Bishop's Interview: Encountering Christ, transforming our hearts
Editor: Bishop Vásquez, this month the implementation process of the Pastoral Plan begins as the plan is distributed to the priests and parishes. Please remind us of the three goals of the plan.
Bishop Vásquez: Our Pastoral Plan is entitled “Encounter that Leads to Transformation.” The primary vision of the plan is to invite everyone to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus, which then changes everything and fills us with joy.
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew … I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come,” Pope Francis wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium.” With this in mind, there are three goals that the Diocese of Austin has formed to help us encounter and be transformed by Christ.
The first is to provide spiritual formation that leads to the encounter with Christ. The second is to develop a culture of ministry that sustains this transformation. And the third is to strengthen our witness and outreach so that more individuals and communities can be transformed.
These goals are critical because each one of them points back to the importance of that original transformational encounter with Christ. It is in and through that encounter that our lives are transformed and our faith deepened so that we can then help others realize the joy of Christ.
Editor: What do you consider the most important part of the plan?
Bishop Vásquez: The most important aspect of the plan is that encounter with Jesus Christ. I believe that people have had and are having encounters with Jesus Christ on a daily basis. Our diocese and our parishes provide excellent programs, projects and catechesis happening already; with this Pastoral Plan, we want to extend these activities. Because we are transformed by Christ, we want to witness to and engage more people effectively so that Christ becomes the source of all our activity.
I specifically want to highlight the communal and sacramental dimensions of our faith, which the Pastoral Plan does address.
For us as Catholics, our faith is communal. We meet Christ in the community of the church. At times, this may be a challenge to understand because the church — founded by the Holy Spirit — is also composed of human beings. We are not perfect and we must remember that no community is perfect. This is why the church is always in need of renewal and reform. But no one should doubt that the church, the body of Christ, founded by God is where we encounter Jesus Christ.
Secondly, our encounter with Jesus is sacramental. We meet Jesus in the sacraments, especially in the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. We meet him in the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass. We meet him also in people — in our deacons, priests and bishops and in the whole community. We are the body of Christ and the sacraments sustain our communities in faith.
Because of the communal nature and sacramentality of our faith, our priests are essential. As a diocese, we must support vocations and help our priests be effective pastors and leaders. We must also look at how we are forming our lay people. More and more laity are taking on leadership roles in our parishes and in our organizations. Therefore, we need to do all we can to support them as they take on more responsibilities.
Editor: The Synod on the Family will take place at the beginning of October how does the plan relate to family?
Bishop Vásquez: The first goal of the Pastoral Plan mentions families immediately. The family is the domestic church, a place of transforming spiritual growth for forming disciples. The “domestic church” simply means in the family the church is already present. Family life is a beautiful blessing from God when we have parents who love their children and children responding to the love of their parents. Parents are the first teachers of their children in the faith.
Because families are essential, they want to know that the church welcomes them, nourishes them, sustains them and heals them. Many families are experiencing stress of daily life and the church must be there to help strengthen them so they are able to continue to be the domestic church. Our families are the basic unit of the whole society. Strong families make a strong church and society.
Editor: Looking ahead, we will begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy in December. How does the Pastoral Plan incorporate mercy?
Bishop Vásquez: I think the Pastoral Plan inherently incorporates mercy throughout each of the goals. Mercy is not only about the forgiveness of sins. In its widest sense, mercy is about people having the right relationship with God and others. The church is the instrument of mercy that reflects the compassionate face of God. We need to bring God’s mercy everywhere – to our homes, to our schools, to our communities and to our prisons. As true disciples of Christ, we are called to go out into the world and give witness to the mercy of God.
In this Jubilee Year all of us need to experience God’s mercy. We should encourage our fellow Catholics to go to confession and to come to Mass and participate in the life of the church. Mercy means inviting fallen away Catholics back to the church and if they have been hurt in some way by the church, helping them find healing and renewed faith. The church is our mother who nourishes us and sustains us and is always ready to embrace us and as communities of faith, we want to be welcoming of all people.
Editor: As the diocese moves forward with the implementation of the Pastoral Plan, how can the average Catholic in the pew participate?
Bishop Vásquez: The Pastoral Plan steering committee, facilitated by Charlene O’Connell, has worked very hard to prepare this plan and to develop a structured implementation process for the plan. I want to reiterate that the plan is not just about the hierarchy or about certain groups of people, it is about the whole diocese working together to help one another encounter Christ and thus transform our lives and our ministries. Therefore, I am asking all Catholics of the Diocese of Austin to study this plan and become familiar with it.
A study guide is available that will help people understand how each aspect of the plan affects them, their family, their parish and our diocese. The study guide is designed to help people be connected to and thus contribute to the implementation of the plan. It is divided into seven reflection sections that follow the structure of the Pastoral Plan. For each reflection, an opening prayer is offered which is taken from the YOUCAT Youth Prayer Book. This is followed by either a quote from Scripture or a related quote from a document of the church. The reflection questions and the study guide are designed to help Catholics focus on their faith journey to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and his church and become an “inspiring and credible witness” of our Catholic faith.
Editor: What is your prayer for the new Pastoral Plan?
Bishop Vásquez: There is a beautiful prayer that was developed for the plan, and I want to quote part of it because it summarizes beautifully the pastoral plan: “May the joy of the Gospel transform our minds to see fresh possibilities and be prophetic visionaries. Give us the insights we need to strengthen our Church. May we always be a sign of faith, hope and charity, a refuge where all are welcomed in Jesus’ name.” The prayer is available at www.austindiocese.org/pastoral-plan-prayer.
I pray that as we deepen our relationships with Christ, we will thus become more involved in the church and be excellent witnesses and disciples in this world.