Every priest is encouraged to take at least one if not multiple sabbaticals during their ordained ministry years. Not all take advantage of the continuing education and opportunities to pursue particular interests that a sabbatical provides. I took my first sabbatical in 1998 and found it to be particularly helpful in my formation and development as a public minister. I learned a lot and the project portion of the program focused on listening to young adults all over the country and their many and varied experiences of Church. It gave me valuable insights that I benefit from almost daily.
Sabbatical can be a misunderstood term. The sabbatical program for the Archdiocese of Chicago includes a retreat, a project that provides a focus for ongoing learning and growth, an academic component, and a break from day to day ministry that enables one to rest and retool. They can be of varying lengths, but most are six months in length. As diocesan priests and particularly pastors, our life is very reactive. By that I mean that the events, particularly significant events, of your lives dictate much of what we do. If someone dies, we do a funeral. If someone needs baptism, we do a baptism, and a wedding, and reconciliation, and counseling, and solution to a problem or an ear to listen, and on and on. If someone experiences a crisis we try to respond in prayer and support. If something happens to the roof, we have to oversee the fixing of that roof. If ministers need to be called forth, we call them forth. We are often trouble shooters on so many levels that it is difficult to devote creative time and energy to any particular passion or pursuit. I find that homilies and other presentations are the most regular form of creative expression for me, and too seldom is there time to be creatively proactive in other areas, because it is not uncommon for me to have several funerals, anointings and weddings, in addition to regular meetings and other Masses in ONE week as the only full-time priest here at Holy Family. A sabbatical provides an opportunity to really focus on a ministerial or spiritual project and, for me, to devote time to write extensively.
I feel that the Lord is leading me to take advantage of a sabbatical again, so I have applied and been granted one for five months beginning August 1, 2017 until Christmas. Cardinal Cupich ultimately approves a priestly sabbatical and it is very clear to him, and to me, that I will return to Holy Family at the conclusion of this sabbatical to finish my term as Pastor, which concludes in 2021. It is also clear that there will be priests to cover the sacramental and administrative needs of Holy Family Catholic Community while I am gone and I will share details of those as they become final during the next month.
The project portion of my time away will include learning more about the Renew My Church initiative that Cardinal Cupich has begun. I will travel to several other dioceses in the country where collaboration, consolidation, and area-wide planning have already taken place. These efforts reflect the changing landscape of the Catholic Church in America, particularly in dioceses that include a large urban area like Chicago that was built on the ethnic model of Church. In other words, parishes were established under completely different circumstances (many built for a certain ethnic and language group exclusively that had immigrated to the United States) and at a vastly different time in history. I truly believe that the Renew My Church initiative will revitalize faith communities and lead to a healthier experience of parish life based on TODAY’S reality of life and faith, and TOMORROW’S, not yesterday’s. But I also feel that we have begun to learn and we can learn from others who have gone through similar initiatives.
My plan is to interview parish leadership and parishioners in other dioceses and simply listen to their feedback regarding what went well and what we should avoid in the process of collaboration and consolidation. It is similar in structure to my 1998 sabbatical in that I spent time at parishes and learned a lot of other things about Church, faith and spirituality. I listened to people’s stories, saw God’s presence in them, and I hope to do so again.
In addition, I will have an academic component to my time away which will lead me to learn about changing leadership styles in the church and in corporate life. This will be done as an independent study. I will write a lot because I know that I have at least two books in me that need time to come out, and I will travel some, but limited almost exclusively to the United States.
Sabbatical is a gift that provides people with an opportunity to focus on a passion. I have a passion to learn about Church—changing and emerging models of Church rooted in people’s spiritual needs. Change is most often a significant challenge for people. One reality is that Church and Catholicism are changing in America. I have a passion to learn about Church, and particularly leadership in the Church. I believe that these are critical aspects of the communal spiritual experience through which we experience God’s love and grace. Leadership and Church can be profound formative forces in the ongoing expression of the spiritual part of our world. I want to take some time to focus on these so I can return to you with new learning and insights. I am very grateful for this opportunity. I will miss you all while I am away, but I look forward to a great spring and summer with you before I go.
Please join me in congratulating Deacon Dennis Brown who celebrates 29 years of ordained ministry this weekend, and almost 100 of our teens who will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation on Sunday as we welcome Bishop George Rassas to celebrate the liturgy.