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Archbishop Lucas reflects on 10 years of episcopal ministry

Archbishop George J. Lucas was installed as head of the Archdiocese of Omaha on July 22, 2009. In this week’s interview with communications manager David Hazen, he discusses some of the highlights of his past 10 years of episcopal ministry as well as the challenges that face the local church today.

Q: Obviously there’s no way to adequately summarize an entire decade of experience, but what has changed for you in the past 10 years? What stands out most as you reflect on your ministry?

One of the basic things that has changed is that I feel very much at home here. It takes time to get to know the unique character of an archdiocese, to get to know its history and customs, and then to get around to parishes and schools, to get to know our priests better. I’ve enjoyed that experience thoroughly and feel more useful in the sense that I’m up to snuff on what’s going on and not simply an observer trying to take it all in, like I was at the beginning.

One of the things that I understand more deeply now is the vitality of life in this archdiocese. We are really blessed. The recent ArchOmaha Unite event was an example of that. We issued the invitation for people to come to participate, and they came readily. At that event you could sense the faith of our brothers and sisters from around the diocese, as they witnessed to their experience of Jesus and readily shared their faith with others. You could see it in the worship that we were able to participate in together. You just can’t make that up. It’s evidence that the faith is alive here. 

Certainly there are many challenges in our present age and culture. But one of the things that I’m happiest about over the last 10 years is our ability to listen and pray, and then to articulate a pastoral vision for the archdiocese. We don’t just say that things are pretty good and we’ll try to keep them going, but we really believe the Lord is calling us to move forward with the help of the Holy Spirit to meet the challenges that are facing us in this moment. The vision – one church, encountering Jesus, equipping disciples, living mercy – is articulated in a very positive way.  We have had the opportunity over the last several years to begin to implement various aspects of the vision.  I look forward to doing an assessment of the vision this fall.  We can then think about how to give new energy or resources to particular aspects of it.

I am very grateful that the vision is something that is understood by people far and wide. It comes right from the heart of the Gospel and the experience of the church from the very beginning. It does seem to be something useful which we can continue to use to shape our understanding of who it is that the Lord is calling us to become.

 

Q: What particular challenges do you see facing this local church as we seek to live out that vision?

As I think most people know, we have done a fairly extensive reorganization of pastorates in our rural parishes. That was the result of conversation with priests and with lay leaders in parishes, sparked by the realization that we have fewer priests now than we did when those parishes were established, and that we project that we will have fewer as time goes on. This is our reality and I think we have to see it as an opportunity.

So then what is the Lord offering us? He’s not turning his back on us. He loves us. He’s called us to be his disciples and his friends. So what is he providing for us at this moment?

In keeping with our pastoral vision we have begun to work in a number of parishes to assist pastors to develop leaders among their parishioners. I think we’re beginning to see that there are some real possibilities there and there is some new vitality. So that’s I think one of the opportunities we see, again facing the situation we’re in, living in the real world.

Another challenge and opportunity I see has to do with our Catholic schools. We have a lot of schools for a diocese our size, which means there are many resources being directed toward the apostolate of Catholic education in every part of our archdiocese.

I have great admiration for parents, parishioners, teachers, administrators, parish priests and all who support this good work. And because we are dedicating all these resources to this work which has borne such good fruit in the past, we should ask ourselves, “Are we providing schools of discipleship for our students and for their parents?” We know that God gives to parents first the responsibility to form their children in the faith. The church has always been happy to partner with parents, but it’s not good for the parish to take that responsibility away from parents and it’s not good for parents to surrender it to somebody else, even somebody good like their fellow parishioners or their local parish school. It has to remain a partnership.

So we have been working to offer formation for our teachers and for parents so that there can really be a team effort, a cooperative effort, in bringing our young people up in the faith. We know that means bringing them into a relationship with the Lord, and helping them understand that he has a plan for them and is sending them out to be salt and light in the world.

 

Q: As you are marking this milestone, what are you looking forward to? What do you see on the horizon for your episcopal ministry?

I just turned 70, and bishops typically serve – if we survive – until 75. At his 75th birthday, a bishop has to submit his resignation to the Holy Father. He’s the one who decides whether the bishop continues to serve or not, but usually around that time he has the responsibility of finding somebody to take the bishop’s place.

In the nearer term, we are going to bring together the envisioning team that helped formulate the pastoral vision, along with some others who have been involved in implementing it, to take stock of where we are. We will ask questions about what seems to be effective in terms of realizing the vision and what more needs to be done or what needs more attention. I would love to continue to try to further that going forward.

I’ve talked with the priest council about another desire I have – and they’re supportive – which is to dedicate as many weekends as possible in the coming years to what we could call parish pastoral visits. I would arrive at a parish on a Saturday afternoon and then stay through Sunday, celebrate or at least preach at all of the Masses, and meet with parish leaders and the local clergy. I want to talk about the vision and encourage people in our parishes to embrace it. I also want to learn from them how they’re already experiencing it and what they see as the obstacles or the challenges to that.

It will mean a bit of a change in my confirmation schedule, but we can work all of that out. If I can spend a significant amount of time visiting parishes over the next five years, I’m confident that will be time well spent.

As I remember telling priests and others when we were first introducing the pastoral vision, if we really focus on moving toward a more common experience of a personal relationship with Jesus and of being equipped as his disciples, it will take a generation or perhaps more to really make a shift away from just trying to do what we’ve always done. 

Now, what we did before was not bad, but we often find ourselves maintaining a structure that was created for a different reality. As we live in the present age and move into the future, I think the vision can serve us well. We have to attend to it and be open to how the Spirit might lead us there, but it’s not just like flipping a switch.

We have to be willing to be changed, which a relationship with Jesus will always do. Our faith tells us that it will be a change for the good, that we’re going to become more ourselves, we’re going to become more free, we’re going to become more joyful. The Holy Spirit will give us what we need if we’re open to receive it.

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