For Archbishop Vigneron, ministry is like being a ‘holiness coach’
Detroit — On Jan. 28, 2009, the Archdiocese of Detroit received a new chief shepherd as His Excellency Allen H. Vigneron, a son of the local church, became Detroit’s archbishop. Celebrating the fifth anniversary of the occasion, The Michigan Catholic sat down with Archbishop Vigneron for a wide-ranging interview (which can be seen in its entirety on CTND) about a multitude of topics from his first five years:
MCN: In the past five years, you’ve accomplished quite a bit as archbishop, from the very successful Changing Lives Together initiative, which has raised more than $110 million, to a successful rebalancing of the archdiocese’s finances. But you’ve made clear that all of this is to prepare the archdiocese for the New Evangelization. What is the New Evangelization, and how have these efforts helped prepare us for it?
ABP. VIGNERON: I think a very simple description of the New Evangelization is that it is about re-proposing Christ. Lots of people seem to be bored by the Good News; they’re not sure it’s good anymore — and it’s about offering that again. Pope John Paul said it’s “new in method, new in ardor and new in expression.” It’s a way to get all of us to put aside our lethargy and to understand that part of being a disciple of Jesus is to share that Good News with others.
I think those two initiatives you spoke about really are about getting our community in a healthy order so that on that basis we can be better at doing our mission. That’s really what we are about. The New Evangelization is about what Jesus said at the end of the Gospel: “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
MCN: Together in Faith has been a major theme of your first five years. It’s involved some reorganizing of parishes and priorities, but you’ve really emphasized the mission and service aspects. Have you seen anything that’s encouraged you in this regard?
ABP. VIGNERON: I have seen things I find very encouraging. One of the things, as you say, is to bring mission to the forefront and escape simply being about maintenance. Yes, we have to maintain our resources and identity, but this is all about what God expects us to do, and really, what He wants to give to the people of southeast Michigan through His church.
What God wants of us is for our community to be alive, for the parishes to be a place where disciples are gathered together and nourished in their faith, and then are moved out to invite others to come and share what we have. I think in particular that means places that are supportive of Christian family life. We live in a world that has such a different cultural attitude toward human sexuality and human family life than what we have.
One of the great fruits of that will be a rebirth of vocations. We don’t just have a problem with priestly vocations or vocations to the sisterhood or brotherhood — we have a problem with all vocations. Lots of young people are not getting married, or when they do get married, they don’t think about it as a life vocation. If our communities and parishes are vibrant, we’ll be able to help the next generation take up their place in the world in a way that is a life of discipleship.
MCN: Along that theme of stronger families is solid Catholic education. You’ve said you believe there needs to be a “re-launching” of Catholic schools in the archdiocese. Has there been any movement toward that, and what’s your vision for Catholic education?
ABP. VIGNERON: I think the most important piece in a re-launch is a renewed conviction that Catholic schools are the responsibility of the whole Catholic community of southeast Michigan; it’s an apostolate that the Church is responsible for.
Schools are not just a place where we have some religious education along with everything else. Education is always about helping people prepare for their life’s work. A Catholic education presents that preparation in the total religious context, so it’s an important way for people to prepare for their Christian vocation.
We’ve got in place, I think, certain administrative structures to help move this forward, and besides getting the right people to think about how to do it — that’s one of my jobs as a leader — the other is to ask, invite and call people to be invested and put new energy into this. I think we are making good progress, and I’m particularly grateful for the help I’m getting from the parish priests. There are different opinions about the right way to go about it, but the priests are very much behind me and with me in advancing this. Even just starting is a great achievement, and it’s part of this recognition that we’re in a new place. That’s what the New Evangelization says — we can’t just do it the way we did 100 years ago. We’ve recognized that and we’re trying to deal with it. God will help us.
MCN: Of course all vocations need our support and prayers, but especially vocations to the priesthood. You recently published a letter saying Sacred Heart Major Seminary had more seminarians enrolled now than at any time in the past 40 years. Does that encourage you, and what is the state of vocations here in the archdiocese?
ABP. VIGNERON: It does encourage me, and it’s a sign that there is a renewal of interest in the priesthood, and more people are responding to God’s call. What is of particular concern is that the majority of those students are not for the Archdiocese of Detroit. We need more sons of the archdiocese to hear God’s call. I have absolute confidence that God is calling to the priesthood enough men to serve not only our diocese, but things like the military archdiocese and the missions overseas. We need to make it easier for those who are called to hear. We don’t have a “call” problem; we have a “hearing” problem, and we have to keep working at that.
I think part of it is we need to rediscover even the meaning of the priesthood of Jesus himself. That celibacy is a way to imitate the virginity of Jesus, a self-giving that he made for the love of the Church, and men are invited to share in that self-gift of Christ. And I think that puts the call in a very illuminating perspective. Our Lord tells us, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers,” and I believe He will.
