Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

More than two years in the planning, a collaborative undertaking between the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Faith Formation and Office of Worship brought more than 300 parish leaders to a ministry convocation at the Virginia Crossings Hotel and Conference Center in Glen Allen, Tuesday and Wednesday, May 15 and 16.

Occurring in the week preceding the Solemnity of Pentecost on which the faithful heard how various groups, e.g., Parthians, Medes, Elamites, heard the Word of God in their own languages, the convocation, whose theme was “We have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:25), drew clergy, catechetical leaders, school principals, liturgical ministers and others.

In an hour-long presentation, the event’s first keynote speaker, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, combined Scripture, Church history, catechesis, humor and personal stories in encouraging those gathered to pay attention to the calling of the Holy Spirit.

“For today’s Christians to fulfill the apostolic mission, we need the Holy Spirit to fulfill that apostolic calling,” he said. “We need to be open to its inspiration and responsive to its gifts.”

The cardinal noted that after the “great explosion” of the Holy Spirit in which the community was united in sharing what they had, in breaking of bread and listening to the Gospel, the Church had to deal with problems, as noted in the sixth and 15th chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.

“It is important to recognize that the Holy Spirit did not obliterate people into porridge or didn’t obliterate problems and misunderstandings. People prayed, invoked the Spirit, and they reached courageous decisions,” he said.

Cardinal Tobin said openness and responsiveness to the Holy Spirit requires Church leaders to ask the right questions. Using the miracle of the loaves and fish as an example, he said Jesus saw a need to feed the crowd, and told the disciples to get them something to eat.

“What do you take from that? The worst questions we can ask when we talk about our mission today are, ‘What have we got? What would you like to do?’” he said. “Identify the mission; the Holy Spirit will help us to do that. Then we can consider the resources.”

Cardinal Tobin, citing the 16th chapter of Acts in which Paul had planned to travel to Bithynia but was prevented from doing so by the Holy Spirit, said one must ask what he termed “the most difficult part”: “Where is God opening a door? Where is God beckoning us?”

“Not every failure is a disaster,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is saying, ‘Not this way, but this way.’”

The cardinal said that if God is calling the Church to go in a certain direction, the resources to do that will exist.

“If we follow that this is truly what God is asking of us, how could he ask us to do something and not provide what is necessary?” he said. “What would keep us from going through (the door) once we recognize it?”

Noting that Pope Francis uses the term “pastoral conversion,” Cardinal Tobin said people’s hearts require conversion, but that it doesn’t end there.

“Our structures and methods have to be aligned with the mission, they have to be converted. Sometimes our structures were built for a Church or circumstances that no longer exist,” he said, adding that what worked in the past might be a burden today. “While we may be attached to them, we might be frustrating the pilgrimage of the Body of Christ by refusing to go through the door.”

Cardinal Tobin told the story about a parishioner at his former parish in Chicago. The man and his family, including their 7-year-old son, were walking home after Sunday Mass. The dad was contemplating the day’s homily and to whom it was directed, so he asked his son.

“Do you think Father was talking to the adults or to the children?” the father asked.

“I think he was talking to himself,” the boy replied.

“If we ignore the Holy Spirit, we talk to ourselves,” the cardinal said. “We’re so embedded in our own stuff, we don’t ask the question: Are we speaking a language people can understand?”

Again cautioning his audience not to close doors, he continued, “We need to be led by the sense of where God is actively opening doors, put initiative and energy there, and trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need.”

Cardinal Tobin reiterated the importance of mission.

“The words of Jesus clearly imply mission comes first, resources come later,” he said. “As we progress and identify our mission we will be successful in finding the resources to sustain that mission.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Bishop Barry C. Knestout, spoke about the theme of the convocation, noting that everyone has stories about how they have come to see and know the Lord, and how they want to share what they have seen.

“When we share these experiences, we are not just conveying information or knowledge or teaching, we are sharing a personal encounter and an experience that has affected our entire person, it has affected our understanding, our outlook on life, the decisions we make and the people to whom we relate,” he said.

Bishop Knestout said when people share their experiences and encounters, they do it enthusiastically, and the message has “energy, effect and authority.”

He continued, “All this is to remind us that although we are all teachers, and teaching is an important and significant part of what we are called to do, if we want the information we share to have a resonance and impact and authority to those we are teaching, it must be authentic and therefore it must also be a witness to what we have experienced and believe. We are called to be teachers, but first we must be witnesses.”

In addition to Cardinal Tobin and Bishop Knestout, the convocation included breakout sessions that featured Father Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Richmond; Jay Brown, director of the office of social justice for Commonwealth Catholic Charities; and Steve DeLaney, assistant director of evangelization at Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton.

Editor’s note: The text of Bishop Knestout’s presentation can be found on The Catholic Virginian website