Reflections on Nine Years in a Chancery

And so it ends, after nine years of heading a chancery department in a major archdiocese.

I’ve said little about my job in five years of blogging, to keep this a personal page and to not give the impression that it was part of my ministry.

I became Catholic in 1992, and after more than a year of doing various part time jobs I became director of religious education at a parish in upstate New York. After about three years I became pastoral associate at St. Mark’s University Parish in Goleta, CA, the Paulist-run campus ministry at University of California at Santa Barbara. Then, in 1998, I was hired to create the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. I was given the task of bringing the various existing campus ministries into a single department, with direct oversight over them, to create a diocesan vision for campus ministry. The other part of the ministry was to build upon the preliminary work of the Bishop’s Advisory Committee on Young Adult Ministry and to do training and advocacy on ministry to young adults, to work with other departments to encourage a “young adult friendly” perspective within the chancery, and to develop programming for young adults. When I first met with Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, I asked him what his personal priorities were for my office. He thought a second and said, “Three. First–vocations. Second–vocations. Third–vocations.” I then went downstairs to introduce myself to the Director of the Office of Vocations.

Creating the vision for campus ministry was the first step, focusing on evangelization of the university, working in harmony with the rest of the church (not as freelancers, as happens too often), teaching in harmony with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, doing liturgy in harmony with universal and diocesan norms, making issues related to the “Gospel of Life” a priority in our catechesis because of Houston’s role as the leader in medical education, and making prominent the call to vocations to priesthood and religious life, and to working with the Office of Family Life to enhance marriage preparation.

Campus ministry at the time of my hiring reminded me of the refrain in the book of Judges: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” I was told by the chancellor that my job would be one of “herding cats.” I had to remove some personnel, disrupt some communities where non-students dominated the campus ministry, and do some basic instruction with all personnel on liturgical and catechetical norms. I had to then hire capable people who were happy to work within the new vision. I was proud to have hired excellent campus ministers like Joe Magee, Ph.D., and Rev. Justin Price, OSB, and opened up a position for a transitional deacon from the Dominican Southern Province, which was first filled by (now) Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP.

One of Archbishop Fiorenza’s great strengths was the ability to work with a variety of movements in the church; following his lead, I made connections with many dynamic movements in the church committed to faithful evangelization, including Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, Communion and Liberation, and FOCUS (though I was hindered in bringing a team to Houston). I’m especially grateful for what we did with the LC/RC apostolate “Compass.” I hosted a national Compass conference, was invited to speak at the Prince of Liechtenstein Fellowship in Europe in 2005, and then served on the Compass advisory board.

I’ve been active in NADDCM (the National Association of Diocesan Directors of Campus Ministry), serving at one point on its board, and in CCMA (the Catholic Campus Ministry Association), serving as program chair for a national convention and as chair of a regional convention. For that regional conference I invited speakers like Colleen Carroll Campbell and representatives of FOCUS and Compass, to enter into a dialogue with campus ministers who had been skeptical of these new apostolates, and who, following the conference, were now grateful for new understanding and friendship.

Two campus ministry programs of the archdiocese have been recognized as “exemplary programs” by the USCCB and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association while I’ve been here, including one on social justice education created by Lubna Nabi at UH and “Classes on Christian Principles,” a collaboration between Rice University students and faculty, campus ministers, and Opus Dei. I also nominated Archbishop Fiorenza for recognition as exemplary bishop in support of campus ministry, in gratitude for the leadership he provided, and was very proud to be at the USCCB meeting where he received the honor.

Young adult ministry included creating a summer coffee house program, Cafe Catholica, which has attracted 250 to 300 young adults each week for seeker-friendly conversations about Catholic faith and life. We then brought in Theology on Tap, which operates in a similar manner on a smaller scale. We adapted the Awakening Your Life to Christ retreat, created by Bishop Sam Jacobs when he was a campus minister in Lake Charles, forming Bayou Awakening, which involves about a hundred young adults in retreats held twice a year. In these retreats college age young adults hear their peers witness to the love of God, his forgiveness, prayer, the mystical body of Christ, and the communion we share within it.

I worked with Hispanic leaders and young adults to try to expand our ministry with Hispanic young adults, who comprise over 50% of our young adult population. These are our most dedicated young adults, the hardest working, most committed to ongoing formation. Young adults have spent their own time and energy and have created a pastoral de conjunto to coordinate the work of many young adult groups; they’ve had wonderful advisers; they’ve been able to work collaboratively with the Institute Fe y Vida which has had training programs in pastoral juvenil Hispana at the OMI-run Christian Renewal Center in Dickinson. We participated in the year-long process of the Primer Encuentro Nacional de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana, culminating in taking a bus load of young adults to Notre Dame last summer (which the archbishop generously funded). We worked with the international movement, Encuentros de Promocion Juvenil, and hosted their national and international meetings a couple of times. They are the single most outstanding ministry of young adult evangelization in the Catholic church today, in my experience. But despite these efforts on the part of Hispanic young adults, despite years of advocacy and lots of talk about the importance of this ministry at other levels, my office remained one of the few without a Hispanic associate director. See this article from the National Catholic Reporter.

