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December 11, 2022
Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday)

Dear Friends in Christ,

Magnificat anima mea Dominium,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

Luke 1:46-47

Today, as we celebrate Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, I am moved to reflect upon the beautiful account of the Visitation from the Gospel of Luke. After the announcement by the angel Gabriel, Mary goes in haste to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who rejoices in seeing her. Even the child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, leaps with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. This simple encounter between Mary, Elizabeth, and the children they are carrying in utero brings a special focus to the gifts of faith, presence, and relationship. As women of faith, their daily lives are centered on God and in accomplishing His will. Present not only to one another but to the Almighty, the Spirit reveals to Elizabeth what words cannot – Mary’s extraordinary maternity. Their familial relationship gives them a common history and a shared concern for their future, both as kinfolk and as Jews.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s initial greeting is known as the Magnificat. A humble witness to the grandeur and greatness of God, the Blessed Mother responds to joy with joy, rejoicing in God her savior. Joy is a feeling that is beyond mere happiness: joy elevates the spirit and leads us closer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On this Third Sunday of Advent, we can look to the encounter between these women to guide us during this season of preparation, and indeed, throughout our lives. Through the Visitation, Mary and Elizabeth come to a greater realization of their roles in the fulfillment of God’s plan.

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, in fact, is a prelude to Jesus’ mission and, in co-operating from the beginning of her motherhood in the Son’s redeeming work, she becomes the model for those in the Church who set out to bring Christ’s light and joy to the people of every time and place.
Pope Saint John Paul II, General Audience, 2 October 1996

Called into a personal relationship with the Almighty, it is impossible for Mary and Elizabeth to keep the Good News to themselves! Faith is something that is embraced individually, but it naturally has a communal dimension which elicits the reflection of the light of Christ and the emotion of the joy of Christ. As people of faith, Mary and Elizabeth are models of individual holiness and spiritual fellowship in community. During their time of accompaniment in the Hill Country of Judea, I am confident that they pondered God’s presence in their lives, what His Revelation would mean, and how His plan would unfold, rejoicing in their hopes and dreams for the people of God. Through their intercession, may each of us contemplate the light and joy of Christ – Emmanuel, God is with us – and share these gifts as witnesses of peace and hope.

THE PAST AS PROLOGUE: FAITH, PRESENCE, RELATIONSHIP

A little over 18 months ago, our Diocesan family embarked on a missionary journey throughout the vast geography of South Georgia. Announced in my pastoral letter of Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021, the Reflect+Renew+Rejoice planning initiative was designed to assess what we as the local Church were doing well, where we needed improvement, and how to best focus our resources over the next five years. Coincidentally, in October of 2021, the universal Church under the leadership of Pope Francis commenced the world-wide Synod on Synodality, a three-year journey of dialogue and listening which corresponded well with our own Reflect+Renew+Rejoice initiative.

The first phase of our planning process, Reflect, included 22 Listening Sessions held throughout our Diocese in the fall of 2021. The thoughts, feelings, and hopes expressed in these sessions were then assimilated in small group conversations during the Renew phase. An overview of the accompaniment carried out in these phases was presented in our Diocesan Synthesis for the Synod, submitted to the episcopal conference in June of this year. (To review all materials referenced as part of Reflect+Renew+Rejoice and the Synod on Synodality, visit www.diosav.org/reflect-renew-rejoice.)

Much was gleaned from the listening sessions and the small groups, and I would like to thank everyone who participated in and prayed for the success of the planning initiative. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we were brought together by the bonds of faith, by our common history and by our concern for the future. We were able to be present to and for one another, open to the Holy Spirit and to the fulfillment of God’s plan. I look forward to continuing our journey together. Let us go forth to share the Good News, trusting in God’s providential love for our Diocesan family.

OUR CALL TO DISCIPLESHIP

In reviewing the summary of the Reflect+Renew+Rejoice initiative as presented in the Diocesan Synthesis for the Synod, I believe you will conclude that all of us share a desire for a deeper relationship with God. As individuals, we yearn for an intimate relationship with Christ, the Word made flesh. As the Church, we celebrate our Catholic faith in communion, called together in this time and in this place to love one another as He loves us.

