Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
This coming week, October 1-4, all the Portland archdiocesan priests together with other priests with archdiocesan assignments will be gathering for the annual clergy convocation in Newport. The annual convocation is always a special project of our Presbyteral Council, this year under the leadership of Father John Henderson, our Vocations Director. The chair and co-chair of the 2012 gathering are Father Ted Prentice of St. James in Molalla and Father Les Sieg of St. Anthony in Tigard. We priests look forward to the gathering. It is always a very fraternal, upbeat and informative session.
The focus for this year’s convocation will be Cultural Diversity in the Church. Ann Maria Lei, a local intercultural communications specialist, will be joining us on the second day to facilitate our discussion around this topic. In preparation for that conversation, we were all invited to complete a brief survey, which hopefully will give us all a better understanding of our concerns, interests and experiences in dealing with the increasingly diverse church community we priests serve here in western Oregon.
During the convocation we also honor the priests who retired this past year and all the jubilarians celebrating 25, 50 and 60th anniversaries of ordination. The Presbyteral Council also has a business session in which we are able to bring to the full body of the priests some of the matters that have been on the agenda. A “best practices” forum was introduced last year and was a big hit, something we plan to repeat this year. Elections also take place for new members of the Presbyteral Council, the Priests’ Personnel Board and the Priests’ Continuing Education Board. Last, and certainly least as far as I am concerned, is a quasi-“state of the union” address by the archbishop. You might say this will be my “lame-duck” presentation. But I hope to acknowledge some of the fine work done by our priests and share some of my own dreams for the future under the leadership of our new archbishop.
Certainly the past several weeks have not been the easiest for our priests. All the publicity about the arrest of Father Angel Perez because of the accusation of child sexual abuse has certainly made life challenging, awkward and downright discouraging for so many of our priests. Many of the laity are still angry and confused and so are some of the priests. Father Perez is our brother and friend and naturally we care about him and pray for him. But the greater concern is for the victim, his family and all families affected with similar acts of abusive behavior. Thanks be to God, most Catholics understand that the sin of one man is exactly that – the sin of one man. Unfortunately this incident once again gives greater credence to those who want to denigrate the value of religion in general and Catholicism in particular and likewise mute the voice of the church on significant social issues in the public domain.
But, the priests of this archdiocese are a resilient and resourceful group. We were all uplifted by the ordination of ten new men to join the presbyterate this past June. We continue to fret about the loss every year of more and more religious priests from our corps of pastoral ministers. But we are also very grateful that in recent years reinforcements have arrived from the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, the St. John Society and the Domus Dei Society. This year too the Franciscans were willing to take over a second parish, St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie, in addition to Ascension Church here in Portland. The Dominicans have also been generous in giving another priest to work in parish ministry in Eugene. The Apostles of Jesus, who had ministered almost exclusively in the Providence Health Care System, also are looking for more ways to be involved in pastoral ministry here. Two more Holy Spirit priests also came to work in the diocese this past year. But, in spite of it all, we were still shorthanded this summer and are struggling now to fill the void which has been created by the loss of the pastor in Woodburn.
Father John Henderson has done a fine job in taking over for Father Kelly Vandehey in our vocations office. Eight new seminarians for the archdiocese reported to Mount Angel Seminary last month. Our enrollment number at Mount Angel is down a bit this year but we still have seminarians at the North American College in Rome, Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin and Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. We are hopeful that seven to nine men will be ordained priests for service in this archdiocese next June. Our seminarians are good men and we continue to do what we can to serve the growing Hispanic community more effectively by recruiting men from Latin American countries. We have been especially fortunate in our relationship with the church in Colombia.
Many priests received new assignments this past summer. Most of you have expressed satisfaction with the new man in black on your parish campus, but not all. In early September I received two letters from parishioners in the same parish, one excoriating me for the inept priest I sent to serve the parish and the other praising the same man to high heaven. When things like that happen, I do remember the old saying, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” I think, mutatis mutandis, pretty much the same can be said about the way we feel about our priests. I know that the human gifts and qualities and personalities of priests are important. But we sometimes forget is what a priest brings to us, gifted or less gifted as he may be. The priest brings Christ to us in the Eucharist, first and foremost, and in all the sacramental celebrations of our church.
I readily acknowledge the fact that God’s people deserve effective pastoral care. But the first and most important service any priest provides is bringing Christ to his people. That is no small gift. That is no small responsibility. Priesthood is much more than a profession. It is a vocation, a call from God which a man answers with all his heart and with all his gifts and limitations.
As our priests gather for the convocation next week I ask you to pray for them. Pray for your own parish priest. The Year of Faith before us is intended to help us strengthen our bonds of friendship with the Lord and with the church. When all is said and done, one of your best friends in growing closer to Christ will be your priest. He cherishes that relationship himself. In spite of his own wounds and sins and distractions, he is the one there, like the curé of Ars of old, to show you the way to heaven. I suggest you heed his directions. God bless.