Column | Dreaming into the New Year

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

American poet and novelist and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, once wrote: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

Dreams have a way of taking us to new heights and horizons. A world without dreams is an empty world.

As we complete one year and prepare to enter into a new one, let us give thanks to God who has allowed our dreams to take flight in 2021, and give ourselves a chance to dream anew in 2022.

This has been a grace-filled year for me. On Jan. 12, I was ordained and installed as the sixth bishop of Youngstown. I am humbled and honored to be your bishop. There is no other place I want to be. Over these last 12 months I have fallen in love with this local Church and feel passionate about what we can become.

As I’ve written before, I am energized as your bishop by the dream of Pope Francis, which he shared in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” The dream of the Holy Father encourages us to become more mission-oriented, going to the peripheries and leaving no one behind. The Gospel is for everyone. At the same time, he is calling us all to change and conversion, personally and communally. We cannot maintain the status quo or keep things the way they are. We need to be open to change. Let us dream with Pope Francis of a “missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Joy of the Gospel, para. 27).

During this first year as your bishop, I have been striving with you to realize the dream of our Holy Father. Especially impactful on all of us has been our implementation of the 2019 Pastoral Plan for parishes, promulgated by my predecessor, the late Bishop George V. Murry, S.J. As you know, I am committed to this plan and promoting a parish culture that is focused on people more than buildings, future-oriented mission more than nostalgia, regional collaboration more than parochialism. In 2022 we will continue to explore new ways for parishes to partner with one another, because we can no longer think of the Church just in terms of the parish. We need to be much broader in our thinking and practice.

And what might mission look like for us? In one of my first actions as bishop, I released a pastoral letter, “Testify to the Light,” in which I outlined five priorities as we move forward. These dreams are prayer, healing, communication, service, and joyful witness. To help realize these dreams, I appointed Father John-Michael Lavelle as vicar for Missionary Discipleship. As we enter into 2022, I encourage all to grow together as missionary disciples, especially through the formation of small faith-sharing groups. These groups can help us realize the dream of deeper prayer and help us grow in faith and community.

In our diocesan offices, as in parish life, we are re-aligning our “structures and ways of doing things” towards evangelization and deeper mission. Under the priority of communication, we began a process to strengthen and integrate our talented communication teams, building upon the many years of good work by CTNY (our TV and radio production network, led by Father James Korda) and The Catholic Exponent (led by Pete Sheehan). I appointed Justin Huyck as coordinator of media relations to join us as we dream together in new ways, and Cindee Case as our first social media minister, leading our efforts to reach out through social media: the new front door of the Church. With communication shifting in a digital direction, we announced that we will be shutting down our cable station – we will have more to announce in coming months about this transition and how we will support those who rely on quality, Catholic television. And we are in the process of using those resources to build a social media studio in the diocese’s Central Offices. Instead of reaching two of our diocese’s six counties on cable, this will allow us to broaden our impact. The years 2022 will be a year of continuing to dream about how we communicate through digital media, multimedia, and storytelling, both online and in print.

Under the priority of service, I called for a deanery needs assessment that is ongoing and will help us to ensure that we leave no one behind. As I mentioned in my pastoral letter, “we need to be a Servant Church that reaches out to the poor, homeless, imprisoned, sick, lonely, and forgotten, keeping in mind that whatever we do to the least of our brothers or sisters we do to Jesus” (Matthew 25:40). I am so grateful to Rachel Hrbolich, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, for her leadership in helping us to be a Servant Church.

There are many signs of joyful witness in our diocese. Allow me to highlight the presence of our Hispanic community: We have a growing Hispanic population throughout the diocese, from Ashtabula to Hartville – from Youngstown to Canton. I am grateful to Father Brian Smith, a newly ordained priest, whom I appointed this year as our coordinator of Hispanic ministry. Father Brian is doing a great job making sure that we reach out to the peripheries and leave no one behind.

We also need to give joyful witness to our history. One of my dreams is the establishment of a diocesan archives. In fact, it is necessary and obligatory for every diocese. It is the responsibility of the bishop to care for the patrimony of the Church and to ensure that the history of our diocese is not lost. To begin realizing this dream, I appointed Father David Misbrenner as curator of the patrimony, and we are in the process of hiring a diocesan archivist. As church buildings and parishes close, we need to ensure that the religious artifacts are catalogued and stored appropriately along with the sacramental records. The artifacts can be made available to other parishes for a donation.

As we move into 2022, I ask you to dream with me about ways we can witness to and support the important ministries of our Church – from Catholic education to social justice advocacy, from lay ecclesial ministry to vocations to the priesthood and religious life. One of the concerns I have is that we are dealing not only with a shortage of clergy but also with trained lay ecclesial ministers. We need to continue to build up all the ministries which bring so much life to our parishes – pastoral, catechetical, liturgical, and musical.

Finally, in this time of synodality, as we “journey together,” we cannot forget all the healing that is needed in our Church and in the world. That is why my prayer remains, as captured in my episcopal motto, “That All May Be One.” Healing and unity must be a priority for all of us personally and as a faith community. Healing allows us to move forward together to the peripheries, and be one in mission.

The late musician, composer, and former Beatle John Lennon once said: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” I thank you for embracing the dream, and I invite you to come out into the deep so that we can make these dreams come true, for a dream dreamed together is reality.

I know all of this dreaming is stretching us as a Church, as we move from the past to the future, from comfort and nostalgia to deeper mission. It reminds me of the story of a woman who was dying. She had no family, so she called her pastor to pre-arrange her funeral. At one point in the conversation she said: “Father, I want you to make sure that when I am in that casket, there is a fork in my hand.” The pastor was dumbfounded and asked what this was all about.

The woman replied: “Father, I attended many potluck dinners at church, and at each one, they always told us to hold onto our fork because the best is yet to be. They were referring to desert, but I want people to know that after death the best is yet to be.”

Well, I believe that the best is yet to be for all of us here on Earth as well as in heaven. When we embrace the missionary dream, we discover that, as good as the past may have been, the best is yet to be.

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