WALKING BY FAITH TOGETHER | The Catholic Exponent
MOST REV. DAVID J. BONNAR
Bishop of Youngstown
Where did the time go? It is a question many of us ask every time we enter into a New Year, and one I ask in a special way as we dig deeper into Year 2022. Would you believe that this is my 26th column for this storied publication? Would you believe that, come Jan. 12, 2022, I will have been your bishop for a full year? Where did the time go?
This time last year I was on retreat in anticipation of my ordination and installation as the sixth bishop of Youngstown. Because of the pandemic, I had to do my retreat in what is now my residence. When it came time for the ordination, the cloud of the pandemic continued to hover, limiting the number of people who could attend. Nevertheless, it was still a very special time in my life. I will never forget the graces of that time. Most especially, I will never forget the emotions. I will treasure the prayer service attended by the clergy the night before my ordination, in which I gave my Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity. I was so heartened by those who came and introduced themselves to me after the service.
The next day at the ordination I remember sobbing uncontrollably as I prostrated myself on the sanctuary floor during the Litany of the Saints. I felt so overwhelmed. I also will never forget occupying the cathedra, the chair of the bishop, for the first time. That was the first in a year of many firsts for me as a bishop. On a lighter note, I will always remember a moment from the conclusion of the Mass when the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, walked up to me and adjusted the miter on my head. I did not have it properly affixed! It was the first of many adjustments I have had to make or others have had to help me make.
Days into my new role, I received word about the fire at St. Patrick Parish, Hubbard. Msgr. Siffrin drove me to Hubbard. I had no idea where Hubbard was. I do now. We arrived at a church engulfed in flames, but the living stones – the parishioners – were in the parking lot on that frigid night supporting one another with the help of their beloved pastor. As it happened, during that visit I kept hearing people calling out “Father.” I remember looking all around me to see who it was calling me. Then it dawned on me that I was no longer “Father Dave,” but “Bishop Dave.” The people calling “Father” were seeking out their pastor. The new title is reflective of an entirely new identity that I am trying to grow into every day.
It was my hope to have been celebrating Holy Mass in the newly restored St. Patrick Church on Christmas Eve, but that hope was thwarted by the pandemic. I was able, however, to celebrate Mass for the faithful of that community at Hubbard High School on Christmas Eve.
In some ways, the experience of the Hubbard fire became for me a metaphor illustrative of a tension we are facing in some parts of our diocese. There appears to be a tendency to associate our faith more with a building than with Jesus and a community of people centered around Him. What the fire revealed to me is that the Church as we know and belong to it cannot be reduced to a building. Even though the church building at St. Patrick has not been in use for a year now, the mission of the parish continues through the pastor, staff, and faithful of the parish. This group of dedicated people did not permit the fire to become an obstacle but rather an opportunity.
The image of those flames inside that holy place also speaks to a fire raging through our local Church that is just as real and consuming. The fire I am referring to is changing demographics, fewer priests, and declining financial resources, along with a surplus of church buildings. On many levels, we are attempting to fight this fire and seeking to build a future full of hope. The fire, however, is inflamed by a stubborn rigidity that desires to hold on to what was, rather than be open to what can be. The flames are further intensified by a parochial narrow-mindedness that cannot see beyond oneself or one’s parish.
Recently we introduced the Partner Parishes concept that invite parishes in a regional area to partner together in sharing clergy, staff, and other important resources integral to parish life. If we wish to grow the Church and further her mission, it is imperative that we think and act differently and behold one another in our respective parishes not as threats but as opportunities to be stronger and better. Even though we may belong to different parishes and reside in different counties, Jesus desires that we be one. I think a fitting New Year’s Resolution for all of us is to work more at striving for that oneness in our families, parishes, and regions – all the while echoing the prayer of Jesus, “That all may be one.” What can each of us do, in our own way, to bring about oneness?
At the same time, it is important that we do not burn out our priests. What some of our men are being asked to do is nothing short of heroic as they assume leadership for multiple parishes along with other pastoral responsibilities. While these men represent a divine reality, let us not forget that they are human beings with limitations and breaking points. As they support the faithful in so many pastoral ways, we need to do what we can to support them in their ministry – which is harder now than ever before.
In my own life and ministry as a bishop, I have a newfound appreciation for the Holy Spirit, who not only brought me to you, but who every day leads me and gives me what I need to be the best shepherd I can be – even in all my humanness with its weakness and sinfulness. There is something freeing to surrendering to the Holy Spirit. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes: “Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide, direct us, leading us wherever he will. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place.” (#280)
As we begin this new year together, my second as your bishop, please join me in praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our lives and upon this local Church. We must allow the Spirit to lead us, for it is God’s Church.
I realize that it is scary and frustrating at times when we consider all that is happening and not happening in the Church. I am always reminded of St. John XXIII, who after a long day knelt down to pray and simply said: “Dear God, it is your Church. I am going to sleep.” It is God’s Church. May the Spirit lead us all according to His plan!