“To Live a Life Worthy of Your Vocation” was the theme of this year’s Bishop’s Convocation on Aug. 17 at Lake Catholic High School in Mentor.
Bishop Nelson Perez celebrated the traditional start-of-the-school-year Mass for several hundred principals, teachers, campus ministers, high school presidents, parish catechetical leaders, youth ministers and Newman campus ministers. Concelebrants included Father Ronald Nuzzi, who also delivered the keynote address; Father Vince Hawk, director of Newman Campus Ministry; and Father Steve Vellenga, director of the Diocesan Mission Office.
“As we undertake our ministry, we reflect on both our own call to witness the Gospel through our vocations as well as the myriad ways we serve and lead young people to live out their call from God in their lives. Our theme takes on an added significance as Pope Francis announced the theme of this October’s 15th Ordinary Time Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be ‘Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,’” said Frank O’Linn, interim secretary for catechetical formation/superintendent of Catholic schools.
Bishop Perez told the assembly that they carry out Christ’s mission in a special way.
“The last words of Jesus were to go forth and teach the nations. He didn’t just mean downtown Jerusalem,” he quipped.
He spoke about vocations and how when he was discerning his own call to the priesthood he was torn. “Part of me wanted to be a priest and part of me didn’t. I thought I’d marry and have a family,” he said. “I remember going to the Blessed Sacrament and asking ‘Why?’ But in the end, I did ‘marry’ and have children – and I got a ring to prove it,” he said, pointing to his episcopal ring, as the group laughed.
“God told me ‘I’m not accountable to you; don’t ask me why.’ I got it from then on,” the bishop said. “So, when I got the call to be a pastor, I said ‘OK.’ And when I got the call to be a bishop – it lasted about a minute – I said, ‘OK, I get it.’ But on the inside I was saying ‘What? Why?’ And on the outside, I said ‘Yes.’
He thanked the education and formation leaders for what they do, telling them they do far more than they can imagine. “But it’s probably good you don’t realize that,” he said, smiling. “As missionary disciples, you do things in a relationship with the one who called you and we know that was Jesus.”
As he often does, the bishop quoted Pope Francis, who pointed out that a true missionary never ceases to be a disciple. He knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks with him, breathes with him and works with him “and senses that Jesus is alive with him in the midst of the missionary commitment.”
He told the group that the pope said unless they stay aware of this understanding, Jesus’ presence in their hearts will begin to dissipate and they will lack vigor and compassion. It is important to be in a relationship with the one who calls you, the bishop said. “That’s how you can live your vocation.”
He also talked about the importance of prayer, even if it’s difficult to pray. The bishop admitted that he sometimes has trouble focusing on prayer. “It’s just the way I’m wired,” he said. “I’m a Type A personality.” But he said St. Francis de Sales said if you go the Lord to pray and you can’t, “Stay a while and be seen.” He said it’s difficult to navigate the ups and downs of life and to live out your vocation unless you remain in a relationship with the one who called you, the Lord.
It’s also important to have hope, which some people say is hard to do with all the troublesome things happening in the world.
“The Christian faith is not just about being a nice guy and doing good works. That’s not at the heart of Christianity; that’s the fruit of an encounter. Christ died, he is risen and he will come again. He’s alive,” Bishop Perez said.
He acknowledged there are problems in the schools, the churches and elsewhere. But you need a hopeful heart and must be in a relationship with the Lord, the one who called you, in order to deal with these issues.
The Gospel talks about the mindset of missionary disciples, he said, referring to the story of the farmer who sowed seed and” knew not how it grew.” Jesus used parables to help explain things, the bishop said.
He said the process of maturation (the seed growing and maturing) in the Gospel parable is something that takes time. However, “We want things instantly,” he said. “That’s not good, but that’s our world. As teachers and formators, you didn’t make or sow the seed. We want to see big results right away. But missionary disciples are not discouraged by small beginnings. Sometimes, that’s the beginning of something big.”
Bishop Perez mentioned a time when he was speaking to a group on evangelization and the event organizers were prepared for 2.500 people, but only about 200 attended. He said one nun put things in perspective when she remarked, “Jesus called us to smell the sheep, not to count them.”
After Mass and a short break, Father Nuzzi, executive director of equitable access and excellence at Catapult Learning, delivered the keynote address. He retired last year from the University of Notre Dame where he headed the Alliance for Catholic Education, working to ensure there are active, faith-filled leaders in Catholic schools.
A priest from the Diocese of Youngstown, Father Nuzzi talked about how much he enjoys August meetings because attendees are full of energy and enthusiasm.
“Happy new year,” he told the group. He used a comparison of the new school year with the seasons and calendar, noting how alive things are now, but as time goes on, things die, then winter arrives, but there is the promise of new life and things begin growing again in the spring
His talk focused on “Francis, Families and Flurries” as the group strives to live lives worthy of their vocation.
Pope Francis brings freshness to ministry and to the Church, he said, noting the importance of joy in the pope’s ministry.
“As the pope says, ‘It’s very important if you want to serve the Lord today that you don’t start the day sucking on a lemon. If you have the joy of the Lord in you, let your face show it,” he said, adding that there is a joyful humility about the Holy Father.
For the family aspect, he talked about his neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, which is almost all Catholic. The families use simple, everyday experiences to help share the faith with each other, he said. Some of these things included one family asking him to bless a new car, an impromptu potluck after the death of Pope John Paul II and a prayer offered after an unusually heavy snowfall in front of large snowmen made by neighborhood children.
Father Nuzzi quoted statistics from a book, “Families and Faith,” in which the author studied 357 third- and fourth-generation families who followed four religious and no religion for 35 years to observe how the faith was transferred through the generations. Mormons were the most effective at passing down the faith, something that could be attributed to a required year of missionary service. He said the Jewish faith also was transferred effectively through generations because it is taught as a culture and there are many home-based rituals and celebrations. Parental behavior as role models and consistency with the religion are key factors in faith transmission, with the father being the strongest influence on the children, Father Nuzzi said.
Catholics are not as strong as they once were about passing down the faith. Neither are mainline Protestants, yet evangelical Protestants have a good track record, he said, citing information from the book.
Recommendations were to focus on the family unit, have a long-range view, have patience and listen “because renewal often is inspired by youth,” Father said.
Helping the image of God come alive in us is the beauty of our incarnational faith, Father Nuzzi said, encouraging the group to follow the thoughts from another book, “Build Bethlehem.” He said by “building Bethlehem,” we can have a place to experience Christ anywhere.
“The Catholic world view is incarnational, sacramental, inclusive and universal,” he said, adding it is evident in the joy and humility of the Holy Father, the beauty of families and the joy of incarnational moments.
The assembly divided into groups by their category of ministry for breakout sessions. The convocation ended with box lunches and fellowship.