From the Pastor:
Every five years since my ordination, I’ve taken some time to reflect on and pray about my ministry, and to put my thoughts into writing. This past June, I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. Because I have spent the past twelve years as your pastor, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and reflections with you.
As I reflect on the past 40 years, I have to admit there have been both positives and negatives. Fortunately and thankfully, the positives far outweigh the negatives. But I can’t pretend the negatives don’t exist. They are real; they have had an impact on my ministry; and, to varying degrees and in varying ways, they have caused me concern, frustration and, in some cases, anger.
Five negatives in particular come to mind.
1. The failure of our church leaders to deal with the inappropriate sexual behavior of priests/bishops, coupled with the inability of our leaders to be financially transparent and accountable. In regard to the former, we need to acknowledge first and foremost that nothing can excuse the absolute wrongfulness of the acts of these priests/bishops. There are no excuses to be made for it and no explanations that mitigate it. That this behavior was covered up or denied and/or is still being hidden is a source of great shame and sorrow. Worse, though, is the fact that some of the leaders of our church just don’t seem to understand that they need to be transparent, honest, and accountable in regard to this issue. This same is true in regard to financial accountability. Their lack of understanding and action in these areas is a source of anger and very deep disappointment for me.
2. Because of the sexual abuse crisis, many people have simply given up on our Church. During the past several years, numerous people have told me personally, through letters, or through email, that they have reached the tipping point and no longer attend and/or consider themselves part of the Catholic Church. As one who loves the Church, I find this a source of great pain. While I hope these breaks from the Church are only temporary, I suspect some of them will be permanent. The loss of such people is a wound from which our Church won’t soon recover.
3. Studies indicate that the next generations (Gen-Xer’s and Millennials) aren’t making the Catholic Church their home as their parents and grandparents did. Unless this is only a phase, (and I fear that it isn’t) the younger generations won’t come to know and appreciate the beauty of our faith. With our sacraments, our rituals, our liturgy, our outreach and service ministries, our emphasis on the scriptures, our rich traditions, our various forms of prayer and spirituality, and the countless numbers of people who have dedicated their lives to witnessing their faith, I think our Church has much to offer. I am concerned that, without being rooted in the Church, the younger generations won’t understand the ultimate importance and value of God in their lives.
4. The divisions in our Church. As a Church, we are a diverse and varied group of people. I see this as a rich blessing. Unfortunately, many others do not share this view. It is a source of pain and frustration when Church members with divergent opinions fail to treat one another with respect. I am amazed at the number of people who think it is acceptable to question the faith of a person with whom they disagree, or worse, to suggest that person should “find another church.”
Five years ago in preparation for The Synod on the Family, Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque asked for input from the people of his Archdiocese. In reflecting on the input he had received Archbishop Jackels wrote: “The Church is a lot like a family, which is never perfect, often not pretty, sometimes dysfunction and a source of frustration, even the cause of anger. And yet we still identify with it, claim membership in it, and how dare anyone try and say otherwise. In the Church family we always hold out hope that other members or things in general will change for the better. And what “better” means varies from family member to family member.”
I think Archbishop Jackels really hit the nail on the head with this comment. As I have said many times previously, I think Church is very much like family. In my own family, we have managed to cancel out each other’s votes in the last several presidential elections. And yet we realize that when we come together to share a meal, when we all put our feet under the same table, there is something much bigger holding us together than could ever divide us. And so it is with Church. We are indeed a diverse and varied group of people, but when we gather for Eucharist we are one family. We can never disregard or disdain those with whom we disagree. All of us need to strive to treat one another with respect and dignity as we try to follow the Lord Jesus.
5. The times, some of them obvious and public, when I fail to live out the Gospel I preach. Frankly, there are people I have trouble liking, to say nothing of loving. Forgiveness is an ongoing (and sometimes losing) battle in my life. Worse, my prayer is sometimes superficial and occasionally even peripheral to my life. On a regular basis, I need to remind myself (and others) that I am struggling to live out the Gospel I preach. My faith life is a work in progress. If and when people hear me preach about something I am not living, I hope they understand that, most often, I am preaching to myself before anyone else.
