I am writing this “Along the Way” at the Notre Dame Retreat Center in Canandaigua. This marvelous facility, operated by the Redemptorist Fathers, is the site of our annual preached retreat for priests who serve in our diocese. I am not making the retreat but have come to Canandaigua this afternoon to join the retreatants for evening prayer, a social hour and dinner. It is always a pleasure to be with brother priests in such relaxed and peaceful circumstances.
There is a sadness connected to this year’s retreat experience. Its organizers had long ago booked the services of Father Paul Cioffi, SJ, a renowned and respected spiritual guide and author, to be our leader. A week before the retreat was to begin, Father Paul passed to eternal life. The bright side of the story is that his Jesuit confrere, Father Joseph Neville from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, generously agreed to help us. I am certain that Father will be a blessing to those on retreat. And I have every confidence that all will be supported by the moving prayer of Father Cioffi.
The weather is glorious today. The view of Canandaigua Lake from this bench on the grounds of Notre Dame is spectacular. The combination of warm sun and gentle breeze is most relaxing.
The moment offers an opportunity to pray for those on retreat. It also affords a time to remember some of the events of recent days for which I am particularly grateful and to think about what lies ahead. Such relaxed and quiet times have been hard to come by in recent weeks.
What do I remember with gratitude? I think of the women and men, the boys and girls I have been privileged to confirm in recent days, and to whom I have been privileged to offer their first holy Communion. Whatever their age, those receiving the Sacraments of Initiation seem always to bring a joy and freshness to the occasion that I find deeply strengthening of my own faith. Somehow, their joy seems contagious. Their freshness invites me to re-appreciate my own initiation, and to be in touch with God’s faithfulness and compassion to me ever since.
I remember the impact that such celebrations also have on family and friends who participate in such liturgies in support of the candidates who are close to them. Some people have told me immediately after the celebration, or have written later to tell me, that the liturgy of initiation of their loved ones had a powerful impact on their own lives. Some speak of a renewed prayer life. In some cases, individuals become regular churchgoers after a prolonged absence.
It’s hard to pin down the exact reasons for that but I suspect that among the elements that attribute to such reawakenings are the faith witness and joy of those being initiated, our powerful sacramental symbols, the dignity of our liturgical rituals and the fruitfulness of the prayer of the community. Somehow, they open the heart to God; they do gentle war on our sense of self-sufficiency and invite to an exchange of life for others.
As I write these words, I am mindful that weekly Mass attendance is a part of the lives of many fewer people than in past years. You may be one whose practice has followed that pattern. Even if you are a regular on Sunday, I’ll bet you a dollar that you have family members and other loved ones who seldom join the community on Sunday, and whom you’d dearly love to have with us.
It is my conviction that we lose because they are not with us. I also believe that those absent miss treasures available to them in word, sacrament and community.
How can we reintroduce them to the richness of our community and, particularly, to its worship? The literature suggests that very important factors in attracting people are genuine and pervasive hospitality, engaging music and preaching that draws people to God and helps them to live in fruitful ways. I expect that a personal invitation from a respected other is also important.
It’s about time to join the priests now. Let me leave you with a few questions: If you are a regular churchgoer, what keeps you at it? What can any of us do to make the experience more rewarding for you? How can we encourage sisters and brothers who rarely go to church to think about coming again? What obstacles do we and they have to overcome before that will happen?
Peace to all.