We need to talk

Thursday 6 September 2018 — The Holiday Inn, Mansfield, Mass. — Priests’ Convocation

Summer is slipping; a little ice cream and it’s over. The Falmouth Road Race of 2018 is history. The annual end-of-summer parish barbeque has been held. Then came summer’s “last hurrah,” the Labor Day Weekend. 

September makes me nostalgic. 

Way back when, Labor Day would see the priests of the Fall River Diocese packing to head for Cathedral Camp in East Freetown. Time for the mandatory diocesan retreat. There wasn’t room to accommodate everyone at the camp, so two back-to-back sessions were scheduled. 

Priests’ retreats afforded the rare opportunity to wear civilian clothes. The bishop himself might dare to sport a casual black cardigan instead of a suit jacket. 

The bishop usually attended the first retreat and spent time at the second. The final conference of both sessions was delivered by the bishop. He would extend words of thanks to the priests for another year of labor in the Lord’s Vineyard and share his thoughts in a “State of the Diocese” address. 

The old retreat house was Spartan. During World War II, it had served as an army barracks. Each cell had a cot, a small writing shelf, and a chair. The floors were bare, except for the corridor, with its rough sisal runner. The bathrooms were at the end of the corridor. 

The retreat conferences were held in a separate building called Our Lady of Good Counsel Chapel. On a hot September afternoon, the chapel could be unbearable. It had a tower bell that was rung manually (a task assigned to a random curate). I once rang the bell too vigorously and broke the rope. Curates were also assigned to behind-the-scenes Sacristy work. I did that, too. Curates on retreat were kept busy.

The largest camp building, Villa Maria, contained the dining area (“refectory,” in church-speak) and an assembly hall. I suspect Villa Maria was built as an indoor roller skating rink for the defunct Lakeside Park, the picnic grounds that were once at the end of the New Bedford trolley line. The priests on retreat did no roller skating, to my knowledge. During the retreats, the hall was used by vendors to display church goods. That was a convenience. It meant there was no need to drive to Providence to buy the latest prayer book. 

After meals (served by a wait-staff of seminarians) the priests would either inspect the vendors’ displays or walk counterclockwise in small groups around the circular driveway, chatting. The more unconventional among us would instead walk clockwise. Such rogues!

Some of the more athletic priests would get together for an afternoon baseball game. Some would go for a swim in Long Pond. The old pastors would take a siesta, as, I am told, old pastors still tend to do. 

Another building housed a camp dormitory. The bunks had been removed. The room was lined with dozens of portable plywood altars. Each priest said Mass privately, with a seminarian serving as altar boy. There were sometimes several Masses being said simultaneously. Concelebration was not a possibility.

My, how things have changed. 

We still have diocesan-sponsored annual priests’ retreats, but they are now one option among many. Priests’ retreats are no longer held at Cathedral Camp. 

We now also have “Priests’ Convocations” held in various locations every few years. Convocations give priests the opportunity to gather together with their bishop, to listen to presentations, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in community, to concelebrate Holy Mass, and to share meals, conversation, and priestly fraternity. 

A convocation of diocesan priests is just now concluding. In light of recent events in the Church, more time was allocated for communal prayer and open dialogue. We needed to talk to each other and to God about the shocking situation the Church is currently experiencing. The convocation afforded an opportunity to do just that.

What was there to talk about? Plenty. There’s the report of the attorney general of Pennsylvania, the accusations being leveled at a retired archbishop of Washington, D.C. (and his recusal from the College of Cardinals), the ongoing investigation at our regional seminary in Brighton, and some retired archbishop who is calling for the resignation of Pope Francis. There’s also turmoil in the Church beyond the United States, especially in Chile and Australia. If that’s not enough, one of our retired Falmouth pastors was found murdered. 

What is going on? I can hardly stand it!

Like everyone else, dear readers, I have had to grapple with these bewildering reports. Much to my surprise, I found reason for hope. I found reason for hope in the People of God themselves. In the history of the Church, we have weathered catastrophic storms. It was the faith of the People of God that has stayed the ship in the past. The faith of the People of God will come through again. I know this because I’ve seen it already happening. In faith and hope, we build and rebuild. In the Body of Christ, faith and hope are forever entwined. 

But we really do need to talk.

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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