Shepherd's Voice

‘Invite Jesus in’ during this new year

Archbishop George J. Lucas reflects on the highlights and challenges of 2021 and looks ahead to the new year, encouraging the faithful to make time for prayer and deepening their relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

Q. As we welcomed a new year, we celebrated the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on New Year’s Day. What’s the significance of beginning the new year with this solemnity and how can Catholics use this important celebration and contemplation of Mary’s role in salvation history as a springboard into the new year?

The origin of the feast doesn’t have so much to do with New Year’s Day, but it is celebrated, and has been for centuries, at the beginning of our new year on January 1st. We just recognized the unique vocation of Mary as the mother of the Savior, and the title that was given to her in the Church early on is that she is the Mother of God. Jesus is only one person. He has a human and a divine nature, and he receives his human nature from Mary, through the action of the Holy Spirit. But she’s rightly called not only the mother of Jesus, but the Mother of God. It’s a great title of honor for her. She’s not looking for honor, but it’s important for us in the Church to recognize the role that she has in the history of salvation. She’s the first of the saints, the first disciple of Jesus, and really has a place at the head of the Communion of Saints because of her participation in the mystery of our salvation.

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions as we begin the new year. And I hope that in some way we can have a resolution to get to know Jesus better and to celebrate and recognize his presence in our lives in very personal and practical ways throughout the coming year. We know that his coming among us means that he wants to be part of the human experience. He is part of it, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in our life and in the Church, so we’re able to encounter Jesus here and now. We don’t want to simply keep our encounter with him confined to the Mass, or the sacraments, or some moments of prayer. Those are essential, of course. But we realize that Jesus wants to be with us in all that we’re going to be facing during the coming year.

We don’t know what they’ll be. We can make some plans and we have some idea of what will be part of our lives. It’s a good resolution to invite Jesus in. And Mary’s a great model for that. When she learned that it was God’s plan that she be the mother of the Savior, she said yes to it right away. She didn’t understand all the implications of it. And then she continued to grow in that vocation. She was sinless, but not perfect in the sense of being a completely formed human being that didn’t need to know anything else or learn anything. She continued to be formed by the Holy Spirit into what it would mean to be the mother of Jesus as he was conceived, and grew, and was born, and was formed in the house of Nazareth.

So, she understands the beauty of that kind of formation in a relationship with Jesus and, I think, would like us to have that, too. So, at the beginning of the year, we ask her to pray for us. And we look to her for an example of how we might welcome Jesus day by day and to follow him more faithfully.

 

Q. Speaking of New Year’s resolutions, obviously praying, or maybe adopting a different method of prayer could also be a New Year’s resolution for a lot of people.

Yes, I would say it’s always a good one. Jesus wants to have a deeper relationship with us in this coming year. And that’s nurtured and experienced in our prayer, the prayer we pray together in church, our liturgical prayer, but also our own private prayer. So, I would encourage if somebody’s looking for a resolution to resolve to set aside 10 minutes every day for prayer. And that could be reading the Scripture. It could be a quiet conversation with the Lord. It could be different things on different days, but the consistency is important and carving out some time for it.

He invites us to have the time with him that it takes for us to get to know him better and for us to perhaps be more honest about ourselves with him; he knows us anyway, but to have that kind of mutual growing relationship that’s possible in prayer. So, write that down. If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution and you haven’t found any yet, that’s a good one. And you’ll be happy to follow that one.

 

Q. Before we look too far into 2022, let’s look back for a moment. We had the year of St. Joseph in 2021, the COVID roller coaster, students returning to school, the big goal got traction, and the Attorney General released the report on Nebraska dioceses. How have these and other events impacted you? And how have these events impacted Catholics in northeast Nebraska?

