Fr. John Riccardo
Fr. John Riccardo
This is the first in a series of three stories on a spiritual movement underway in the Archdiocese of Portland.

During the early part of the pandemic, Archbishop Alexander Sample’s schedule crashed. He had more time to pray.

That’s when something big happened.

A priest for more than three decades, Archbishop Sample realized he’d been trying to accomplish things via his own ability and ingenuity. It became clear to him that he was not up to the task.

Through dark moments and deeper prayer, he realized ministry is not his work, but God’s. The archbishop decided his primary job was to surrender to the Almighty.

“The Lord seemed to be saying to me, ‘Finally, Sample, you have gotten out of my way,’” the archbishop said in June during “You Were Born for This,” a podcast with Father John Riccardo.

Staff at the pastoral center say they notice an archbishop who is more relaxed and flexible, but even more thrilled about going along with divine promptings.

“There is something so freeing about that,” the archbishop said, admitting that he once was addicted to strategic plans. “This really doesn’t depend on me in the ultimate sense. This is Christ’s work. This is his church.”

Seeming coincidences, chance meetings with consultants, convergences — it all looks like the Holy Spirit to the archbishop.

“God wants to do something in, of all places, Portland,” he said in the podcast. “What a surprise it would be if Portland becomes a place of renewal in the church.”

‘Don’t be nervous’

To start, the archbishop wants priests to have a chance at the same kind of surrender. So he invited Father Riccardo, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, and his team from the Michigan nonprofit Acts XXIX to lead a daylong retreat in May for western Oregon clergy.

Father Riccardo explained that the Acts XXIX crew feels called to the Northwest, which has a reputation of being unchurched. The group feels there is potential here.

Discerning readers will recall that the Acts of the Apostles has only 28 chapters; the idea is that the next chapter is now in progress with the Holy Spirit in charge and today’s disciples as key figures.

Acts XXIX seeks to help parishes ground their ministry in the notion that the Lord wants to transform human behavior. “Our vision is helping God get his world back,” said Father Riccardo, who spent several decades in parish ministry.

The principles Father Riccardo promotes include reacquiring a biblical worldview, especially embracing the truth that Jesus came into the world to save humans from the mess we’ve made.

The priest added that parishes must have not just a staff, but a healthy family of disciples. Father Riccardo calls for building trust in parishes with transparent and vulnerable communication and healthy conflict.

Perhaps the most important principle in Father Riccardo’s model: Realize God is the architect.

“Moses didn’t have to get creative and rely on himself when it came to building the tabernacle as the Israelites made their way towards the Promised Land,” the priest said. “Moses’ task was to get on his face in prayer to discern what God already had designed. What’s more, God also made known that he had equipped various people with particular gifts for the tabernacle’s construction.”

The job didn’t fall solely on Moses and it doesn’t fall on priests or bishops alone, Father Riccardo said. One of his messages to pastoral ministers: Don’t be nervous.

Priests impressed

During the spring retreat, held at Our Lady of La Vang Parish in Happy Valley, the tables got turned. The Acts XXIX team prayed over priests and helped them voice their struggles. Archbishop Sample and Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith gave honest testimony about how Christ worked through their troubles. That set a tone of authenticity and vulnerability.

“It was great stuff,” said Father Don Gutmann, pastor of St. Clare Parish in Southwest Portland. “In my 30 years of priesthood, it was clearly the most touching experience I have had.”

Humble witness from both bishops impressed Father Gutmann and helped him see how the Holy Spirit works in lives. He marveled as teams from Acts XXIX helped priests approach inner healing.

“That is not stuff we tend to get as priests,” said Father Gutmann, who hopes the retreat and the spiritual movement soon will affect the lives of the people in the pews.

“We’ll keep getting back to the core mission: Jesus’ saving power in our lives and our world,” he said.

Father Sean Weeks, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in outer Northwest Portland, likes the idea of returning to that basic message and creating an opportunity for people to encounter Jesus anew.

“We as a presbyterate need to up our game,” said Father Weeks. “We need a common mission. We have been so parochial.”

Father Weeks intends to invite parishioners into the spiritual renaissance.

“It was a great experience and grace for many of us,” said Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Northeast Portland. “We are just wanting get to what the Holy Spirit wants to do and wants to do with us.”

Father Libra said that the retreat made him realize God is always speaking — especially in Scripture — but that we don’t always listen.

Father Libra enjoyed something that is all too rare — time with brother priests.

“It was one of the best retreats I have been on,” said Father Bill Holtzinger, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass. “It was very real.”

Father Holtzinger appreciates that priests were on the receiving end of ministry. He found a three-hour session of adoration and confessions “powerful.” He even heard priests apologizing for not being as fraternal as they could have been, which amazed him.

Holy Spirit: ‘You work for me’

“It is an exciting time,” said Todd Cooper, a close aide to Archbishop Sample. “There is a growing sense that the Holy Spirit is doing something big here, a movement, a renewal, a vitalization within the church. The archbishop is taking some steps to prepare to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. He wants to step out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work.”

After priests, the effort will turn to re-proposing the Good News to parishioners. Then, said Cooper, the enthusiasm can be offered to those who are not yet disciples.

Father Riccardo of Acts XXIX lauds Archbishop Sample for his openness to the Spirit and his vulnerability. “Real revival and renewal is going to flow from Portland,” Father Riccardo predicted.

Archbishop Sample said he has been praying the surrender novena, the antiphon of which goes, “O Jesus I surrender myself to you. Take care of everything.”

“I see God doing something new,” the archbishop said. “I see a renewal coming, a reform coming, a revival coming.”

It’s not just Portland. The archbishop said other church leaders in the nation are going through a similar experience. One bishop told his peers about a message the Holy Spirit seems to be giving him: “Remember, bishop, I don’t work for you. You work for me.”

Listen to the podcast

Scroll to episode 133

Learn more

Next issue: How a group called Amazing Parish is helping start a shift in church life in western Oregon. In the Oct. 1 issue, we’ll review the book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age,” which has been foundational to the new approach.