MCN: The financial and economic struggles of the city of Detroit have been well-documented, and you’ve said you believe the Catholic Church can help lift up the city and be part of the solution in Detroit. In what ways do you see the Church being able to provide that message of hope?
ABP. VIGNERON: One way that the faithful of the archdiocese do provide a great deal of help is what we might call “emergency stop-gap help.” I think of something like the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and all the soup kitchens, all of the clinics and the ways that people volunteer to be of assistance to those who find themselves at the margin. All of us priests encourage people and help them do that.
I think a very important long-range gift the Church makes is to encourage lives of virtue. I was at a presentation last night by the dean of the business school at the Catholic University, and he made this startling claim: That living out the Church’s social teaching makes for a healthy economy. It’s true. God’s good news is about the goodness of nature and directs us about the uses of nature. So I think the Church in the long run helps encourage people to live lives of virtue, industry, integrity, self-denial, family life. I’ve been reading all sorts of statistics that say one of the major causes of poverty is the dissolution of family life. Those are ways the Church helps.
The Church helps by encouraging people to get over polarization. We’re an institution that doesn’t stop at Eight Mile, so we have a natural way that people can be connected and work together. And I think at the top of that list should be hope. The Catholic Church and other Christian communities continue to proclaim that as grim as it might be in one place or another, God is there, God hasn’t given up on us, and God will give us the strength to move forward.
MCN: One person who hasn’t ceased talking about the Church’s social obligations is our new Holy Father, Pope Francis. He’s brought a new energy and enthusiasm, and emphasized the “joy” of the Gospel. What have you taken from the example he’s set?
ABP. VIGNERON: I think this point about joy is the most important for me. He says at the beginning of (his apostolic exhortation) “Evangelii Gaudium” that he wants to help the Church in the New Evangelization to be sure to present herself as joyful. Without that, we’re not going to get anywhere in the New Evangelization.
Also, a second thing I would say is that the Holy Father works very hard not to be put in a box. There are a lot of forces in contention in our culture today, and the pope is saying that fight, as important as it might be, isn’t the exact struggle we’re engaged in. We’re about Christ, and sharing Christ especially with those who most need his message.
And then mercy. I think mercy is a really important theme for the Holy Father. I’ve been thinking about who embodies, for me, what I think the pope is talking about, and I think it’s Mother Teresa. I know I hold her life up as a kind of face for what I hear Pope Francis talking about.
MCN: Many have high hopes he will inspire people to take a second look at the Catholic Church, whether they’re lapsed or former Catholics or never given the Church a fair shake.
ABP. VIGNERON: I think it is happening exactly as you say. There are a lot of people who have written the Church off — people who think the Good News is boring, and not so very good. And he’s inviting people to look at it again. He is re-proposing Jesus. What those of us who are more regular in our practice of the faith have to do is be ready to encounter those people and to help them come to the next step beyond their initial attraction, telling them why this is so good and what our Lord wants from them.
MCN: Interfaith efforts have been important to you since you’ve been back in Detroit. What makes for good interfaith communication?
ABP. VIGNERON: I think courtesy, first of all. Mutual respect. A frank acknowledgement that there are many things on which we don’t agree, and we’re at peace with one another in that. And an acknowledgement about the many things we do have in common and being able to move forward on that basis. Even though we’re not all of one mind on everything, we all understand that we serve God by serving the common good.
MCN: On a more personal note, what is a typical day like for the archbishop of Detroit, if there is such a thing?
ABP. VIGNERON: I would say that I have three kinds of days, and they don’t always come to eight, 10 or 12 hours of work. I’ve got part of a day or a whole day that’s about the office. That’s about meetings, appointments, mail, the telephone — all kinds of communication. Dealing with people; the mail is even about dealing with people. And I try in all of those things to get a good message across, and also if it’s about a matter of deliberation, to make sure we move things forward according to our mission.
Another kind of a day is being out of the office and around the archdiocese, and that can be for a lot of things. It could be a confirmation, a visit to a high school, the funeral of one of my priests. In doing those kinds of things, I always try to celebrate the liturgies that are involved with devotion and joy, and I try to use the occasions I have for teaching. I really get a lot of joy out of those experiences.
A third kind of a day could be out of town. Two things I’m involved in that take me out of town regularly are my service on the board of the Catholic University of America and my work at the USCCB, the bishops’ conference (both in Washington, D.C.).
I usually structure the day around my prayer. If I’m home on an ordinary weekday, I usually get up very early and do an hour of meditation. When I don’t have Mass out, we have Mass here in the chapel, I get my breakfast and get on with my day. If I don’t have something in the evening, one or two of the priests I’m here with will usually say Vespers together and have a bit of fraternal time and our evening meal.
