The new year has begun and it won’t be long before Bishop Steiner and I will once again be hitting the “Chrism trail” in celebration of Confirmations in parishes across the archdiocese.  My first stop will be Holy Trinity Church in Beaverton on the Saturday before Lent.  Sometimes, either by word of mouth or by letter, the candidates tell me that during their time of preparation the one event which made the biggest impact on them was their retreat. I like to define a retreat as time with God, nothing more, nothing less.  

I just came off retreat with the bishops of the Northwest.  Traditionally we begin the new year by making a retreat together. For the last several years the venue has been the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center up in Federal Way.  Our director this year was Bishop Emeritus Sylvester Ryan of Monterey, Calif.  He guided us through some inspiring meditations and spiritual exercises.  This is always a very important week in my year as I retool my own heart and personal prayer life so that I might more effectively serve the people of this local church and also check my own progress on my journey of faith.

Retreat is first and foremost time with God.  As Bishop Ryan reminded us, it is a number of days during which we are invited to be with a God who loves us beyond any human measure, to rest and to become ever more supple to the movements of the Holy Spirit in our lives and ministry.  Jesus himself invited his own disciples to spend such a period of time when he invited them to “come away with me to a deserted place and rest.”  Jesus often stepped apart from the crowds and his friends to be with his Father and to refocus his mind and heart on the evangelizing mission with which he had been entrusted.  Both as a Christian and as a church leader I too need to do the same and I am grateful that this is not only a privilege in my life as your bishop but also an expectation, one that I would be foolish to circumvent.

In this year’s retreat we were invited to focus on our own pastoral spirituality.  We began by reflecting on St. Augustine’s sermon about pastors way back in the 4th Century.  Back then he said, “I must distinguish carefully between the two aspects of the role the Lord has given me, a role that demands a rigorous accountability, a role based on the Lord’s greatness rather than on my own merit.  The first aspect is that I am a Christian; the second, I am a leader.  I am a Christian for my own sake, whereas I am a leader (bishop) for your sake; the fact that I am a Christian is to my own advantage, but that I am a leader (bishop) for your sake is to your advantage.”  All leadership in the church must be servant leadership.  Jesus preached that lesson beautifully by what he did on the night before he died when he washed the feet of his disciples.  He presented himself as a servant.  Those of us who are called to act and serve in the person of Christ must also share this identity of being among the people as servants.

Blessed John Paul II reminded all bishops and priests that the internal principle that must animate and guide their spiritual lives is pastoral charity.  Why?  Because through ordination priests and bishops are configured to Christ Jesus who is the head shepherd of his people. As Jesus was often moved by compassion because people were troubled or hurting, so must we.  If a bishop or priest stops loving those whom he is called to serve, then he has taken a dead end detour on his own spiritual journey.  Whether we bishops or other clergy like to admit it, God’s people depend upon us to accompany them and nourish them on their spiritual journeys.
Do we always measure up to such an expectation?  Obviously not.  We too, like those who walk with us on the journey of faith, are graced and wounded. We were graced from the very first day of our Baptism and we clergy were given a very special grace to be shepherds of the flock through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  The grace of which we speak in church parlance is sometimes simply described as divine favor.  God extends his favor to us in many ways, through persons, human agencies, experiences, events, history, culture, families and communities.  We Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is present, alive and at work among us.  The journey of faith can sometimes become rather chaotic, messy or even mysterious.  It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that keeps us on track.  That grace is mediated by the church, especially in our life of prayer and worship.

We too know we are sinners.  There is, of course, a major difference between church leaders and the Lord Jesus himself. Jesus suffered the consequences of sin for us but he never sinned on his own. It is not only in the Sacrament of Confession that a priest becomes aware of the reality of sin. We see it all around us and sometimes we ourselves grapple with temptation.  Because we are sinners, we learn gradually to grow in compassion and humility in our dealings with others. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul made an interesting observation by reminding us that “power is made perfect in weakness… I am content with my weakness… for the sake of Christ…  When I am weak, then I am strong.”  

Those are some of the essential elements of pastoral spirituality that we prayed about earlier this month. As the young people in our parishes across the archdiocese begin or continue their preparations for Confirmation this spring, I hope they too will be given similar opportunities to ponder the graces in their lives, as well as the obstacles to grace that come with sin and selfishness. There are many retreat houses in this archdiocese and I encourage you, if you can find the time, to make a retreat yourself.  I am in indeed fortunate that making a retreat is an expectation on my job description.  That may not be the case for all of you.  But I would say it certainly is a privilege you deserve and an opportunity you shouldn’t miss if ever given.  

As this new year of grace has begun, let us pray together for one another so that we all may truly become much more supple to the movements of the Holy Spirit in our lives and daily responsibilities.