Today I wish to share with you a brief framework to help you deepen your personal call to discipleship, and then Five Areas of Focus that we will be concentrating on to help us grow together as a Diocesan family.

First, our call to discipleship is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

In all of his life Jesus presents himself as our model. He is “the perfect man”, who invites us to become his disciples and follow him. In humbling himself, he has given us an example to imitate, through his prayer he draws us to pray, and by his poverty he calls us to accept freely the privation and persecutions that may come our way. (CCC 520)

By virtue of our Baptism, our personal and intimate relationship with Christ is primary in fulfilling our mission to be disciples on earth and future citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, as Christ’s followers we are invited to direct our thoughts, words, and actions toward Him who is our model and sacrificial example.

Christ’s disciples are to conform themselves to him until he is formed in them (cf. Gal 4:19). “For this reason we, who have been made like to him, who have died with him and risen with him, are taken up into the mysteries of his life, until we reign together with him.”
(LG 7 § 4). (CCC 562)

If we are serious about our call to discipleship, then we must acknowledge our love and reverence for Christ and be committed to knowing, loving, and serving Him through prayer and action.

Discipleship: Seeking God Personally

While the journey of discipleship is different for every person, it has at its heart the desire to seek the face of God, who is the source of all Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Through Word and Sacrament, we strengthen our relationship with Christ and the Church. Specifically, during this time of Eucharistic Renewal, we are given the opportunity to deepen our love for the mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist through the Truth of our teaching, the Beauty of our worship, and the sheer Goodness of our accompaniment of persons in poverty and those who are vulnerable. As your Shepherd, I encourage you to seek God by taking the opportunity every day to:

Discover Beauty… by entering into the presence of God.

  • Acknowledge the gift of mystery
  • Relish His precious gift of grace
  • Marvel at His mercy and compassion
  • Talk to Him conversationally in prayer

How does the Church help to Discover Beauty? Through a commitment to Liturgy and Worship that brings light and joy to the heart, mind, and soul.

Understand Truth… by understanding the faith.

  • Acknowledge the gift of mystery
  • Form a faith-based conscience through spiritual reading and the study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
  • Devote time to the reading of Sacred Scripture

How does the Church help to Understand Truth? Through the ministries of Formation and Catechesis that uncover the beauty and richness of our Catholic faith.

Inspire Goodness… by fostering relationships of faith, hope, and charity.

  • Acknowledge the gift of mystery
  • Care for the least, the last, and the lost
  • Practice good stewardship of God’s gifts and honor His creations

How does the Church help to Inspire Goodness? Through an encouragement to Outreach and Mission that seeks to serve Christ by serving others.

I invite you to grow in faith and walk with me as a witness to God’s love, a follower of Christ, as we daily seek opportunities to Discover Beauty, Understand Truth, and Inspire Goodness.

Discipleship: Celebrating Our Faith as a Community

My friends, while God has called us together here and now to grow in our individual journey of discipleship, we were not created to live in isolation. Our common set of beliefs proclaimed in the Apostles’ Creed and our commitment to following Jesus Christ binds us to one another in community. Opportunities for connection and relationship exist within our parishes and Diocese ranging from small prayer groups to parish ministries to ecclesial movements, all of which unite us with the Universal Church. Having embraced the Good News, we are naturally called to share that same Good News with others. We are not called to be mere individual consumers of our Catholic faith; rather, we must learn to be sharers (witnesses) of it so that ongoing conversion is of paramount importance in our homes, cities, Diocese, nation, and world. Our Diocese is blessed with Priests, Deacons, those in Consecrated Life, and many lay leaders who are committed to working to build communities that reflect a strong foundation in Christ. However,

…all of us are called to mature in our work as evangelizers. We want to have better training, a deepening love and a clearer witness to the Gospel. In this sense, we ought to let others be constantly evangelizing us. But this does not mean that we should postpone the evangelizing mission; rather, each of us should find ways to communicate Jesus wherever we are.
(Evangelii Gaudium, 121)

In identifying needs and examining opportunities for growth in communal discipleship within our Diocese, I have identified Five Areas of Focus for the next five years, each with specific areas of concentration. These are:

