INTRODUCTION AND APPRECIATION
Last week, on March 27, I observed the 25th anniversary of my ordination as bishop, which will be commemorated formally this coming Sunday, April 7, with a Mass of Thanksgiving to be celebrated at our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.
Anniversaries provide a marvelous opportunity to give thanks, to reflect upon the past and to look to the future.
First and foremost, on this occasion of my Silver Anniversary of Episcopal Ordination, I am tremendously grateful to almighty God, who over the past quarter of a century has blessed me in so many ways.
Certainly, God has graced me with extraordinary collaborators and co-workers with whom I share ministry in our Diocese of Albany. The priests, deacons, religious, and lay men and women ministers within our Diocese have been an unceasing source of inspiration, wisdom, courage and strength.
They attend conscientiously and competently to the pastoral needs and expectations which are part and parcel of diocesan life. They help me resolve knotty problems and dilemmas beyond my limited comprehension and impoverished imagination, offering constructive criticism, honest feedback, creative solutions, sage insights, bold initiatives and viable alternatives.
Above all, they extend encouragement, affirmation, support, friendship and love.
God's grace has been evident in the persons of Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II, whose wise, benign and visionary leadership in the Church has provided a blueprint for my own episcopal ministry.
That ministry has been further buoyed up and sustained by the example, cooperation and fraternal support of brother bishops here in the ecclesial Province of New York and from across the United States -- indeed, from throughout the world.
God has also blessed me with the constant love, affirmation and affection of my two sisters and their families, as well as with cherished friends, all of whom keep me grounded in reality, celebrate with me in good times, console me in the bad, and challenge me to be faithful to my priestly and episcopal responsibilities to proclaim the Good News with integrity, sensitivity and fidelity.
Finally, with regard to thanksgiving, God's grace has been abundantly present to me in the ecumenical and interfaith partners with whom I have been privileged to explore the manifold ways God is revealed to us. From them, I have learned so much about civility, tolerance and respect for others.
God's grace has also been present in the people of our Diocese; their abundant goodness, sacrificial generosity, selfless service and faithful response to the Good News, often in the face of great difficulties and adversity, are an unending source of hope and promise.
As I reflect upon the past 25 years, a tidal wave of happy memories surface:
* Joyous ordination, religious profession, parish anniversary, marriage jubilee, Rite of Election and chrism Mass celebrations;
* Diocesan Sesquicentennial and Jubilee 2000 observances;
* Confirmations, graduations, Christian Leadership Commissioning Services, Boy and Girl Scout award ceremonies, and annual gatherings with the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Malta, the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, the Ladies of Charity and the Legion of Mary;
* The 1983 Interfaith Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome, the celebration of the Augsberg Confession, and the Covenant between our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints, ecumenical prayer services and social action projects, visits to area synagogues, the 1986 Palm Sunday Reconciliation Service, and the establishment of the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary at the College of St. Rose;
* Our diocesan gathering celebrations in 1990, '94 and '97, annual parish convenings, Spring Enrichment Programs, and the "Always His People" and "Journey to Discipleship" TV retreats;
* Ad limina visits to Rome in 1978, '83, '88, '93 and '98;
* The phenomenal growth of youth ministry, young adult ministry and adult faith formation programs, as well as the continued development of small faith sharing groups like Renew, and movements such as the Charismatic Renewal, Cursillo and Residents Encounter Christ;
* The professional services rendered by our diocesan marriage Tribunal, and the numbers of programs designed to foster marriage and family life, like Pre-Cana, Beginning Experience and Retrouvaille, Retorno, Marriage Encounter, Parenting/Step Parenting programs, Marriage Enrichment, separated, divorced and widowed support groups, as well as bereavement, and gay and lesbian support groups;
* The success of our diocesan capital campaign, the Sisters' Retirement Fund, the annual Bishop's Appeal, national collections, and special appeals for ice storm, hurricane and tornado victims -- and for the families of those killed in the horrendous events of September 11th;
* The renewal of our diocesan life focused on Scripture study, social justice issues and public policy awareness;
* The expansion of Catholic Charities to all 14 counties within our Diocese, as well as more counseling programs for the laity, senior citizen housing, and parish based social ministries;
* The multicultural enrichment of our Diocese created by the establishment of the Black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean and the Philippine apostolates;
* Witnessing the compassionate care rendered by chaplains in our colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons, as well as to the deaf, the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, the addicted, the homeless, and those with HIV and AIDS disease;
* The spiritual care and direction provided by our Consultation Services Center, retreat centers and houses of prayer;
* The new format of and more local coverage by The Evangelist, the establishment of diocesan and parish-based websites, the self-production by our Media Office of "Table of the Lord," Christmas and Easter liturgies, "In Word and Deed," and other special media features, and the development of new technologies for administrative and pastoral programs;
* Faithful witness to the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death;
* The formation of our Diocesan Health Care Alliance;
* The consolidation of diocesan offices in our renovated Pastoral Center;
* The launching of the Cathedral restoration, and the dedication of new or expanded churches, schools, healthcare facilities, social service agencies, youth care institutions and cemeteries;
* Participating in the development of pastoral letters on the part of our U.S. Bishops' Conference on war and peace, the economy, the role of women in Church and society, and the principles for welfare, health care, and criminal justice reform;
* Serving on the committees of our National Conference of Catholic Bishops for Human Values, Marriage and Family Life, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Social Development and World Peace, Communications, Women in Church and Society, the Laity, the Diaconate, the North American College, and the Oriental Orthodox/Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue;
* Chairing the Public Policy Committee of the New York State Catholic Conference, the New York State Labor and Religion Coalition, New Yorker's Against the Death Penalty, Hope House, and St. Clare's Hospital, as well as being the Episcopal Moderator for the National Conference of Pastoral Planning and Council Development, the National Catholic AIDS Network, and the National Association of the Ladies of Charity;
* Being selected as a member for the Vatican Commission for Non-Believers and as a delegate to the White House Conference on the Family;
* Priesthood convocations;
* Fraternal meetings with priest support group members;
* The growth of the diaconate, Formation for Ministry and St. Bernard's Institute; and
* The explosion of lay ministries, and the deepening awareness and implementation of the concept of collaboration, collegiality and shared responsibility.
