Fr Alec's reflections on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bishop Michael Duca is in the process of reassigning me, so as of August 31, 2020, I will no longer be Associate Pastor to the cluster. Because I am beginning a spiritual/academic sabbatical in mid-September, my new assignment will not begin until the conclusion of my sabbatical. This means that your pastor, Fr. Vincent Dufresne will be the only priest assigned to the cluster as of September 1st. This will necessitate various changes within the three parishes. Fr. Vincent is preparing a letter for all parishioners to explain the reorganization which needs to take place, so please be patient until the plan is complete.
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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time 2020
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord be with you. R/. And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. R/. Amen.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew (16:13-20)
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
The Gospel of the Lord.
I will begin my remarks with a very important announcement, having to do with our cluster and, in particular, with the priest personnel of our cluster: Bishop Michael Duca is in the process of reassigning me. As of August 31st, I will no longer be your associate pastor. Because I'm beginning a sabbatical in mid-September, my new assignment will not begin until the conclusion of my sabbatical. This means that our pastor, Fr. Vincent Dufresne, will be the only priest assigned to the cluster as of September 1. Let me repeat: as of September 1, Fr. Vincent will be the only priest assigned to the cluster. This will necessitate various changes within the three parishes. Fr. Vincent is preparing a letter for all parishioners to explain the reorganization which needs to take place, so please be patient until the plan is complete. I know that's a big and unexpected announcement. There is nothing I can add to it at this time. Again: Fr. Vincent is preparing a letter about what this will mean and we ask for patience in the meantime.
While I can't speak to any forthcoming changes for the cluster, I can and will say something about my sabbatical. Now, some of you have heard a few details, but most haven't. The process of my requesting and taking a sabbatical goes back a year or so, but has been affected by the spread of the virus, like most things.
The sabbatical policy for priests of the Baton Rouge diocese says the following: “the Church urges priests to pursue personal and spiritual growth, professional and theological updating, and development of pastoral and ministerial skills. The sabbatical experience for priests, as directed to those goals, should not be considered an unusual experience or special exception.” For instance, I believe Fr. Frank took one or two sabbaticals during his time with you on the River Road. “A sabbatical,” the policy continues, “is an extended time away from one's normal assignment, for the purpose of personal and professional growth through an approved program, ideally one that is a combination of study, work, prayer, and rest. A sabbatical is not considered a leave from ministry, but a time of personal and professional renewal for ministry.” According to the policy—and this is important—“our sabbatical is further distinguished from special studies to meet diocesan needs, extended vacation, therapeutic leave, and leave of absence from ministry.” So, when I say that I'm taking a sabbatical, that means that I am not going away for any of those other four reasons. I'm not sick or burned out or anything.
A priest of our diocese becomes eligible for a four-month sabbatical after 7 years of ordination. Now, I have been a priest for just over 19 years and this will be my first one. A year ago I found out about a retreat program in Canada, and I met with Bishop Duca last November to request a sabbatical to make that 40-day retreat program, and he was very supportive. It was recommended to me by the staff of the retreat house that, given my specific interests, I would be a good candidate for a second program, immediately following the first, comprising academic work and skills training related to what is called the ministry of spiritual direction—basically helping people grow spiritually by meeting with them on an ongoing basis about God's presence and action in their lives. To make a long story short, those programs were eventually cancelled due to COVID-19, but I put together a second, similar program that will run until just before Christmas. Beginning in mid-September, I will be on silent retreat in Colorado for a month, spending four or five hours a day in prayer. Then I plan to stay with my aunt in Texas, while I complete an online graduate course that has to do with discovering God's will.
You haven't heard about this until now mainly because it was only a week or two ago that I found out that none of my original plans would work out. Decisions were delayed for months at the retreat house I first applied to, as they wrestled with whether to attempt to provide their programs in some form despite the virus. My Plan B, which I just described, was only finalized and approved by Bishop Duca in the last week. All I could do before then was to request people's prayers for me and that God’s will be done in the situation. About a month ago, I asked people at one of our daily masses to pray for these intentions as my start date approached and as my plans were still up in the air. Again, though, this process began for me about a year ago. If I had anything final and concrete to share with you, I would have done so previously. It is unfortunate and potentially confusing that you're only hearing about this now, as Fr. Vincent and I are announcing the bishop's decision about the cluster only having one priest assigned to it, beginning around the same time as my sabbatical is due to start. All I can say is that the virus delayed my plans coming together in any final form until days ago.