Yeah, it’s been quite a year. We continue to experience the effects of COVID, and we’re trying to listen to people who know what they’re talking about, but it seems like we’re involved in a big experiment. There are different twists and turns, but I think the COVID experience has been an invitation for us to grow in a sense of cooperation with each other. We’ve had to learn to be patient with restrictions. Some of our holiday celebrations and family gatherings had to be changed at the last minute, because people got sick and needed to be away from others.

So, we continue to pray for patience, for God’s guidance through all of this. And I hope that we will pray for determination to be respectful of one another as we deal with these various limitations. Some of the other divisions in society or other stresses in society, I think, have been brought to the surface more by some of what we face during COVID.

And sadly, we’ve witnessed, even in our churches and schools, sometimes a lack of civility or a lack of respect as we try to figure out how to move forward together with restrictions that may be necessary for a while in the way that we gather or that we operate. I’m really proud, especially, that our schools have been operating with students in the classroom really for a second year now in COVID and just have so much appreciation and admiration for our administrators and teachers, for our pastors, all who make that experience possible. We enter always into a partnership with parents, who are primarily responsible for the education of their children.

I commend everybody for what we’ve been able to do and encourage us to continue to be patient in understanding as we move forward. Hopefully, in 2022, there’ll be less restriction and less need to worry about some of these things.

In 2021, we also had the anticipated release of information from the Nebraska Attorney General about the sexual abuse of minors in the Church regarding the three dioceses in Nebraska. That was a sad thing to hear all that information shared again. For the most part, it had been shared by the various dioceses, so, I would say, in one sense, there wasn’t anything new in what he released from his findings. When we think of decades of information about any topic put all together at one time, it can have a huge impact. And I think the releasing of this information about many decades of behavior really is a small number of clergy and other church workers who were involved in misconduct. Of course, each one is significant, but over time it can seem monumental.

A couple of things I take from that. One is that there was a sad chapter of our life in the Church where we didn’t give enough attention to this issue. We were not as attentive to the people who were victimized, who wanted to come forward, tried to come forward and tell us about what they had experienced. Maybe they weren’t believed. Maybe they weren’t welcomed.

For the past 20 years, we have had in place training for our clergy, and teachers, and other Church workers in how to maintain safe environments. We have codes of conduct in place. We train our students and volunteers so that we could all be alert to anything that might not be as it should be in terms of respect for the young and the vulnerable people that were privileged to serve. We have in this archdiocese, and in many other places, a beautiful and rich outreach to victims so that they can be heard and that we can extend resources to them that will help with their healing. So, I suppose my reaction there was twofold – very sad and disturbed by what has happened in the past. But also, grateful for the good people who’ve been working together now in recent years to make it a very different situation.

So, you give a whole menu of things that we looked at in the past year. Those are a couple of the big ones. We did conclude the celebration of the year dedicated to St. Joseph just a few weeks ago. And I think that was a gift that the Holy Father gave to all of us, inviting us to hold St. Joseph in a more prominent place in our thinking, and in our prayer, and in our devotion. As with the Blessed Mother, Joseph was very close to Jesus. And helping understand him more can help us understand the saving mission of Jesus. So, I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to think and pray more about St. Joseph’s role during this last year and hope that some of the things that were part of that for me will stick with me in the coming year.

 

Q. What excites you the most for 2022?

Well, it’s great to be alive. And I think there really are some exciting things that we’re involved with here in our archdiocese. Some have begun already and some we’ll be looking at for the first time. Pope Francis has called a synod for the Church. That’s normally a gathering of bishops, but he’s invited the whole Church to be involved in this meeting, which will take place in a couple of years. It’s been called a synod on synodality. So, it’s really an invitation for anybody in the Church who desires to express something about their experience of life in the Church, or their desires for how we should encounter the Lord and live together in our Catholic experience.

We’ll be sharing more information on how individual Catholics, or groups of Catholics in the archdiocese, for example, maybe a parish pastoral council, or a group of faculty, Bible study group, can go to an online opportunity to reflect together on some of the points that the Holy Father has raised, that he’s inviting our reflection, our input, and then can enter a response. Later in the spring, we’ll put together all of the responses from around the archdiocese. And then those get sent to the Bishop’s Conference here in the U.S., who will compile them and then send them onto Rome.

