Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflections on Clergy Conference

This week, Monday through noon today, the Bishop and clergy of the Diocese of Northern California had their annual conference.  I've been to 27 of them so far.  Each year I feel the same exhilaration at being there.  An immense gratitude for the privilege of having such dedicated, good women and men as sisters and brothers in ministry.  I find myself relieved that I never acted on past impulses, at times, to transfer to the "greener" pasture of another diocese.  Over time I've come to realize that the greenest pasture for me has always been right here.  

The most moving part of the annual conference for me is always our Eucharist together on the last morning, when the Bishop, deacons, and priests, according to order, renew their ordination vows.  This year there was the lovely added touch of adding the renewal of religious vows for Sister Alice and Sister Diana, of the Community of the Transfiguration, who minister in our diocese, and for Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, our local Franciscan friar and my best clergy friend.  Not that I don't have many other ordained friends; it's just that Leo and I have significant "history": he knows all my skeletons, and I have a fair handle on his! In this yearly liturgy there's a sense of connection which is almost palpable, yet very hard to put into words.  In this ritual moment I become so aware of the selfless givingness and caring embodied in the Bishop and in each of the priests and deacons with whom I stand around the altar, and it reaffirms for me how right I was 45 years ago to respond to God's call to ministry, though I could never have imagined then what that would involve.  

When I say the word “priest”, my strongest image is of Monsignor Anthony J. Mentink, late pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Troy, OH, during the time I went to school there. I remember the distinguished, woody fragrance of cigar smoke on his crimson-piped cassock or his clerical suit when he’d come close to us. Monsignor Mentink was an imposing figure with a gravelly voice, but a very kind and venerable man. We looked up to him and admired him as our pastor.  Monsignor Mentink became for me the first model of what a priest was. There was nothing specific that he did, other than to say Mass for us each Sunday. I don’t recall anything striking he ever said in his sermons, though I listened to many of them. I never actually spoke to him about being a priest. Yet, I have this recollection from age 5 or 6 during Mass one Sunday: I was watching Monsignor Mentink distribute the Sacred Host from the ciborium at Communion, not knowing exactly what he was doing, since this was before my first Communion. But I recall thinking that whatever it was that he was doing, I wanted to do that, too. And that was all. From the time I entered grade school at St. Patrick’s in the fall of 1943, and from then on, it never occurred to me that I would do anything else but become a priest.

When our seminary class was approaching the “end of the road” of our seminary training, Fr. William Crenner, S.M., then Director at the Marianist Retreat House, Dayton, OH, preached our ordination retreat, on “LIVING the Sacrament of Holy Orders”, May 24-31, 1964. Two brief comments of his stood out for me and became guides for how I wanted to be a priest in the years following:

Those who make the best priests are those who would have made the best fathers of families.

The goal of the apostolate is not a conquest; it is a service. 
The  fundamental attitude of an apostle toward the world is loving it.

Sunday, May 31, 1964, the day I’d longed for since childhood finally dawned. I was 27 years old.  Vivid and treasured memories of that day still come to mind. Bishop Paul Francis Leibold, Auxiliary Bishop, and later, Archbishop, of Cincinnati, a quiet, soft-spoken man, moved through the ordination service very deliberately.  His ordaining me to the orders of subdeacon and deacon previously, and now as priest, was extra special in that he, my mother, and my godmother, Aunt Florence, were classmates at their local parish school.  Ten of us deacons knelt in a semi-circle, priestly vestments folded neatly over our arms. As the Litany of the Saints began, we stretched out on the marble floor, face down in a sign of humility.  Later, we extended our hands, palms up, to be consecrated by the Bishop who traced a diagonal cross over them using Sacred Chrism.  Finally, Bishop Leibold layed his hands upon our heads, followed by a cadre of priests, many of whom had been our professors. 

