Bishop's Interview: New plan will give us focus for the future
Editor: Bishop, the Diocese of Austin is in the process of developing a Pastoral Plan. What is the plan and why do we need it?
Bishop Vásquez: The Pastoral Plan provides a vision and direction for the Diocese of Austin. It is important for this local church, the Diocese of Austin, to prayerfully read the signs of the times and to understand what God is asking us to do in this particular moment. This is a time to consult with all of our priests, deacons, men and women religious and lay people –– from youth to young adults to elderly –– about how the church can better serve them now and in the future.
Last year at World Youth Day, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to be with the people, especially the young people of our dioceses: “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, in our parish or diocesan institutions, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! … It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome because they come, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people!” This particular quote has stuck with me, and I think this Pastoral Plan is a way for us to reach out to people and to see how we can help them grow in their faith and encounter Jesus Christ.
Editor: We have had Pastoral Plans in the past, correct?
Bishop Vásquez: Yes, my predecessor, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, developed a Pastoral Plan that was already in place when I came to the Austin Diocese. It was a five-year plan with five primary goals. The parishes incorporated these priorities and goals, many of which revolved around being Christ-centered communities. Since that plan concluded, we have taken the opportunity to ask ourselves what God is asking of us at this moment in the history of the diocese and where does God want us to focus our attention for the next five years?
Editor: Tell us about the survey that was conducted during April.
Bishop Vásquez: The survey is one of the ways in which we received information from people throughout the diocese. First, the Pastoral Plan core team held listening sessions in both English and Spanish where people came together and discussed what they believed were the needs of the Austin Diocese. During those sessions, the focus was not just on the needs of the individual parishes or groups in the diocese, but on the needs of the entire diocese. Summaries of those listening sessions are available on our diocesan website.
The survey, which was offered online and on paper, allowed us to connect with people throughout the Austin Diocese and give them the opportunity to answer questions regarding their faith. The survey was not just for people actively involved in the church; we invited people who have left the church or who don’t attend Mass very often to fill out the survey as well. We wanted to hear from all Catholics, practicing or not, so that we can know where we need to focus our efforts at this point in time. The survey responses are now being processed and reviewed to help us develop a new plan.
As Pope Francis has pointed out over and over again, we are an inclusive church. The church cannot isolate itself, but rather the church welcomes everyone. In fact, the Holy Father is pushing the church to go out to the edges, to the peripheries, and to seek out those who are poor or suffering. Pope Francis is telling us clearly we can’t be a church that concentrates only on those who are present at Mass every Sunday. We have to also be a church that evangelizes and goes forth to spread the Good News.
As he tells us in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the joy of the Gospel compels us to proclaim to the world the Good News. “A Church which ‘goes forth’ is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way. At times we have to be like the father of the prodigal son, who always keeps his door open so that when the son returns, he can readily pass through it” (46).
It is for this very reason that we wanted to hear from all Catholics, not just those who come to Mass regularly but those who come just once in a while or not at all.
Editor: What is the next step in the Pastoral Planning process?
Bishop Vásquez: The next part involves interviewing the priests in the diocese. Again, I want to go back to Pope Francis and something he said last year regarding the role of bishops: “The bishop has to be among his people in three ways: in front of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together and preventing them from being scattered; and behind them, ensuring that no one is left behind, but also, and primarily, so that the flock itself can sniff out new paths.” I take these words very seriously and I want to know and understand the needs of the people of this diocese.
So that I can better lead, gather and protect my flock, I rely on feedback from the priests of the diocese. As the bishop, the priests are my chief collaborators, and I depend on them to serve the needs of the people. The priests are working with the people on a daily basis in the parishes, in our Catholic schools, in the hospitals and various other ministries. They have direct contact with people, and it is important that I hear from the priests about their experiences What do they see happening in parishes? What do they hear as concerns from the people? I am very interested in reading the results of the priests’ interviews.
When all the information is gathered from the surveys, priests and the listening sessions, we will use it to develop our Pastoral Plan. A steering committee made up of people from all over the diocese, including lay people, priests, religious, deacons, and myself, is working with a firm called Essential Conversations to write the plan. I ask for your prayers over the next several months as we work with them to develop a cohesive plan.
Editor: How can people find out more about the Pastoral Plan?
Bishop Vásquez: Please visit the diocesan website at www.austindiocese.org and click on “Pastoral Plan” for the most current information. From there, you can sign up to get e-mail alerts about the plan and learn how you can stay involved in this process. My hope is that everybody will get involved. We have already received great responses from the survey. Now as we move forward with developing the plan, we ask everyone to pray, to stay in touch and continue to give us your input. We need to have as much feedback that we are able to get in order to develop a good plan.
Editor: What is your prayer for the Diocese of Austin as we plan for the future?
Bishop Vásquez: May we be open to listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. The voice of the Spirit will tell us very clearly where we need to go in the future. This Pastoral Plan is not just simply strategizing –– many companies do that; many organizations do that. This plan is based on the fact that God has put the church here in the world and in Central Texas and we are to serve the needs of the people. I pray that we will indeed listen to God to be able to develop a plan that is going to serve the needs of the people of the Diocese of Austin.