MCN: If there’s one thing you’ve learned since becoming archbishop of Detroit, what would it be?
ABP. VIGNERON: I’ve learned to be more trusting in God’s providence. I’ve been faced with things where, at the beginning, I don’t see where we’re going to go or how we’re going to manage. I try to get people to work with me who have insight and energy, and God brings great good. God has taught me to be humble and trusting in Him. I’m not saying I didn’t know any of that before, but we all need repetition, and that’s important.
I’ve also learned from a new perspective how good the priests of the archdiocese are. Certainly my whole life as a priest, except for my time in California (as bishop of Oakland), has been spent here, but I wasn’t relating to the priests in the way I do now, as the leader and archbishop. It’s given me a new and different perspective on how good our priests are.
MCN: In your homilies, writings and speeches, you seem to have a great passion for teaching the Catholic faith. Is your role as a teacher something you enjoy, and what else about your ministry gives you joy?
ABP. VIGNERON: Of all the things I do, teaching is the great satisfaction for me. It gives me great joy to be able to take what I have seen and learned about Christ in our faith and share that with other people. So yes, I love teaching and think it’s a wonderful part of any priest’s ministry.
I also like any time in my ministry when I can feel a sense of connection to someone about their relationship with Christ. There isn’t anything more sacred than the space between a soul and God, between a person and God, between the heart of a Christian — of anyone — and the heart of Christ. When I am invited into that and get to be a part of what’s happening between God and his daughter or son, that’s a great, great blessing. It’s a little like being a holiness coach.
MCN: The Eucharist is the center of life in the Catholic Church, and you’ve made very plain your personal devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. What can Catholics do to deepen their own understanding and devotion to Christ in this way?
ABP. VIGNERON: If somebody raises this question to himself or herself, it’s already an invitation from the Holy Spirit to respond. That question, even the inkling of the idea, comes from God. (My advice would be) to pay attention to it, and then take some time to be in the presence of our Lord and let that devotion develop.
Where should that begin? I feel called to this, I decided to give it some time — where do I go, what do I do? All of us have some kind of history of our experience of being with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharistic presence. I’d go back to that, to one’s earlier experience of devotion. Think about that grace, that gift, and recapitulate it and go back and ask God to revive that and make it real again.
I think the Scripture is very important in this devotion. To read the Scripture in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is to be in the presence of the One who speaks. That’s a very important way.
I would suggest something that’s very useful for me and might be for other people is help combine, blend a sense of the Blessed Sacrament with the Heart of our Lord. The Eucharist is a gift that comes from the human heart of Jesus. We all can understand that — the desire of somebody to be with the person one loves. Being with our Lord in the Eucharist is good for me as a Christian, but I think we ought to not overlook the fact that it’s something Christ wants. He wants that companionship. It should be mind-blowing to realize that while God doesn’t need me, he wants my friendship and companionship. That’s what he made me for, to be his friend. For me, that gives me a lot of inspiration in my devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and makes it very personal.
And then, of course, a person’s devotion should be well-informed by the revelation. A very easily accessed teaching on the Blessed Sacrament is found in the Catechism.
MCN: Looking ahead to the next five years, what are your hopes for the Archdiocese of Detroit?
ABP. VIGNERON: In the next five years, I’d like us all to become saints. The basic things, the things that aren’t easy to measure, but we have to keep in mind. I’d like us to become converted. I’d like us to be more wholeheartedly devoted to Christ. Translated, it means more of us should be going to Mass every Sunday. It means we should be making more use of the sacrament of confession, penance and reconciliation. I’d like our families to be healthier and more alive in what Pope John Paul called the “domestic church.” I’d like for us to have more vocations.
Perhaps for me one of the most important things in the next five years is the New Evangelization, which is really about mobilizing the whole diocese to focus and make the New Evangelization part of the fabric of our existence. It’s not about a program; it’s about changing our culture and making the archdiocese a missionary entity so that when a parish council sits down to look at their budget, they’re going to always be thinking, “What’s this have to do with the New Evangelization?” When The Michigan Catholic thinks about editorial policy and what stories we’re going to cover, one of the first questions is going to be “How does this advance the New Evangelization?” I want to make it something at the front of everybody’s mind.
Something I hope will happen in the next five years is that the Venerable Solanus Casey will be beatified. I really pray for that. There are signs that the cause is making progress. I’m not at liberty to say exactly what those are right now, but the vice postulators have told me things are looking very good.
I’m just waiting for God to do something stupendous. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I know He’ll offer me — I hope I’ll take advantage — of the grace He gives not to get in the way of whatever that great surprise is going to be. It’s God’s expectations for the archdiocese that are really more important than mine. I just want to help.