Evangelization

  • Empower Catholics to live their baptismal call through the development of a personal relationship with Christ
  • Promote a culture of life that respects the dignity of every person
  • Prioritize catechesis, formation, and pastoral care for every age, stage, vocation, and walk of life
  • Recognize the cultural plurality of our Diocese and welcome all persons into active participation in the Body of Christ
  • Emphasize the understanding of family as the domestic Church to engage with parents as the primary catechists of their children, whether in Catholic schools, parish religious education programs, or home school families
  • Study the availability and affordability of a Catholic education
  • Examine academic support and formation programs for exceptional learners
  • Promote the cause of Friar Pedro de Corpa and Companions (The Five Friars of Georgia), imploring their intercession in marriage and family life
  • Inspire hospitality and welcome to those who do not worship on a regular basis
  • Develop models for small group ministry
  • Offer customized and unique attention to individual parishes and schools in the work of evangelization and discipleship

Clergy and Consecrated Life

  • Develop a culture of vocational discernment
  • Facilitate priestly fraternity
  • Enhance continuing education for Clergy
  • Care for retired Priests
  • Evaluate formation for the permanent diaconate
  • Expand the presence of those in Consecrated Life

Outreach/Catholic Charities

  • Rethink the “identity” and structure of Catholic Charities within the Diocese
  • Identify underserved communities
  • Tangibly communicate service opportunities, activities, and their subsequent impact

Parish Vibrancy

  • Assist parishes with identifying and meeting needs
  • Establish rubrics to measure growth and sustainability
  • Create partnerships between urban and rural parishes
  • Identify opportunities for mission and rural ministry

Properties and Preservation

  • Treasure the past while building for the future: parishes, schools, cemeteries/columbaria
  • Cultivate parish endowments
  • Engage in preliminary planning for a geographically centered Diocesan Retreat Center

These Five Areas of Focus for the next five years are an attempt to prioritize areas of growth and improvement in our Diocese. The great work and ministries of the Church that comprise the foundation for our Catholic faith in South Georgia will continue. I believe, though, that it is important to have a ‘roadmap’ to challenge us in our mission. At each of our Listening Sessions, we prayed the following…

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.

taken from The Romero Prayer by Bishop Ken Untener

While we cannot address every concern that was brought forward in the Reflect+Renew+Rejoice planning initiative, I hope that as we look to the next five years as a Diocesan family we will work together to do things well. Please look for updates through our Diocesan communications (website, Southern Cross, social media) that will keep you informed of our progress in the Five Areas of Focus and engage your prayerful support as we grow together in our call to be missionary disciples.

THROUGH HIM,
WITH HIM,
IN HIM.

At the beginning of the Reflect+Renew+Rejoice initiative, I promised that the end result would not be a “doorstop” – a plan-filled binder that would grow dusty before it could be implemented. Rather, the goal has always been to develop a plan that challenges us to Christ-centered growth in faith, hope, and love…and of course, joy! All that we are and all that we do should be focused not on an event or a timeline, but on a person: Jesus Christ. Through Him, With Him, and In Him, we respond personally and communally to our call to discipleship. Along the way we will encounter God’s grace in celebrated and outward ways, but also in His quiet whisper (I Kgs 19:12) and gentle manner. Today I invite you to join me as an active participant in this journey, drawing closer to God and to one another as we continue to build the Kingdom of God in the Diocese of Savannah.

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting by pronouncing that her soul “magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46). Please join with me in imploring the intercession of Mary, Mother of God, to guide, guard, and protect the faithful of our Diocese. May she inspire us to look to the future with hope. As she always pointed the way to Christ, we too can follow her example by embracing our personal call to discipleship and “magnifying” the Lord by our thoughts, words, and actions.

At every Mass, I ask for your prayers for me and for those who minister in the vineyard of the Lord in the Diocese of Savannah. In a special way, I appreciate that you whisper my name to the Almighty so that I may be the Shepherd, the Bishop, that you need and deserve. Please know that I remember you each day in my prayers, my conversations, with God. May we meet each day in our prayers and Rejoice in the Lord always!

In Christ,

Most Reverend Stephen D. Parkes
Bishop of Savannah

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