Now, lest the above paint a rather gloomy picture, let me hasten to add that it is not by any means the complete picture. As I said at the beginning, the positives in my ministry far outweigh the negatives. And as we read in 1Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Thus, having shared some of the negatives, it is only right that I share the reasons for my hope.
1. The example of Pope Francis. In many ways, the example of Pope Francis has renewed and energized my ministry. Now I have to admit that I don’t always agree with Pope Francis. I also have to say that I have found him to be an equal opportunity offender. He says what he thinks/believes regardless of how or whom it might offend.
However, his decision at the beginning of his papacy not to live in the papal apartments, his response to people who have written him letters, his public embrace of children and the physically disabled, his washing the feet of men and women (Catholics as well as non-Catholics) his remarks about divorce and remarriage, and his comment: “Who am I to judge?”--- all these things remind us that ours is a Church of charity and mercy, a field hospital open to all.
The words and actions of Pope Francis give me great hope. The tell me that care and compassion, as well as openness and dialogue, are important concerns for him, and that he will avoid judgment, exclusion, and condemnation. This gives me great hope for our Church.
2. The strength of people’s faith. People will put up with poor homilies, poor liturgy, poor music (not that this ever happens at The Basilica), and failures in leadership because they realize that God is more important than all these things. At times, our Church is all too human. When my homily doesn’t quite come together, or when the liturgy is lackluster, or when things extraneous to the liturgy hold sway, it is comforting to know that God is still there and that people realize this. Over the past 40 years, I have grown in my understanding that God’s grace is often recognized and known in spite of, not because of, the earthly vessels in which it is conveyed.
3. People’s commitment to the Church in general and to The Basilica in particular. To be honest, and as noted above, our Church and our parish have lost members, most recently over the mishandling of sexually inappropriate behavior of priests/bishops. Most people, though, hang in there, even when they disagree with or don’t like something. (This is not to say that people don’t voice their opinions. I have learned that at The Basilica I seldom need to ask people twice what they think.) But by and large, those who disagree don’t just get up and leave; they remain committed. I am enormously grateful for this. We would soon cease to exist if people opted out every time they didn’t like something. To grow and develop, our Church and our parish need the gifts, talents, and abilities of all its members.
4. The goodness and the gifts of those with whom I have worked and ministered. With very rare exceptions, I have been blessed by the staffs with whom I have ministered, the parish leaders with whom I have worked, and the parishioners with whom I have served. I am continually and happily amazed that they tolerate my idiosyncrasies, overlook my faults, excuse my failings, and forgive my mistakes. I see God’s hand at work in raising up so many talented people to work in ministry and to assume leadership positions in parishes. These dedicated people truly reflect the life and vitality of our Church. For me, they are an ongoing sign that the Spirit of God is present and active and is guiding our Church and our parish into a future full of hope.
5. Our God is a God of new beginnings and second chances. I have been reminded of this again and again in the last 40 years. When the way has seemed foreboding and the future uncertain, I have experienced God’s love and grace breaking into my life. While I would love to schedule such times on a regular basis, they are definitely under God’s control, not mine. In these special moments of grace, when I catch a glimpse of the awesome mystery of God, I am touched and sustained by God’s grace and love. I understand what Saint Paul meant in quoting the prophet Isaiah: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on people what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor.2.9) While these moments of grace do not happen nearly as often as I would like, they are the experience that enlivens and sustains my life and my ministry. Additionally, they remind me that, while some things in our Church need changing, I can’t imagine doing anything other than being a priest.
So, with gratitude for the past 40 years and with confidence and trust in the future, I pray that God will continue to abide with me, with our parish, and with our Church, and will lead us all into a future full of hope.
Rev. John M. Bauer
Pastor, The Basilica of Saint Mary
Pastor, The Basilica of Saint Mary
August/September 2019 Bulletin