Approximately eighty-six priests and I have just completed the annual convocation when we get together for prayer, fraternity, and continuing education. From time immemorial, these annual convenings have taken place in a hotel/motel beginning with a Holiday Inn originally in Plant City and in more recent years at the hotel at Sable Park which has changed franchise at least four times in my fifteen years. But, this year, the majority of the priests stayed at the Bethany Center where we have fifty-three private rooms, others stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn, fifteen minutes away at FL 54 and the Suncoast Parkway and a few commuted to and from their rectories. Our topic this year was “Cultivating Unity” which had two aspects: unity among the priests and unity of the priests with their bishop (moi). We are the twenty-first diocese to contract with NOCERCC (National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy) and with CARA (Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate) who guide and lead the sessions based on input and feedback provided by the priests in advance of the convening through a long questionnaire and focus groups. We currently have 203 active and retired priests in the diocese who were mailed the questionnaire and 127 responded for a 63% response rate. Thirty-four of the priests attended one of the two listening sessions and a CARA representative interviewed me for about an hour. Because these same two groups have conducted the same interviews and measurement process in twenty-one other dioceses, they now have a statistical sampling to compare our priests and the sense of unity with one another and with myself against a larger Church.
Fifty-nine percent of the priests indicated that they felt the unity among themselves was either somewhat strong or very strong and eighty-two percent said that morale among the priests is high. Perhaps the best news is that ninety-five per cent of the priests indicated satisfaction with their lives as priests. It would be too self-serving of me as the author of this blog to interpret both the data and the days together about the priests’ perception of their relationship with me as their bishop, but it was wonderfully affirming of my presence the past fifteen and one half years, and I will leave it at that. The fathers had four opportunities to discuss among themselves both the survey results and what they might mean for their ministry and for mine. Worries and anxieties tended to settle on the amount of work occasioned by the reduction in the number of priests, the poor position in which they perceive the diocese to be in for serving the rapidly growing Hispanic Catholic population, and some possible initiatives currently being discussed such as a capital funds drive and an initiative to save and/or strengthen Catholic schools. That comprised the work element of our time together.
I have not seen the evaluations of this year’s convocation but I would be very surprised if the presence, wisdom and insights of our Spiritual Moderator, Bishop Paul D. Etienne of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming were not off the charts. Again in the interest of transparency, Bishop Etienne and I have been friends for twenty-seven years now and you may recall that I preached at his episcopal ordination two years ago, December 9, 2009. Bishop Etienne spoke to us in homiletic fashion at Mass and Morning and or Evening Prayer each day. Yesterday as we were breaking up to leave for home, one priest after another came up to him to thank him for his presence, to wish him well, and say good-bye, they hope only for a while. I began the practice of asking bishop friends to be present and help us during these convocations for several reasons, not the least of which is that sometimes the office of bishop often seems defined by the governance or administration phase and the sacramental phase, notably presence at confirmations and other significant calendar moments. Some bishops though not this one has a wealth of wonderful theology to share but seldom have an opportunity to do so. That’s why over the fifteen convocations which I have been present for, with the concurrence of the planning committee, I have invited bishops to serve as Spiritual Moderators. They also hear confessions and make themselves available to any priest who wishes to see them. Bishop Etienne was simply wonderful at that. Like myself he writes a regular blog to his people, often rich in spiritual insights (sadly unlike myself) and if you would like to take the measure of the bishop servant who spent four days with your priests, you can access him by http://bishopsblog.dioceseofcheyenne.org. Read him after you have read here. I am so proud to be a friend of Bishop Paul and I use this moment to thank him.
Finally, the annual convocation is a major event of planning and execution. For twenty years, Father Michael O’Brien has chaired the committee which works long and hard in advance and during the week to see that we are care for in every conceivable way. I wish to thank Father Mike who is finishing his work (he is now a “Dean” of his deanery) and his committee as well as our outside guests, Father Stephen Fichter of CARA, Father Mark Hession of NOCERCC and Trish of NOCERCC for their invaluable contribution and presence during these days.