is the sacred portal where God's eternal love and mercy takes expression in time and space. It is here that the veil is torn top to bottom, where God becomes present to us and we encounter him in his mystery presence in Christ. As people brought into one with him in baptism, we die with him daily until that day in which we shall rise to new life. In that space between the cross and the tomb we live, continuing the mission of the Father to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and to those in sorrow, joy.
In this encounter with our loving God we are left speechless. The love stretches from end to end, the thread that runs through all people who lived, and having been given the knowledge of that love we can do nothing but proclaim it through our actions, offering our life for the spread of this love. That communion of saints gathers at every Mass at every altar in one constant movement of call and response, sacred conversation and exchanging self in communion, singing with angels and belonging to that company of witnesses all present in this moment of eternity. The thread of love binds us with all who have gone before, and all who are yet to be born. We are one, and fully alive.
Translating this sacred banquet into every moment, every relationship we have, every place we go, is the work of disciples who go about seeking constant renewal. Every parish family follows this path described so often by Pope Francis, after the Tradition of the Second Vatican Council. We first must openly acknowlege, encounter each other in welcome and respect, without prejudice, with humility. Soon follows a dialogue of truth, an exchange of knowledge, freely offered and respectfully received. Once we learn of each other, we discover goodness, and relationship. Love is not a concept, it only exists in the fabric of a relationship that has been established and nurtured. Too often today people love for the sake of love, and serve for the sake of serving: these can never be authentic unless there is a person in relationship who is the object of that love. We learn in the common moments of every day’s living the same process by which we fall in love with the Person that is God.
As God is a community of Persons, so we too, made in his image and likeness, must enter into that relationship as a community of persons, each with our gifts and dreams which are our unique contribution to the Body of Christ. We journey together. For this reason we do not exist for ourselves, but empty ourselves seeking radical trust in God, to speak only the words the Holy Spirit offers, words of unity and mercy.
In my recent parish, Saint Mary in Fredericksburg, I designed a Confirmation program for eighth graders in which they formed neighborhood teams of a dozen or so, and together as a group accomplished three corporal and three spiritual works of mercy. After these were complete, we would gather and discuss what happened. "Whom did you serve?" I would ask. After listing all the names or groups of people, we would finally come to the conclusion that, at the heart of the work, it was Jesus himself that we served. Then I would ask, "Who was it that served them?" Realizing that it would not be our names, or our personal details that anyone would remember, and that it was the love that would stay with them, we realize that it is Jesus who serves through us. Community, the Body of Christ means that it is Jesus who serves, and Jesus who is served.
In this first year, there is much to discover. Ministries are forming, and my job is to watch, and listen to you. There will be some suggestions along the way for good order, and probably some minor adjustments needed as we try not to make mistakes. I hope to form a focus group to talk about next things, such as expanding the preschool and making our parish offices adequate for staff needs. My goal is to have reestablished a parish advisory board within a year's time.
I also believe that a parish is healthy when we sing like crazy at Mass and serve one another joyfully. The work of becoming intentional disciples is a work very dear to me, and we will probably host another Called and Gifted Workshop after Easter 2017 to bring more and more people into the work of discerning their gifts and discovering how and where God is calling us each of us uniquely to be a part of his Kingdom. Each one of us is called to a vital role; no one is left out of God's plan. The full flourishing of a community working together using their gifts is a great expression of Jesus' presence in the world. The Church doesn't exist for herself, but rather that Jesus might be made present to heal the world.
So may we be.