These past 25 years have yielded crosses as well:
* The closing, merging and consolidation of parishes and schools;
* The decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life;
* Resignations from the ordained ministry and vowed life;
* The death of beloved family members, colleagues and friends;
* The scandal of clergy sexual misconduct;
* The erosion of our Judaic-Christian ethic through rampant secularism, consumerism and individualism;
* The coarsening of our society, epitomized by the incivility of shock radio and TV hosts, the blatant selfishness of the "Survivor" and "Weakest Link" game shows, and the violence and gratuitous sex that have become standard fare in so many popular songs, movies and TV programs;
* The continued blight of poverty, unemployment, racism, substance abuse, environmental pollution, sexism, ageism, militarism, xenophobia and homophobia;
* The decline of respect for the marital bond, the breakdown of family life and the rise of domestic violence;
* The accelerating acceptance of abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment;
* And, most especially, personal failures of misunderstanding, misperceptions and ill-conceived decisions for which I bear responsibility and apologize profusely.
Looking to the future, I would highlight several immediate priorities, all designed to flesh out the constant theme of my episcopacy: collaborative ministry and shared responsibility.
Through those, all the members of the Church are invited to recognize their baptismal call to holiness and ministry, and, hence, their responsibility to develop and utilize their unique gifts and talents for building up the body of Christ and the Church, and for being about the work of the transformation of our world and society into God's kingdom of justice and peace:
1. We need ongoing attention to and cooperation with the pastoral planning process in the Diocese as we face the daunting challenge of maintaining vital and viable parish communities and other pastoral ministries with fewer ordained priests.
Over the next five years, 28 priests will be reaching the age of mandatory retirement. Even if our present ten seminarians persevere to ordination, there will obviously be fewer priests available for pastoral service.
Hence, in the next phase of the pastoral planning, we must review formation programs, our compensation packages and our placement procedures to ensure that every faith community has qualified and competent ministers. Also, we need to evaluate our organizational structures: clusters, deaneries, special ministries and the delivery of services by diocesan departments.
2. We must remain vigorous in our efforts to promote vocation awareness of and attraction to the ordained and vowed life. The priesthood and religious life are essential charisms of the Church for which no amount of lay involvement can substitute fully.
Those parishes which do not have a vocation committee need to establish such, and existing committees will require continued resourcing. Parents, especially, must be encouraged to be supportive of sons and daughters serving in ordained and vowed roles; and pastors, Catholic school teachers, catechists and campus ministers must make the awareness of this pastoral need a priority.
3. The current strategic planning process for Catholic school education within the Diocese, addressing issues of Catholic identity, enrollment, finances, and teacher recruitment and retention, will be critically important for the future of our schools.
Similarly, the redesign project now underway in Catholic Charities, seeking to address unmet needs with dwindling government dollars and streamlining administration, will also be indispensable.
4. The promotion of the concept of stewardship -- of the responsibility we have to share our time, talent and treasure in advancing God's kingdom -- will be essential to ensure that we have the human and fiscal resources required to fulfill the mission of the Church in the Third Millennium.
In particular, we need to focus on helping the members of our Catholic community to appreciate the cost involved in maintaining and sustaining our various pastoral initiatives, and to develop the financial resources required to compensate our ordained, vowed and lay ministers in a fair and just manner.
5. The work of evangelization, of reaching out to the growing number of unchurched in our area and to the Catholics who have fallen away from practice of their faith for whatever reason, demands our urgent attention.
The Church, by its very nature, is missionary; that is, it is called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. This has always been the perennial and preeminent task of the Church, but it is even more critical today, given the aggressively secular environment in which we find ourselves.
We, then, must provide our parishes and their members with the skills, tools, methods, and, above all, the much needed courage and confidence to undertake this sacred mission.
6. Finally, there is the pressing need to develop a spiritual life or renewal center to house retreats, conferences, workshops and institutes to assist the people of our Diocese in developing the theological, pastoral, catechetical, administrative and spiritual insights, training, skills and resources required to accomplish the above priorities.
Only a theologically well-educated and spiritually nourished people can meet the demanding challenges of contemporary discipleship.
As I celebrate the Silver Anniversary of my episcopal ordination, I invite all within our Diocese to join with me in addressing those challenges so that we can fulfill our diocesan mission: "To be God's People, sharing in the responsibility to witness God's unconditional love and to bring Christ's healing presence to our world."