In all these ministries we have promoted vocations successfully, especially through the Life Awareness weekend run by the Office of Vocations and the Serra Club. We have focused on evangelization of young adults and supporting them in discernment, and our seminary, as well as the minor seminary in Dallas, and many religious orders can testify to the success of this approach.

I also worked with other offices to promote a “young adult perspective.” This included working with the Family Life Office to review our marriage preparation guidelines to put an emphasis on evangelization, the creation of a brochure and webpage on Getting Married in the Catholic Church, so that these guidelines would be known by young adults, the creation of a curriculum on “Marriage Preparation across the Lifecycle,” to implement Pope John Paul II’s call in Familiaris Consortio for remote, proximate, and immediate marriage preparation, followed by pastoral care of married couples and families. I worked with Joe DeVet, archdiocesan NFP coordinator, to promote NFP to young adult groups and campus ministries.

I have loved the ethnic and cultural diversity of this ministry. Besides the work with Hispanic young adults, I have given talks to the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Society (TNTT), assisted in the planning of our annual Asian Mass, and worked with several of our African-American parishes and with Unity Explosion. I’ve given radio broadcasts on KCOH for our Office of Radio, including a series in February on Black Catholic history. Last fall, with a campus minister and a couple of students, I participated in the first National Summit on Catholic Campus Ministry at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Here’s another area of frustration, where the resources and the personnel have simply not been provided for a critical ministry.

One of my passions has been ecumenism, and we’ve been able to do some great things in ecumenical and interfaith relations at many campuses, especially at Rice, where we did a Veritas Forum about a year after I came, and where I am on the advisory board of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. I’ve participated in the ADL’s Coalition for Mutual Respect and was on the program committee of the 16th National Workshop on Jewish-Christian Relations. But this area was the area of some frustration, too. I will have more to say about that one when I’ve gotten a little more distance.

I’ve enjoyed working with our Office of Continuing Christian Education as an instructor in our Formation Toward Christian Ministry program, teaching classes on Christology, Church History, Church Doctrine, and occasionally Old Testament, Ministry, and Prayer & Spirituality.

I’ve twice been chair of our archdiocesan Evangelization Commission, and was a member of the US Commission on Catholic Evangelization. This has been more talk than action, but we’ve implemented Disciples in Mission, did some training on outreach to inactive Catholics, and sought to create a common vision of evangelization as the mission of all and a better sense of what different ministries are doing to accomplish that mission.

You can check out the office webpage, http://youngadultcatholics.net, for more.

In sum, it has been a remarkable period of my life. I’ve worked with some wonderful people, colleagues and volunteers. I’ve seen great things happen in the lives of students and young adults.

Would I recommend such a life to others? Perhaps, with one caveat: don’t make a career of it. I said to my pastor this morning that I think chancery officials should be restricted to a five year term of office, then be sent back to the parish. It’s easy to lose perspective. It’s easy to lose sight of the mission. It can be a struggle to maintain your faith. For these reasons, you need to have an understanding family and a capable spiritual director. The clericalism and the bureaucracy can be stifling, and I’ve seen the ugliest sides of both in various parts of the country.

The Church must be about preaching Jesus Christ above all. It must see that its mission is evangelization. The Church, and all its agencies and all its personnel of whatever title and standing, must see that they are servants, washers of feet. If it loses sight of this, if it becomes an end in itself, if it is more concerned about its own authority and procedures and programs, if it exalts one class of Christians above another, if it is more concerned about currying favor of the wealthy than serving those humble souls who carry the evangelizing fire of God in their hearts–it has lost everything.

That’s the danger. If that frightens you–stay away. If your faith is strong, serve for awhile, then get out. Be content to serve among the littlest of God’s children.

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Nine Years in a Chancery

  1. Wow, what an impressive resumé.

    I’ve said it before–your arrival at the Eucharistic table has enriched us all.

  2. Big changes, they have certainly helped the diocese, I’m sure, unlike other dioceses that have unfortunately cut out campus ministry altogether and struggle to minister to the needs of young adult catholics. What’s next, then, dancing with the houston ballet? Trapeze with the circus?

  3. I have a dear friend who was confirmed at Easter 2006. She came to the church through campus ministry. Bless you and good luck with what is coming next. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is waiting to hear what you’ve been called to do.

    E

  4. Bill, your dedication to campus ministry and prayerful consideration of young adult needs transformed the Catholic church in Houston. I still think of Houston as being one of the most young-adult friendly cities in which I’ve lived, despite the fact that I live in a largely Catholic city now. Thank you for the opportunities you gave me during the birth of Bayou Awakening and as a campus minister under your direction. My years at the archdiocese were pivotal and formative in innumerable ways. I’m sure you will continue to be an inspiration to those you work with and I hope the Catholic church does not lose your friendship. God bless you!

    Lubna

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