My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This past June 22 marked the first anniversary of my installation as Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. It’s hard to believe the time has gone by so quickly. As they say, time flies when you’re having fun! Also, I guess, when you’re busy, which I certainly have been. In the past 12 months, I have visited 70 out of our 130 parishes and have administered the sacrament of confirmation 54 times (always singing in my homily as I do!).
My pastoral ministry as shepherd of this diocese has involved both of our Catholic universities, Quincy University and Benedictine University at Springfield, as well as the Newman Catholic Center at Eastern Illinois University and all six of our Catholic High Schools: Marquette in Alton, St. Teresa in Decatur, St. Anthony in Effingham, Routt in Jacksonville, Quincy Notre Dame, and Sacred Heart-Griffin in Springfield. As goalie coach for the Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones Hockey Club, it was indeed fun as the team won the Lincoln Land High School Hockey League Championship!
With great hope for its future growth and success, I gave approval for Father McGivney Catholic High School to open in the fall of 2012 in Maryville to share the gift of our Catholic faith with high school students in the southern area of Madison County. In addition, I visited several of our Catholic elementary schools. The education and formation of the Catholic faith of our young people is one of our most important responsibilities.
Care for the sick is also a sign of Christian compassion. It is inspiring to see the dedicated and compassionate care provided by our health care professionals. So far, I have visited three of our Catholic hospitals, St. Anthony’s in Alton, St. Mary’s in Decatur and St. John’s in Springfield — thankfully not for any hockey-related injuries, though!
Jesus taught that when we visit those in prison, we visit him, so I celebrated Mass at Taylorville Correctional Center, where I was warmly received by the warden, his staff and the offenders. They were grateful for my presence as a sign that God has not abandoned them.
St. Paul said that the mark of a true Christian community is its care for the poor and vulnerable. In this regard, I have sought to strengthen the work of our Catholic Charities and to protect our religious freedom to continue providing foster care and adoption services in accord with our religious beliefs. I have led our pro-life marches and prayers in front of abortion clinics in Springfield and Granite City.
One of my priorities is promoting vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. Father Christopher House is the director of our Office for Vocations and Father Daren Zehnle is the associate director. Both of them have served as my Master of Ceremonies during this past year, and whenever we went to parishes to celebrate the sacrament of confirmation, we met with the confirmation candidates before Mass to talk about vocations. At their age, it is a matter of planting the seeds for the newly confirmed to think about how they will serve the lord as adult members of his church.
It is not just the bishop’s duty to find priests and nuns to serve in our parishes, schools, hospitals and other apostolic and charitable works. I have also been asking for everyone to support and pray for vocations. I like to say that religious vocations don’t come from the supermarket! Blessed Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) reminded the Christian faithful that the first support for priestly vocations comes from families, secondly from parishes. How many priests and nuns has your parish produced over the years? That’s a good question to think about. I can’t do this alone. We can’t do this without prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit, guiding us as we work together.
In this regard, I’m pleased to report that we are making progress. When I arrived last year, we had 11 seminarians. I ordained one of them, Father Brian Alford, in May. He was the very first priest that I have ever ordained. I said at the time that I’m glad his name begins with an “A” because I hope and pray that he will be just the first of many! Next year, we already have 15 seminarians on board and several more that are considering God’s call. That’s a 37 percent increase in one year! Please pray that they will have the courage to say yes and to persevere. There’s no good reason why a diocese of our size should not have at least 20 seminarians. I believe that is a realistic and achievable goal.
When I was appointed to serve as your new bishop, I didn’t come with a pre-determined agenda, other than the mission entrusted to me by the pope as handed down by apostolic succession from Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. I have spent a good deal of time just watching and listening, learning new names and places, customs and traditions. I have also been surprised by developments that I never planned or anticipated. A good example of this is the Prayer to Saint Michael. I mentioned this prayer almost in passing during my homily at the Deanery Masses of Welcome last September as a way of fighting the onslaughts of the devil. The response has been positive and enthusiastic. In fact, as I visit parishes, many people continue to express their appreciation for this prayer. I see this, though, not as my doing, but as the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is not by coincidence that my Installation took place on the feast of my patron saints and namesakes, Ss. Thomas More and John Fisher. Please pray for their continued intercession for my ministry among you as the shepherd of souls here in central Illinois.
May God give us this grace. Amen.