Bishop's Interview: Priorities for the diocese for next few years
Editor: Bishop Vásquez, now that 2015 is fully underway let’s talk about priorities for the Diocese of Austin for the next year or so. What do you consider to be at the top of your list for 2015?
Bishop Vásquez: The number one priority in 2015 is the implementation of the Pastoral Plan, which is now in the final stages of development. For more than a year now, a committee representing the entire Diocese of Austin –– priests, deacons, men and women religious and laity –– has been working to develop this plan. Soon we will begin the process of determining the best way to implement the plan not just at the diocesan level or in the parishes but in the lives of individuals throughout the diocese.
During my nearly five years in the Diocese of Austin, I have come to love and appreciate shepherding the people. I have realized areas that are important to the life of the diocese, and through the work of the Pastoral Plan Committee, many of those areas of importance have been confirmed and several priorities have been defined.
The first priority is an encounter with Christ, which is fundamental in the life of every Christian. St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all spoken about the importance of an encounter with Christ. The encounter with Christ leads people to the church, to the celebration of the sacraments and to participation in the life of the church.
“We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize. A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him … Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigor and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody,” Pope Francis writes in “Evangelii Guadium.”
From that fundamental encounter with Christ, other priorities have also emerged. Among these priorities is the growing numbers of Hispanics, which is a blessing and a challenge. Many Hispanics are newly arrived immigrants who are members of the Catholic Church and who desire to participate fully in the life of the church. We must welcome them.
When I first arrived as the bishop of Austin, there were many parishes that did not have any type of Hispanic ministry. Now more parishes are ministering to Hispanics, and I have had the joy of celebrating Masses at some of those parishes. Mass attendance is growing, and more and more are not only coming to celebrate the sacraments, but they are also involved in ministry. They are ushers, lectors, choir members, altar servers, catechists and liturgists. They are involved in all aspects of parish life. We must continue to welcome Hispanics and involve them in the life of the church.
Another priority is the formation of our lay leaders. The laity is asking for a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Catholic faith. Therefore, we need to provide quality formation programs that will nurture their faith. The lay Christian faithful have an important role in the life of the church and in transforming society to be more just and more reflective of Christian values, including protecting life, supporting families and upholding the sanctity of marriage. It is crucial that we offer more opportunities to enrich their knowledge of the teachings of Christ and of the church.
Another priority that follows is continuing to strengthen the culture of vocations in the diocese. We need holy, healthy priests in order to provide a shepherd’s care for our people. As parents, sisters, brothers, friends and clergy, we must promote and invite our young men and women to consider vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Another priority that has come from the pastoral planning process is the importance of connecting with the poor. Pope Francis teaches that the encounter with Christ naturally leads us to serve the poor. “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid,” he writes in “Evangelii Guadium.” Pope Francis demonstrates this in the way he treats the sick and hurting. He embraces them and encourages them to seek comfort in the church. “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he writes. Therefore, as a diocese, we must allow our individual encounters with Christ to move us to serve the poor. Indeed, we will find Jesus in the eyes of the poor.
Of course, there are many other elements to the Pastoral Plan that I could list, but these priorities are important to me and have been affirmed by the Pastoral Plan Committee.
Editor: As background, tell us a little about how these were discerned.
Bishop Vásquez: These priorities were developed as we listened to priests, deacons, men and women religious and laity from across the Austin Diocese. Over the last year of the pastoral planning process, we have listened to the voice of the people. The Pastoral Plan Committee held several listening sessions across the diocese and offered a survey last spring that helped determine these priorities. The committee is comprised of clergy, religious and lay people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures –– some are professionals, others are young adults, and some are married and have families. I am confident that the committee has listened prayerfully and carefully to discern the needs of the diocese. As bishop, I have also contributed my own particular observations and concerns as well. I am hopeful that this Pastoral Plan will give us direction to further the mission of our local church for the next five years.
Editor: As we move forward what is your prayer for the diocese?
Bishop Vásquez: It’s important to remember this plan belongs to the entire church of the Diocese of Austin. My prayer for the diocese is that all will study this plan, look at the priorities and become involved in its implementation. It’s our plan for helping others encounter the Living Christ, who desires to live in our hearts and who is very much concerned with our needs, sufferings and joys. Christ wants to embrace all people and we have a great opportunity through this plan to make that a reality.
Regional meetings on the Pastoral Plan
The implementation of the Pastoral Plan will be discussed during regional meetings in March and April. Everyone is invited to attend these meetings, which will be held in English and Spanish.
March 23 at St. Joseph Parish in Bryan
March 26 at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Austin
April 13 at St. John Parish in Marble Falls
April 16 at St. John Parish in San Marcos
April 23 at St. Louis Catholic School in Waco
For more information about the Pastoral Plan, visit www.austindiocese.org/about-us/pastoral-plan.