KEUKA PARK — U.S. Catholics have been rocked by the priest sexual-abuse scandal and face such additional challenges as the closing and reconfiguration of parishes; declining attendance; a priest shortage; and the growing influence of secularism.
Even so, Albany Bishop Howard J. Hubbard said the present era should be considered one “of rejuvenation and joy.”
“By now you may wonder, ‘What is that man smoking?'” Bishop Hubbard quipped, but went on to cite the Last Supper as a source for his optimism. Jesus, he noted, chose that occasion to celebrate the first Mass even though he knew he was worshipping with one man who had sold him out (Judas), another who would deny him (Peter), and that the rest would eventually run away. Since that day, Bishop Hubbard said, the Catholic faith has weathered many other crises throughout its 2,000-year history.
“The resurrection of Jesus far surpasses anything that can defeat us,” he stated.
Bishop Hubbard made these remarks during his keynote speech, “The Mission of the Contemporary Parish,” at the Diocese of Rochester’s Pastoral Planning Leaders Day. The seventh-annual event took place April 29 at Keuka College, and was attended by parish leaders, staffs, and pastoral planning committees from across the diocese. In addition to Bishop Hubbard’s talk, the program included workshops on such topics as parish reconfiguration; vocations awareness; extern priests; identifying gifts for ministry; parish social justice; and spirituality for parish pastoral councils.
Bishop Hubbard, 67, has headed the Albany Diocese since 1977 and is a longtime friend of Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark, who introduced him for the keynote addressed. During his hour-long presentation, Bishop Hubbard he stressed that evangelization — particularly of young people — is a vital cog in the rejuvenation process.
“We are ministering to a fragile people that first and foremost need compassion,” he said, noting that today’s culture demonstrates a lack of faith in institutions and pits the demand for scientific proof against the divine. “A response to the alienated, the unchurched and the fallen-away is the No. 1 priority.”
Bishop Hubbard observed that the fastest-growing Christian churches are evangelical, and that the Catholic Church could borrow from their approach to welcoming, stewardship, outreach and recruitment. He ventured that Catholics may be reluctant to display fervor similar to that of the evangelicals, perhaps fearing that problems like the sex-abuse scandal will cause people to scoff at the message. But Catholicism has never been perfect and never will be, he said, so if we wait for perfection “we will do nothing at all.”
The Albany bishop said he favors an approach that promotes collaboration with other churches, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in reaching out to the underprivileged through such community endeavors as food pantries, alcohol rehabilitation and ministry to the elderly. Yet he said the Catholic parish should maintain a firm identity as “the hub and the center” for this outreach, saying the best parishes reflect four characteristics: good liturgy and preaching; helping parishioners deal with everyday life concerns; a feeling of ownership among all their members; and an enlivened quality — “a sense that something is going on.”
“It’s not enough to have one or two of these characteristics,” he said.
Bishop Hubbard added that parishes also must move with the times. Calling nostalgia “basically a state of denial,” he said “we cannot turn back the church, we can’t hide our heads in the sand.” He noted that the Rochester Diocese has been “a real pioneer” in terms of facing the future through pastoral planning, serving “as a model for many throughout the country to emulate.”
He also called for Catholic social-justice action in the tradition of Bishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Bishop Hubbard, who chairs the New York State Catholic Conference’s Public Policy Committee, said it is imperative to develop greater Catholic involvement in important issues. Gov. George Pataki the state Legislature feel free to disregard the Catholic conference’s pleas because they consider the state’s bishops “generals without armies. … They know it won’t hurt them at the polls,” he said
The Albany bishop’s presentation appeared to resonate strongly with those gathered. Shortly after his address ended to thunderous applause, Deb Housel, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison, remarked to Bishop Hubbard and the crowd, “Wow — “I think you did clean our glasses, clear our vision.”
“He was very inspiring, right on,” added Bernard Grizard, diocesan director of Parish Support Ministries which incorporates the Office of Pastoral Planning.
Officials expected that the text of Bishop Hubbard’s talk would be posted on the diocesan Web site (www.dor.org) in early May.