WALKING BY FAITH TOGETHER | The Catholic Exponent
MOST REV. DAVID J. BONNAR
Bishop of Youngstown
Thirty-four years ago, I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ. Even though it was a long time ago, I remember much of that day as if it were yesterday. Moments before I was ordained, the bishop called me into the meeting room of the rectory to make sure I was ready for the adventure of priesthood. And then he looked into my eyes and said: “Dave, thanks for giving your life to the Church.”
I must confess that I was greatly humbled by the bishop’s words. I was not even ordained yet, and already the shepherd was thanking me. What is more, I admit that at that time I did not fully appreciate the part of “giving your life to the Church.” Conceptually, I understood this reality but, in my heart, I had no idea about the joy and pain that would come with it. Yet, after eight different assignments, which I came to love and eventually had to let go of and leave those I served, I understand clearly.
This experience of giving one’s life to the Church was made all the more real to me on Nov. 9, 2020, when I received the call from the apostolic nuncio informing me that the Holy Father was appointing me the sixth bishop of Youngstown. I came to see that I was being called to leave my home and share the gift of my priesthood with a whole new diocese and presbyterate in a totally different state.
I remain eternally grateful to the Holy Father for the confidence he has entrusted in me to be his shepherd in this portion of the Lord’s vineyard. In the year-and-a-half that I have been your shepherd and traveling throughout the diocese, I have some observations I wish to highlight here.
First, I have come to see first-hand that our priests love this Church and that they work so hard. In fact, many of our priests serve in multiple parishes or are responsible for more than one ministry. To a man, I have found that these holy men are willing to do whatever it takes to serve the faithful of this diocese. I am humbled when they accept a new assignment, and I am grateful that they continue to give their lives to the Church. I hope you will find a small way to show your gratitude to these men.
Second, it is obvious to me that our faithful love their priests. In a certain sense, the faithful love their priests so much that they identify their faith with “Father.” In addition, in their love for “Father,” they can become not only sad but also angry when he is transferred.
Recently I visited a parish which was on the threshold of a transition in pastoral leadership. I could tell that many of the faithful were not happy with the fact that their pastor was going to be leaving them. At one point, in fact, someone approached me and told me that they were so angry that they wanted to kick me in my gluteus maximus – although they did not use those exact words if you know what I mean. They said: “How dare you take our pastor away!”
While that was one of the more unpleasant encounters as a bishop, when I took it to prayer, I came to see that our people love their priests. I see this as well in every letter, email, and phone call I receive when their priest is transferred. Every bishop should delight in knowing that their priests are beloved by those whom they serve. I wish to thank all the faithful of this diocese for their love and support of our priests.
I want to share another memory with you that I appreciate even more now that I am a bishop. When I arrived in Rome in 1984 to begin my theological studies, my class was welcomed into the seminary chapel. We prayed together and then the rector spoke. He said: “Gentlemen, the needs of the Church are always greater than our own.” I have been reminded of this fact every time I have been transferred. And this was brought home to me when I became your bishop.
When a man becomes a priest, he is not ordained for a particular parish or assignment, but to the local Church based on the needs of the Church at the discretion of the bishop. One of the most awesome responsibilities for any bishop is finding the right clergy personnel to meet the pastoral needs of the diocese. This work is never done in a vacuum – nor by the bishop alone. There is always dialogue with the priest and the bishop and/or his vicar of clergy. Priests complete a form every year regarding their dreams and goals. Priests can request a transfer at any time. When a parish is in need of a pastor, a profile is developed of the parish and shared with all the priests who can express their interest in that parish. The bishop and his pastoral team meet with the Clergy Personnel Board. This board is composed of priests elected by their peers. It is their task to make recommendations and suggestions to the bishop on all clergy appointments. After much consultation, the bishop then assigns the priest with a letter of appointment.
One of the other considerations in this process for our local Church is the ongoing pastoral plan which seeks to distribute our clergy resources in the best way possible. Part of this plan involved accepting the retirements of a few of our priests who were past the retirement age – to be proactive and prepare regions and parishes for the future.
Change is hard on so many levels – especially when a beloved priest leaves his assignment. The change is not only challenging for the faithful, but for the priest himself. And yet, change can be so good. I think if you talk to most priests, they will tell you that while many of their changes have been difficult, they all have become moments of grace and growth. All personnel changes are made for the good of the Church, weighing the needs of the assignment and the skillset of the priest.
I remember in one of the first retreats I participated in as a young priest, the retreat master said: “The priest has a front row seat in the drama of life.” Indeed, wherever a priest is assigned, he inevitably finds himself at the intersection of many lives.
When I became a bishop, I came to see that it was not so much the front-row seat that I was sitting in, but rather, the place of the wide lens and the global view. Just as God is always more than we can ever imagine, so too is the Church. The Church is bigger than the parish in which we live or the diocese that is ours. And, most of all, the needs of the Church are always greater than our own. It is the task of the bishop to look at the big picture.
To our beloved priests, I want to say: “Thank you for giving your life to the Church.” I also want to say something they know so well: “The needs of the Church are always greater than our own.” And to the faithful, I say: “Thank you for loving our priests. And thanks for your belief, not only in Jesus, but His Church.”