Transformative Processes: A Report from Day 2 of the AUSCP Annual Assembly

Some lines from Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Bread” that Sr. Kathleen Storms shared in her morning reflection helped set the tone for the second day of the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) annual assembly, held this week in Lexington, Kentucky: “Then life itself will have the shape of bread, / deep and simple, immeasurable and pure. / Every living thing will have its share of soil and life, / and the bread we eat each morning, everyone’s daily bread, / will be hallowed and sacred, / because it will have been won by the longest and costliest of human struggles.”

It was a sentiment that would resound throughout the day as attendees continued to ponder the theme of the assembly, “Eucharist: Sacrament of Encounter.”

Following Sr. Storms’s call to prayer, three new AUSCP members were elevated to the leadership team: B. Kwame Assenyoh, SVD, Octavio Muguerza, and Linh Nguyen. In his brief remarks, Fr. Muguerza praised the AUSCP for having “opened horizons and eyes.”

Attendees next heard reports from six of the association’s working groups: immigration, climate change, mutual support for priests, women in the church, marketing, and communications.

“We see our role primarily as pastoral,” said Fr. Ed Palumbos of the mutual support working group. Group members offer “support and a listening ear” to priests who may be dealing with loneliness, accusations of misconduct, and other ministerial challenges.

Rev. Michael Hickin of the women in the church working group said the group had a “big year” in which members continued to “receive the witness and stories of women: pain, exclusion, but also their sacred calls.” An April webinar cosponsored with Discerning Deacons that drew 1,200 people from 18 countries was a highlight, he said.

AUSCP communications director Paul Leingang introduced the morning’s keynote speaker, Fr. Tom Reese. Reese is a senior analyst at Religion News Service and former editor-in-chief of America magazine. The subject of his talk was “Eucharist for a Synodal Church: Communion, Mission, Participation.”

Reese began by noting that the ongoing Synod on Synodality, convened by Pope Francis, and the Eucharistic Revival, initiated by the US Catholic Bishops Conference (USCCB), are not necessarily in conflict. Synodality makes for a better Eucharist, while Eucharist creates and nourishes synodality, he said.

Reese gave a brief overview of synodality, which he defined as “Christians walking in communion with Christ toward the Kingdom along with the whole of humanity,” as well as the history of the events leading up to the October 2023 General Assembly of the Synod in Rome. He noted the absence of diocesan and parish priests in that assembly, which he called “a big, big mistake.”

Pope Francis’s view of the Synod is “more about process” than any written document or final report, he said. He reminded attendees that Francis’s background is not in theology but in spiritual direction, and that his focus is “more about changing the culture of the church than structures.”

Reese singled out several important points from the October Synod report, including the issue of “Eucharistic hospitality” and a review of priestly formation programs. Still, he said, the fact that several controversial issues have been referred to study groups that will not conclude work until 2025 has raised concerns that the October 2024 assembly will become “a meeting on meetings.”

Reese pivoted to the second part of his talk on the Eucharistic Revival. The Revival, he said, “is more about benediction than celebration of Eucharist” in that it focuses on personal devotion rather than the shared communal dimension.

Reese looked at the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer as one of proclaiming, offering, and—in the moment of the Epiclesis—“transforming those present into the body of Christ to continue his mission in the world.”

The Epiclesis “calls down the Spirit for communion and mission,” he said, reiterating that Eucharist and synodality are both centered on “communion, participation, and mission.”

In the Q&A session that followed, Reese rejected the idea that “Aristotelian categories” could contain the “mystery” of the Eucharist.

The church is called to use the “best thinking of our age” to interpret and explain Christianity, he said. A figure like Teilhard de Chardin, who did just this in his attempts to harmonize modern science and Scripture, was “more like Augustine and Aquinas than his critics” because he was “imitating them and not quoting them,” he said.

The reference to Chardin led naturally into the afternoon’s presentation, a screening of the documentary Teilhard: Visionary Scientist followed by discussion with filmmakers Frank and Mary Frost.

Introducing the film, Frank Frost described the Jesuit Chardin as “a man who thought outside the church” and “paid the price” with the religious authorities.

The film illustrates how a series of landscapes shaped Chardin’s vocation, beginning with the Auvergne countryside of his boyhood. Daily walks beneath its “cathedrals of trees” began the lifelong synthesis of a love of the earth with a deep sense of Catholic piety. “Auvergne molded me,” he once said.

Chardin began to experience a tension between belonging to God and belonging to the natural world. At the time, Jesuits were still formed in the theory of the “great chain of being” that placed elements of nature into a strict hierarchy. Chardin’s great insight was to see through the static quality of this hierarchy to a world where matter is energy, energy is spirit, and human beings are participants in an ever-evolving cosmic process.

The film also addresses how Chardin’s experience in the “crucible” of World War I, where he served as a stretcher-bearer transporting injured soldiers through the trenches, opened him to the reality of death and new dimensions of his thought. It was during this experience that he composed “Cosmic Life,” a testament to his belief that blurs the lines between essay, prayer, and prose poem.

“We saw that Teilhard’s vision was one that really resonates in the world we live in,” Frank Frost said in remarks after the screening. “We found in Teilhard a God we could believe in.”

For Tom Bogenschutz, who is attending the AUSCP assembly from the Diocese of Evansville (Indiana) and works with Tristate Creation Care, the film reinforced “how evolution and Scripture can coexist.”

A “simplistic” and literalist interpretation of Scripture “robs the beauty and wonder and richness of God” that Chardin’s work brings forth, Bogenschutz said. He added that “curiosity and awe” are the “portals” to rediscover our love of nature and with it a deeper religious experience. ♦

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

Image: Two views of the Hyatt Regency, site of the AUSCP assembly, from Triangle Park, Lexington, Kentucky, June 25, 2024 / Photos by Michael Centore

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  1. Nicole d'Entremont
    Nicole d'Entremont says:

    Thank you, Michael, for this reflection. What a wonderful opening quote from Pablo Neruda that Sister Kathleen Storms shared and how apt for a discussion of the Eucharist…..”When life itself will have the shape of bread/deep and simple/immeasurable and pure”. I never understood the Eucharist until I left the “Official Roman Catholic Church” in 1964 and joined The Catholic Worker Movement. I understood then the deep meaning of the breaking of bread on the Bowery in NYC. At the same time, I discovered the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. It strikes me now as rather amazing that those two simple yet cosmic elements still keep me a faithful yet errant daughter of the church. What theology blunted and dulled and dragged down in me was restored by action and the vigor of the confluence of those practical and visionary sources. If the Church is to survive it will need workers to carry on the basic pastoral work of the Church–men and women who are not afraid to break bread together.


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