CONNECTING THE DOTS
NORTHWEST PA — We stand before you, Holy Spirit, as we gather together in your name.” At recent meetings with the priests in each of three regions in the diocese, Bishop Lawrence Persico and other leaders opened the sessions with this new prayer from the Vatican.
Although the prayer had not been released while the events were being prepared, it added to the sense that the path forward for the Diocese of Erie is in sync with what is occurring in the worldwide church.
“Make yourself at home in our hearts;” the prayer continues, “teach us the way we must go and how we are to pursue it.”
Kate Wilson, director of Marriage and Family Life for the Office of Faith Formation, served as emcee for the gatherings, which were held in Brockway, Meadville and Fairview in late September and early October.
“Today is the culmination of years of work,” Wilson said, “and yet somehow, we are sensing that we are at the very beginning of a new and wonderful movement of the Holy Spirit in the Diocese of Erie.”
The meetings began with short presentations summarizing recent work in pastoral planning, faith formation, worship and clergy personnel, presented, respectively, by Bishop Lawrence Persico; Deacon Steve Washek, executive director of Faith Formation; Father Matt Kujawinski, administrator of the Office of Worship; and Father Nicholas Rouch, vicar for Clergy.
“We are very excited about what is just around the corner,” Wilson said in her introductory remarks. “An opportunity to focus more fully on bringing the people of the Diocese of Erie into a deeper and more life-giving relationship with Christ, particularly through the Eucharist.”
The meetings detailed how the work in each of the areas mentioned is occurring collaboratively. More than half of each event was then devoted to the reflection and response of the priests in attendance, guided by Msgr. Edward Lohse, vicar general.
Bishop Persico said he considered the gatherings to be among the most important he’s convened during his tenure. He expressed gratitude to the priests for meeting the challenges of the pandemic with fidelity and creativity. He also underscored a message he has shared consistently over the past several years: that pastoral planning is ongoing, and that parishes in several regions of the diocese are meeting with each other to consider new partnerships and mergers in the not-too-distant future.
The bishop said he wanted to take advantage “of this unique moment for us to dream and to plan together,” noting that it was essential for the priests to focus on their own spirituality so that they can meet the needs of their people as they call them to renewal. Calling the vision for the diocese a shared responsibility, he said the goal of the gatherings was not to introduce a new initiative, but “to uncover the ways we can be most helpful as we move wherever the Spirit is leading us.”
Deacon Washek spoke of his team’s commitment to creating a culture infused with prayer, discipleship and healthy teamwork. To that end, Faith Formation Office staff met with over 80 pastors and ministry leaders prior to the pandemic, at which point they pivoted to virtual opportunities. Over time, Deacon Washek said he and his team “became more and more aware that the Holy Spirit was asking us to be renewed in the power and strength that comes from a deep, abiding connection with the Holy Eucharist.” They could see the bishop’s pastoral planning team, the Office of Worship and the Office of Clergy Personnel all were coming to a similar conviction.
“We asked you to come today because we need you to mutually discern how we can move forward in fidelity to the Holy Spirit’s action in our diocese,” he concluded.
Father Kujawinski updated the priests in attendance on the work of the Office of Worship, detailing specific points he is working to address to create greater unity around the altar. Topics included everything from clarifying when people are to sit, stand or kneel at Mass, to best practices regarding livestreaming. During the conversation that ensued, the subject of strengthening homilies was suggested as an additional area that should be explored.
The final presenter, Father Rouch, offered a good summary of opportunities priests in the diocese have for spiritual growth, ranging from personal retreats and days of recollection to the annual Emmaus gathering and various small-group discussions. But his main focus was on the responsibility each priest has to tend to his own spiritual well-being.
“If we are renewed in our priesthood, we’ll be more effective agents of grace and renewal for our parishioners,” he said, noting that “Eucharist is the key element that flows in, washes over us and pulls us into more dynamic union with Christ.”
Monsignor Lohse led the response from the priests by inviting them to reflect on three questions:
- Do you see the Holy Spirit at work in what we are presenting?
- What about Eucharistic, priestly and liturgical renewal resonates with you, even though it may be challenging?
- Are there particular ways that would help us achieve renewal among ourselves and at the parish level?
The meetings modeled the behavior to which Pope Francis is calling the worldwide church: a synodality — a collaborative approach that gives all voices the opportunity to be heard. To that end, pastors will ultimately explore some of these same topics with their parishioners.
Those present readily acknowledged the process will take a long time and that it needs to be ongoing. Challenges and concerns were expressed. But overall, the response was positive. Words like zeal and hunger were used. Priests across the diocese are seeing that those who have returned to Mass since the pandemic are hungry for renewal and growing in their devotion to community life and to the Eucharist. An enthusiasm for their priestly ministry — despite the demands — also was a common theme at the meetings.
Priests at each of the events shared the hope they felt in the presence of the five women from the offices of Faith Formation and Communications who were in attendance and had helped design the gatherings. They expressed confidence in the team’s willingness to help discern and shape the future.
After the discussion, participants prayed Vespers together in each location, and then enjoyed fellowship and further conversation over dinner.