By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
CHARLESTON — The challenge of ministering to a booming Catholic population with a diminishing number of priests was the focus of a two-day convocation of over 100 clergy from the Diocese of Charleston, held last week at the Francis Marion Hotel.
At the gathering, Bishop David B. Thompson gave his first public comments regarding his impending retirement. In May, the bishop turns 75, the age of retirement for bishops, according to canon law.
“On this coming May 29, the process for my ceasing to be your bishop will have begun with my forwarding my resignation from the office of bishop of Charleston to our Holy Father through the apostolic pro-nuncio,” Bishop Thompson told the assembled clergy. “I shall thank the Holy Father for having appointed me a bishop, particularly the bishop of Charleston, where I have been so happy and so very much fulfilled these past nine years.”
The bishop added that he would not ask the Holy Father to “hasten or to delay” the retirement. “His will in this matter shall be my spirituality,” he stated.
A native Pennsylvanian, Bishop Thompson also revealed that he will remain in the Charleston area once his retirement takes effect. “Once the new bishop of Charleston will have succeeded here, he will then be my bishop as well as yours. I state that I shall love him, support him, obey him, be loyal to him; I shall never oppose him, criticize him, be disagreeable toward him, unpleasant or passive aggressive. He will be my bishop, placed here by the power of the Holy Spirit, a man sent by God to the Church of Charleston.”
Bishop Thompson emphasized that the new head of the Charleston See will enter the diocese on the wave of the millennium. “We priests especially must prepare the way for the new Lord Bishop and to present him with a Church filled with and enlivened by the Spirit, a Church whose members know the meaning of their baptism, the meaning of the Christian life, what it means to be faithful disciples of Jesus.”
He concluded his remarks about the future resignation by saying, “I believe that my appointment as your bishop has been the work of the Holy Spirit, and I believe the same thing about my retirement as your bishop.”
It was then time to address the main purpose for the priestly gathering; taking care of a growing Catholic presence with fewer clergy.
“Our church, our people, need us, want us, love us. We are absolutely essential to them; nobody else but us priests can minister to them in the Eucharist and absolution and anointing; they need our preaching, our priestly kindness and concern. Given the vast changes in our Church today and fewer priests available to serve in our changed Church, we have a holy challenge,” Bishop Thompson stressed to the attendees. “I deliberately say ‘holy challenge’ because I firmly believe it is the challenge of the Holy Spirit not only to seek more vocations to the priesthood, but also to avail ourselves of God’s given gifts present in the priesthood of the baptized. The whole Church must face up to this challenge, but we priests must face it first because we have been chosen by Christ and his Holy Spirit to do so.”
To help address the challenges the diocese must face in the days and years to come, Father Lou Cameli from the Archdiocese of Chicago was brought in to lead deliberations at the convocation regarding how to provide for the faith communities in the state and how to furnish priestly service and leadership given stretched circumstances.
Father Cameli served as theologian for the Synod of Charleston and was a close co-worker with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
“I pray that we all face up to our challenge with honesty, humility, charity, fidelity, unity; that we have the spirit of sacrifice, that we really and truly believe that we are priests … that we have been ordained to serve, not to be served,” asked Bishop Thompson before the priests began their work. “I beg you to cast aside any hostility or bitterness you might be harboring; that you avoid sarcasm, cynicism, rancor, hostility, hatred, anger. Let this be a time of priestly grace.”
Father Joseph Wahl, CO, director of the Institute for Parish Leadership Development, then set the tone for the rest of the gathering with a list of assertions and “an honest appraisal” of the number of new diocesan priests needed and the expected workload per diocesan priest.
Over the next two days, the assembled priests then responded to these assertions in large and small group settings, break-out sessions, deanery discussions and panel dialogues.
At a morning Mass Jan. 15 at St. Patrick Church in Charleston for priests attending the convocation, Bishop Thompson asked parishioners to “Pray diligently today that what we do is truly the work of the Lord. People want us to reach out to them.”