Enough about me. I need to say a bit about the scriptures.
Like a couple of weeks ago, St. Peter has a prominent role in this week’s gospel reading. Speaking on behalf of the first disciples, he correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, and as God’s chosen one. (When he describes Jesus as the Son of the living God, that’s a Jewish way of speaking of a person specially chosen by God.). In return, Jesus gives Peter a new identity, as the rock upon whom Jesus will build his Church. Ever since then, Peter and his successors, the popes, have been what we call the visible heads of the Church. Christ himself is the invisible head of the Church, the foundation of the Church, but Peter and his successors have been its visible heads up through our present Pope Francis.
Likewise, the pastor of a church parish has a special place as its visible head. He leads the parish community on what one priest calls “our walk to eternity.” When I was talking with our pastor the other day, it struck me that Fr. Vincent not only is a father to us in title, but that is his identity. He loves the communities of St. Michael, St. Joseph, and Sacred Heart with the love of a father. You may not be aware of that, but I see it, as one of his closest collaborators, as a person who has lived and served with him for over six years now. He has come to love these parish communities, and to love you, as a father. When there is a joyful celebration, like when we welcome our new Catholics this weekend and next through the RCIA process, he couldn’t be any happier or any prouder. On the other hand, he’s also in the process of offering memorial masses at each church for those who died during the shutdown, when we couldn’t have funerals in church. He is truly grieving with those families as they grieve. And, starting soon, he’s going to be a father to you in a somewhat different way. There may be other priests helping him at times in one way or another, but he will be the only priest who belongs to you. The bond between pastor and parishioners--between Fr. Vincent and you—will be a unique one that no other priest will be a part of.
I want to draw a couple of conclusions from that. One: he’s going to have to adapt to this new reality, to this somewhat different relationship with y’all, and he’s well aware of that. I think Fr. Vincent kind of expected that this day would eventually come. Frankly, I don’t think anybody would’ve predicted at the beginning of 2020 that the cluster would one have one priest by the end of 2020, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in. When I met with Bishop Duca last year to start looking ahead to my proposed sabbatical, everyone involved anticipated that I would be returning here after it, but that’s not how things have worked out. And I trust that Fr. Vincent will devote himself to guiding the cluster parishes through this transition and into the future with vision, with creativity, and with a whole lot of prayer. He will have the cluster staff to help him make the necessary changes, and I hope that he can count on your support.
Please, if you haven’t been doing it already, pray for your pastor and pray for the cluster. That’s something I do every day. I pray for Fr. Vincent and for y’all. It’s part of my regular routine, and I ask that you make it a part of yours. Fr. Vincent and this cluster of three parishes need your prayers, now more than ever. And not just your prayers. Every year when we preach about stewardship, we talk about it in terms of three basic things. We speak of Stewardship of Prayer, Stewardship of Finance, and Stewardship of Ministry. I hope that each parish family will take this time to reevaluate how you can best contribute to the life of your church community. President Kennedy is remembered for saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” I’m not saying that. It has been observed that what President Kennedy proposed was too one-sided, and that life in community needs to work both ways. That is, ask BOTH what your community can do for you AND what you can do for your community. During this time of pandemic, communities will only keep going if we recommit ourselves to playing our part in them. Our goal should be not to survive the pandemic, but to come out stronger, as families and as communities. To thrive. And that requires rededication by each of us.
My time with you is quickly coming to an end. I’m not going to say goodbye right now, but I’ll be saying it soon. But you’ll still be here, and Fr. Vincent will still be here. I firmly believe that he’s going to do his best to step up and to rise to the occasion, with all of its challenges and all of its opportunities. He’s going to need God’s help for that, and he’s going to need your help, too. Like I said, this parish community and this cluster—your cluster—need you also, now more than ever. Please recommit yourself to doing everything in your power to make your community thrive.
The Lord be with you. R/. And with your spirit.
May Almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. R./ Amen