By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Our faith binds us together. We use our God-given gifts to care for each other, serving our parishes in myriad of ways.
“Lay ministry is growing and will continue to grow,” said Deacon Bruce Bonneau, assistant director of Adult Evangelization and Spirituality of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. “We have more and more people involved in ministering to the people of the parish.”
Last Saturday, lectors, ministers of music, Rite of Christian Initiation teams, bereavement caregivers, pastoral associates, special ministers of Holy Communion, hospitality teams, youth ministers and Religious Education catechists gathered at Our Lady of Fatima parish hall in the North End of New Bedford for a Retreat Day for Parish Ministers, offered by the Office of Faith Formation. They represented eight diocesan parishes, including Holy Cross, South Easton; St. Mary and St. Joseph, Fairhaven; St. Patrick, Falmouth; St. Mary, South Dartmouth; Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Mary, New Bedford; and St. John Neumann, East Freetown.
Sharing Christ’s message “Go and teach them everything I have taught you,” Father Thomas J. McElroy directed the retreat. A member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary for 53 years and a priest for 47 years, he has served as a pastor in the Diocese of Fall River and was the director of the Sacred Hearts Retreat House for 10 years. Now retired, he offers retreats, missions, days of prayer and Spiritual direction.
The Retreat Day for Parish Ministers began with Morning Prayer, which included psalms and readings, a music selection and a brief reflection about the readings, by Deacon Bonneau, who was ordained in 1993 and has held parish assignments at St. John Neumann Parish in East Freetown and St. Mary’s Parish in Fairhaven.
“John the Baptist points beyond himself to Christ, and that’s what we do,” said Deacon Bonneau. “The call of the Gospel is to all people, and our baptismal vows ask us to evangelize and be the Church. But don’t put the work of the Lord before the Lord of the work.”
He added that we can only lead people as far as we’ve gone ourselves and explained that sometimes what happens in ministry is that we forget about our own self-care.
“We take the time to care for others, but don’t take that time for ourselves,” he said. “We need time for renewal and reflection, and one of the reasons this is important is the hazard of parishioner burnout.”
He offered the analogy of boarding a plane, where the first order of business is the emergency instructions.
“The oxygen mask drops down, and you put yours on first,” he said. “We have to make sure we are breathing in the breath of God.”
Consequently, the purpose of the day is to provide a retreat experience offering time for quiet prayer and reflection.
“It’s really a very simple day, not meant to be complicated, allowing people to remove the obstacles, to get a little bit more refocused and have some time alone,” he said. “We take a real look at their expectations: what they do, how they do it and more importantly, why they do it. It’s really about them, and there is also a lot of individual private time.”
During this quiet time Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are offered.
“It is a day we make for prayer and to rejuvenate ourselves,” Deacon Bonneau added.
Two sessions, Conference I in the morning and Conference II in the afternoon, provided Spiritual direction by Father McElroy.
“I retired from St. Joseph’s on August 8 of this year, and now I’m doing retreats of prayer, counseling, helping out in parishes, and prison ministry every Friday for the men and for the women on Sunday,” he said. “I retired because of my health, and I have a great deal more freedom now.”
Father McElroy spoke about ways to enter into ministry, based upon the teachings of Cardinal Basil Hume who provided a rubric on the qualities of leadership which uses our gifts to animate, to guide and be with the people.
“We must be a people of witness,” said Father McElroy. “The harm is that we hear we are short of vocations, and I don’t believe that at all. I chose religious life; the Lord called me to that. But the Lord is calling us all — as religious, through Marriage, through single life. Witness comes from Baptism.”
He cited the writings of Father Henri Nouwen who taught that we have been given certain gifts to produce Christ in the world.
But when we come into ministry, we enter in powerlessness, Father McElroy explained.
“We need to understand we have not been given that power on our own, but through the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We enter in humility and use the gifts we develop though strong faith and prayer. That is why prayer is so essential.”
Father McElroy said that the dark December days of the Advent season are the perfect time to host the Retreat Day for Parish Ministers.
“We wrap our arms around those we are caring for, those entrusted to us,” he added. “We tell them to receive the Light of Christ, keep this Light and light the world.”