It kind of boggles the mind to think of a consultation that could involve people throughout the whole world, but that’s what the pope has in mind. He’s our universal pastor of the universal Church, but also has a heart and a love for all people, the whole human family and, I think, really desires that we express ourselves to him. And then, in his pastoral responsibility, along with the bishops who will be participating in the synod, those chosen from around the world, to maybe think about how we might reshape our experience in the Church for the coming years. We’re not going to create a new Church. Jesus has established the Church. It’s not about changing doctrine or just getting people’s opinion on things. But really, I think the Holy Father is hoping to hear, as we come to the Church looking for Jesus and for life in him, what we would like to experience more fully in that.

Many people have heard by now that the U.S. bishops, in our meeting in November, decided to initiate a several-year process of a Eucharistic revival. Our hope is that, especially as we’re coming out of COVID, that we can encourage participation in Sunday Mass in the Eucharistic liturgy. We also want to encourage, what’s always been true, but what seems to be waning – a central belief of our faith, that Jesus is really, personally present in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

There’ll be a variety of aspects to this revival, which we’ll be talking about through the spring. There’ll be an opportunity to do things in the archdiocese and parishes. And then it will culminate, in a couple of years, in a national gathering, a kind of a Eucharistic Congress, to bring Catholics together from all over the country to celebrate our encounter with Jesus and the Eucharist.

Something that’s a little more proximate, following our second annual Pastoral Conference, which we had in October, a virtual gathering of pastors and parish leaders from around the archdiocese, the follow-up for that is an initiative we’re calling, Live Lent Together. We’re hoping that in our parishes and in our neighborhoods, small groups of Catholics can come together to reflect on our faith, to pray together, to get to know each other a little bit better. We’ve been inviting those who would like to be small group leaders for this Live Lent Together initiative to register and to receive some very simple, but important training to be group leaders.

Finally, we’re continuing to move ahead with our big goal for our parishes, which is that our parishes will become missional communities and the Live Lent Together initiative, the Eucharistic revival, all of those things will help us in our desire for more vibrant parish life and with a desire to begin to structure our parishes and the things that we do together, so that we’re positioned for growth. We know, sadly, that engagement in parish life over many decades has been declining. There are some parishes that are growing, but that’s largely due to real estate development near the parishes. That’s great, but the percentage of Catholics participating has been declining.

We know that we have fewer priests now than we did several decades ago. And that decline in the number of priests serving in our parishes will continue for the foreseeable future. So, we’ll be making some plans for how our parishes can be pastored and structured in the coming years, so that we’re in a position to proclaim the Gospel more vibrantly and to invite more and more people, either to come back to participation in the life of the Church, or to maybe come to know Jesus in the Church for the first time.

 

Q. As we conclude, what challenge or challenges face the Archdiocese of Omaha?

Our big challenge for the coming year is for all of our parishes to participate in a process of pastoral planning that will help us look at the structures that will be most effective in growing our parishes, in helping us experience a deeper understanding of the presence of Jesus and the Eucharist, will help us be aware of the needs of our neighbors and be in a position to serve them better. We will be talking with our priests about this in February. And then inviting pastors and parish councils, and other parish leaders from around the archdiocese, to participate in a process throughout the coming year.

It’s going to be challenging in some ways, but I think it’s necessary. And if it’s necessary, that means that the Lord’s going to give us the means for how we can best structure our parishes and serve them pastorally. It’s a challenge, but I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us.

I’m keeping the people of the archdiocese in my prayers as we begin the new year. I wish a blessed and happy New Year to all. In our faith, we understand it that it’s a year of grace. It’s not just more days on the calendar, but it’s the working out of God’s providence. We get to participate in it.