Two years ago this week (September 8), I began my service here in Philadelphia as archbishop. Two years from now, this same week, we’ll be in the final stages of preparing for the eighth World Meeting of Families (September 22-27). It’s a good moment to pause and reflect.
The future is always shaped in part by the past, because we become what we do. Our choices and decisions, our mistakes, virtues, sins and achievements – all these things become the record of “character encountering circumstance” that we call history. All of us are influenced by events in the past. None of us is determined by them. The future depends on our willingness to learn the right lessons from our history and apply them honestly to the new realities we face, here and now. So it is with individuals. And so it is with the Church.
Philadelphia Catholics have lived through a decade of tough news: the suffering of abuse victims and their families; two grand jury reports; priests removed from ministry; parish mergers; school closings; declining Mass attendance; well-intentioned but poor financial management; outright embezzlement – all of it compounded by complacency, inertia and too little transparency and accountability at almost every level of Church life.
I’ve said these things before, many times. They’re painful to say and difficult to hear. But they’re worth remembering this September because we’re on a different course now, a better one; and we’ve come a long way in a short time. I get plenty of angry emails and letters every week – it goes with the job – but I’ve also been deeply moved by the number of people, both clergy and lay, from Pennsylvania and all over the country, who’ve offered extraordinary words of encouragement and support.
I think I know why. Philadelphia is not just another diocese. The Church here has roots that go to the heart of the American Catholic experience and to the core of our nation’s best ideals. And if God can use poor instruments like you and me to rekindle the fire of the Gospel in the churches of Philadelphia, then he can work that miracle anywhere. I want my life as a Christian to be part of that story; and again and again over the past two years, I’ve met good people in parishes across the archdiocese who want exactly the same.
The history that shapes Philadelphia Catholics is more than just the wounds of the last 10 or 20 years, as serious as they are. It’s a history built from 205 years of growing and extending the faith; two centuries of serving the sick and the poor, educating young people, welcoming the stranger, and humanizing the wider Pennsylvania community with a witness of Christian love and justice.
We need to keep these truths about our Church vividly in our memory. They belong to us as our inheritance. Generations of Philadelphia Catholics proved their faith by their suffering, generosity and hard work. We need to recover that same kind of vigorous faith in our own lives – a zeal to renew the Church in the present, and to shape the future with the message of Jesus Christ.
A lot remains to be done. As our financial reports made clear earlier this summer, the material needs of the Church are real and severe. Ministry is the work of the Gospel. That’s always our priority. It always will remain so. Ministry, however, runs on resources. When the Church in Philadelphia pursues the sale of properties, or the leasing of our cemeteries, or the marketing of a vitally important ministry like our health care system, we do it reluctantly. We also remain keenly aware of the obligations we have to our employees, to the wider Catholic and non-Catholic community, and especially to the people we serve.
But we can’t renew the life of our local Church with good intentions and plans ungrounded in fact. We need prudence and clear thinking. The future depends on what we do right now, and right now we need to be willing to continue the hard work of personal conversion and institutional reform that we’ve already begun. There’s no other path to a vigorous and fruitful Catholic presence in Philadelphia in the decades ahead.
The past two years have seen difficult times. More challenges will surely come. But the people of this extraordinary Church – priests, deacons, religious and lay persons across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia – have been, and are, and will always be, the greatest gift from God in my life as a pastor. Please pray for me, as I pray every day for you.
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