Dear parishioners in Christ,
Last week, the priests of our diocese gathered at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York with Bishop Robert Brennan and all our other bishops. The occasion was the Priests Convocation which takes place every three years. We came together to renew the bonds of priesthood that unite us in our apostolic mission to serve God’s people.
The Convocation was a big success, with several hundred priests attending, and the weather could not have been better. Every day there was bright sunshine. For most of us, returning to the place that has been our home during the formation years was also a happy occasion that brought back many beautiful memories. It felt as though the Seminary has not changed at all after my Ordination twenty-one years ago. I still recognized my favorite places in the vast campus, even my own imprints in some of the chapel decorations that are still there. The lively conversations with brother priests brought back vivid memories of the men and women who have become foundational to the person that I am today.
I must admit that it was not easy for me to set aside three days for attending the Convocation, given my busy schedule at our parish. I have had to make all kinds of arrangements in order to free up time. Nevertheless, I was glad and grateful that I came. During those days, we followed the example of the Apostles. Scripture tells us that after Jesus sent them on their mission of preaching, and casting out demons and curing the sick, they came back to him and reported all they had done and taught. It was then that Jesus said to them, “You must come away…and rest by yourselves” (Mk 6: 31). I knew I needed those days of rest. I needed to refocus and recharge my energy. As I spoke to my brother priests, I realized that all of us needed quiet interludes of rest and prayer, of reflection and recreation from our hectic lives, away from the noise and constant activities of the parish. In fact, I believe that all of us, regardless of our vocations in life, need to set aside some quiet time for ourselves if we are to grow in a deeper relationship to the Lord.
One of the most moving moments for me during the Convocation was the experience of concelebrating daily Mass with the bishops and the priests from all age groups and cultures. When the words of the consecration resounded in the rustic chapel of the Seminary, I was moved to tears, deeply touched by a sense of priestly unity, mission and purpose. My heart was filled with gratitude for the gift of priesthood, and for the generosity of priests who offer their lives every day for others. Most of those priests are no longer young; many are already retired from administration yet are still working; some have left even their own parents and fatherland to come here to serve. Their unique stories of joy and sacrifice inspired me.
The formal presentations during those days focused our attention on the need to cultivate friendships and fraternity among priests, who often find themselves ministering in isolated, needy and even hostile environment. I thought that the organizers could not have picked a better topic for us to reflect on. Our culture, unfortunately, is becoming more isolationist. The current pandemic has certainly not helped the situation. We are disintegrating ever more rapidly and becoming more polarized — this is evident in our Church and our national politics. What fraternity does is to allow for the diffusion of ideas in a safe environment among those with natural bonds. Fraternity allows for conversation, and conversation, especially holy conversation, allows for the cooling of passions and the redirection of energies onto a common goal. Certainly, we all need this, but our clergy especially need to be frequently engaging in holy conversation and fraternity. It helps us to feel that we are not going at our ministry alone.
This week, Father Hung Tran and I will participate in another three-days Priests Convocation in Dallas, Texas. This Convocation will bring together more than two hundred Vietnamese American priests who are ministering in the United States. Coincidentally, the theme of this occasion will also focus on the importance of priestly fraternity. I have been invited to lead a main workshop on the canonical rights and responsibilities of parish priests. I hope to bring the experience of our parish to the conversation, especially that of living and ministering in such a vibrant and culturally diverse community as our own.
If there is one thing I took away from the Convocation last week, it is the recognition that I also need my brother priests for support and encouragement. At times, I’ve felt the temptation of isolation; I’ve felt that I can do it all and do it alone. Thank God for small humiliations! No one can live in isolation, least of all our priests who bear tremendous burdens. Father Hung and I look forward to a few days away with our brother priests, so that we can bring home greater zeal and energy to better serve you. Please say a prayer for your priests this week.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham