At times, being the editor of Catholic New York brings me to places I would otherwise have no business going. One of those times occurred this month when I went out to Huntington, L.I., to cover a retreat conference for priests of the archdiocese given by Cardinal Dolan.
Normally, Catholic New York tends to shy away from covering such conferences. But there was a good reason to go this time, as it was the first time every priest in the archdiocese has been invited to attend such a session, I was told. One-third of the priests, or 115 in number, were present at Immaculate Conception Seminary in the Diocese of Rockville Centre that first week.
Two other retreat weeks are planned for next month and the beginning of December.
On the morning of Oct. 7, Cardinal Dolan preached on a St. Peter Scripture quote, as he did at eight conferences during the Oct. 4-8 retreat. The quote—“Cast out to the deep!” (Lk 5:4-11)—was Jesus’ famous instruction to Peter on the fishing boat at sea.
The cardinal spoke to his priests in a classroom setting with a pastor’s heart and in common cause with insights gleaned from Scripture, papal teachings and his own pastoral experience. His comments, always concisely delivered, were at times expressed quite frankly while other moments were favored with his trademark humor.
With his words, “Cast out to the deep,” Jesus is “urging us to the depths of union with Him,” the cardinal told his priests. “There can be nothing shallow, superficial or half-baked about the commitment to Him,” he explained.
It can seem easier to stay in the shallow water, closer to the shore. “He expects more from us,” the cardinal said. “He’s saying I call you to heroic virtue.”
The cardinal outlined four ways to respond to Christ’s imperative. They included engaging in a deep prayer life, following St. Paul’s exhortation to never tire of doing good, cultivating a horror of sin and developing a sense of fearlessness.
I’ll briefly highlight examples Cardinal Dolan gave in explaining the last two categories. The first one came from his second-grade teacher, Mercy Sister Mary Bosco Daly. At the front of her classroom, she posted the words, “Death Rather Than Sin,” the motto of the great Salesian saint, Dominic Savio. “I never forgot that,” said the cardinal in admiration.
Shortly after, the cardinal suggested to the priests that 50 years ago one of the dangers of Catholic life was excessive scrupulosity about moral or religious issues. Today, he said, the opposite is true. “We’ve stopped looking for sin.”
In developing the fearlessness to “Cast out to the deep,” Cardinal Dolan promoted the Lord’s consistent reminder to “be not afraid,” an admonition repeated 365 times in the Bible, according to the cardinal, one for every day of the year.
“Fear is useless,” the cardinal said. “What is needed is trust…Fear keeps us in the shallow water.” The cardinal then candidly shared with his priests some things he said both are fearful about.
Father Andrew O’Connor, who is pastor of St. Mary’s parish on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, told me that being together on a retreat with his brother priests was “priceless.” The retreat-goers included priests he hasn’t seen in some time, and others he has never met who “need to be welcomed.”
The setting also brought back memories of a common experience. “It’s good to be here. It triggers thoughts about the seminary, and about making our way in this life,” he said.
Father O’Connor appreciated the way Cardinal Dolan was able to weave in his experiences in pastoral ministry “in a subtle way.”
Father Mark Vaillancourt, who is president and principal of John F. Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School in Somers and recently also became pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption parish in Katonah, enjoyed the “supportive atmosphere” as well as candid conversations and laughter with his fellow priests.
Hearing Cardinal Dolan call his priests to personal holiness and to “not be afraid” boosted those in attendance, Father Vaillancourt said.
Of his own responsibilities as a new pastor, he said, “It’s a new venture. The Lord is showing me how things are going to work.”