Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
Nowadays when folks are looking for employment, many wisely look into the benefits that are included in the compensation package. We priests have a marvelous benefit that we probably take too much for granted and seldom acknowledge. I’m talking about the benefit of being able to make an annual retreat, paid for by our employer - by you! This yearly opportunity to look into our hearts and see how we are growing in Christ is a precious gift. As some of you have noticed on my calendar, we bishops of the Northwest made retreat together from the evening of January 2nd to the morning of January 9th. I thank you so much for this opportunity to tend to my own spiritual growth.
This year’s retreat was directed by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico. He told us that he wasn’t sure one month before the retreat if he would be able to honor the commitment he made more than a year ago to be with us. Two of his sisters were seriously ill and he wondered if he would have to be with them. He, like myself, was awaiting the appointment of a successor. If that appointment was to be made at the time of the retreat, he would have had to stay home and welcome the new bishop down New Mexico way. Well, the good news was that he was able to direct the whole retreat. Better news for him was that his successor was appointed the day after the retreat! God does provide.
A newcomer to the group of bishops on retreat was Bishop Liam Cary of Baker. As you may recall, he was ordained a bishop last May, after service here in this archdiocese for 20 years. It was a delight for me to have one of my own brother priests as a companion on that journey of faith for one week. We did take one night off and drove up to Seattle to enjoy an evening meal at the home of Archbishop Peter Sartain. It concluded what we call our “desert day” of retreat, when no conferences are given and we “do our own thing.” Such a gathering may not be a typical item on the agenda of any retreat, but it is a treasured one for us since it gives us an opportunity to come together, celebrate our fraternity and enjoy a meal at a different table.
So what was this year’s retreat all about? Bishop Ramirez said there was not any one particular theme but he would offer us a potpourri of reflections that would help us in our own personal journey of faith and also in our ministry as shepherds of God’s holy people. The bishop encouraged thoughts and prayers about spirituality, the Blessed Trinity, the joy of priesthood, sacred worship, the New Evangelization, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of the Church. Let me share a few of the reflections he shared during those privileged days.
Lots of people these days will say they are spiritual but not religious. Now then, what are they? Spirituality is essentially a holy longing for God, a fire that burns within the heart of each one of us. St. Augustine put it this way, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, oh Lord.” The big question I had to face was, “what am I doing these days with my own deep-seated longings? What is the focus of my prayer and my behaviors?” When all is said and done, it comes down to a process of maturation. It’s an on-going dynamic, a journey we all make to the home of the Father of us all.
In the reflections about the Trinity, we were reminded that our God is not a deist God, one who makes us and then forgets about us. Our God is relational, as was revealed to us by Jesus Christ. Sometimes people get so down that they wonder if anybody really loves them. Well, God loves each and every one of us. That’s why Jesus came among us. In God’s mind, not a single one of us is a mistake. Bishop Ramirez reminded us about the words of St. Francis de Sales, whose feast is celebrated on January 24th. “Don’t worry. The same God who loved you yesterday and loves you today will still love you tomorrow.” That’s not true in all our relationships, but because it’s true with God we have a solid foundation for all our hopes for the future.
One of the privileges of priestly ministry is that the Holy Spirit does choose to work through us, through our teaching, through worship and even through the guidance we give our people. It’s a humbling awareness for all of us. And the Holy Spirit is much more than just a gentle presence. The symbols from Scripture that describe the Spirit are Fire – Wind – Water! These are all very forceful symbols which reassure us that, once we entrust ourselves to the Spirit, we have a strong companion on the journey.
What about the joy in the priesthood? Well, first of all, priests get to proclaim GOOD news. The essential joy priests experience comes from the love we have for what we do and for those whom we are privileged to serve. Certainly not every day is a joyful one, but most priests experience a certain serenity in their work, which is a gift from the Lord that we all need to cling to in hard times. The words of St. Teresa of Avila speak to that comforting reassurance: “Nada te turbe, todo pasa, solo Dios basta.” (let nothing disturb you, everything passes, God alone is enough.) The bottom-line secret of priestly joy, of course, is found in loving God as a friend.
One of the most treasured services that any priest experiences is meeting people at worship. It is through the Eucharist that all of us find healing, receive comfort, are given hope, are uplifted and united with the saints. Blessed John Newman put it this way, “We are links in a chain and must not allow the fire to be extinguished in our time.” The whole history of Catholic worship has matured now for two millennia. I know that my challenge is to keep the fire burning and pass the torch onto my successor.
Reflections on the New Evangelization from Bishop Ramirez focused on the sufferings of the Mexican martyrs during the early part of the twentieth century. It was a reminder how quickly a very Christian nation can turn not only secular but hostile to people of faith, a grim warning for us as we confront some of the growing secularism here in our own nation at the present time. Given the Mexican heritage of Bishop Ramirez, it was no surprise that his reflections on Our Lady turned to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to St. Juan Diego back in 1531, She has been a source not only of inspiration but also of protection. She reassured Juan Diego, when he was fearful, “Am I not here, your mother?” Devotion to Mary has always been a part of the faith life for Catholic people and we were encouraged to help one another strengthen that devotion in our own lives and among our people.
There you had a quick summary of retreat 2013, a great benefit, a marvelous perk. Thank you very much. I pray that it will help me serve more lovingly, faithfully and effectively in the coming year.