Jump ahead 18 years, from 1964, to June 2, 1982 -- after I had lived for 13 years outside of active ministry. Family, friends, and fellow clergy, again gathered: this time at St. Matthew’s Church, Sacramento, for the Celebration of a New Ministry, with Bishop John L. Thompson presiding, as I was received as a priest of the Episcopal Church.  Among those participating in the ceremony were: Fr. Gordon Cross, retired Rector and my mentor, who had built and furnished St. Matthew’s some 30 years before; Fr. Zealand Hillsdon-Hutton, then Rector of St. Matthew's, serving as Master of Ceremonies, who had championed my cause through the difficulties of the reception process; and Fr. Bob Gould, parish Associate, serving as the Bishop’s Chaplain.  Fr. Doug Thompson, then rector of St. Paul’s, Klamath Falls, OR, preached.  Doug, besides being a very close friend, had received me into the Episcopal Church at St. Anne’s, Stockton, five years earlier, during a very difficult time in my life.

That day my family presented me with my very own “priest kit”: a box of various items which, they said, a priest might need, including a miniature Bible which they had tagged “Company Policy”, and an Episcopal lapel pin labelled “your very own Anglican ethos”. That is an especially fond memory.

Later, in a letter to friends I wrote: “Resuming the ordained ministry again has been an exhilarating, as well as humbling experience. The Lord has been full of surprises in the way He’s guided my life...Even now I don’t fully understand how or why He’s led me to this point...It will be my joy to bring whomever I can closer to Him and to minister to their needs...”  As a young seminarian I used to frequently look through the table of feasts listed in my prayer book and wonder where I’d be serving as a priest in any given year in the future. What I envisioned for my life then is unimaginably far from the actual reality as it has played out.

But if I had it to do all over again as a priest, recalling all the pluses and minuses, I can surely visualize some things I would do differently, most of which have been inspired by my observing them in many of my priestly colleagues in the diocese.  For one thing, I’d spend a lot more time connecting with people, really getting to know them, and sharing their stories. Too many times, after a parishioner died, I’d discover the most interesting things about them which I wish I’d known and shared with them while they were still alive.  I think I’d listen more intently to pick up on the sometimes deep and, perhaps, embarrassing personal and family struggles which parishioners so often carry around, “skeletons” which they feel they can never unload unless given a safe zone where they might do so.

I’d more boldly share God’s Word with others, as expressed in the Scriptures and the sacraments. I’d dare to share more openly with them my own experiences of the spiritual journey in order to help them develop their unique spiritual gifts and a closer relationship with God.  I’d proclaim more clearly that there is no “We” vs. “Them”, but only “Us”; that we need to accept one another regardless of any difference, to truly live the baptismal covenant. I’d be more adamant in encouraging resistance to attempts by anyone to exclude or marginalize any person because of their racial, creedal, or sexual differences; in guiding folks to focus outwardly on their local community and on not only people’s spiritual needs, but also on the day-to-day realities of their emotional, social, and physical needs.  I’d hope to be more sensitive and honest in pointing out to people their rich God-given gifts, and to overcome laziness and fear in understanding our faith more fully.

I’d surely spend a whole lot less time bestowing negative attention on those who thrive on conflict within a parish, the chronic complainers who, regardless of the issue of the moment, are never satisfied, who show little willingness to sacrifice their own desires for the common good, and who get stuck in old ways, solutions, and vested interests out of fear, resentment or the insecurity of losing their control. I’d turn my energies toward encouraging and fostering those who have a vision of building their community and Church, who’ve begun to capture what can be. I’d want to help us to see that we’re all holy partners: equals despite our different roles, learners as well as teachers, healers as well as broken ones.

I’d make more effort to nurture and support young people of all ages, to really listen to their questions and insights, and to foster in them an “outside-the-box” Christian vision of what is possible as they begin to takes their places in the leadership of the Church and the world.

Nevertheless, for what is past, I say “Thanks be to God!” For the journey still ahead: “Yes!”  And one of the greatest joys is the anticipation of many more annual get-togethers, God willing, with my sister and brother clergy.

No comments: