Proximity and Nearness: A Report from Day 3 of the AUSCP Annual Assembly

The imagery of Teilhard de Chardin, subject of a documentary film screened Tuesday evening at the annual assembly of the Association of US Catholic Priests (ASUSP), flowed into Wednesday morning’s opening prayer in a passage taken from Laudato Si’: “Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: ‘Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world’” (236).

The assembly convened on Monday June 24 in Lexington, Kentucky, and will run through Thursday June 27. Its theme is “Eucharist: Sacrament of Encounter.”

Wednesday’s keynote was delivered by Dr. Kim R. Harris, assistant professor of African American Thought and Practice in the theology department at Loyola Marymount University. Ellie Hidalgo of Discerning Deacons, a recipient of the AUSCP’s St. John XXIII Award in 2023, introduced Dr. Harris and welcomed Catholic women from the Lexington area who were invited to participate in small-group discussions with AUSCP members after the keynote.

The title of Dr. Harris’s talk was “You Can Tell the World! Testimony as a Gift We Share from Our Eucharistic Encounter.”

“Testimony is a part of who we are as Catholic Christian people,” she said.

Dr. Harris identified five major ways of testimony or witness to one’s faith, represented by the acronym PIESS: Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Social, and Spiritual. She reminded attendees that “we witness to those inside our faith tradition as well as outside.”

“We need to encourage each other to think of ourselves as witnesses, and then we need to tell other people about it,” she said.

Speaking on the form of spiritual testimony, she noted that “many times it will be without words.” She encouraged attendees to identify and respond to people who are “preaching the gospel without words” and to recognize the power of their ministry and witness.

“How do you share your testimony of faith in a way that touches others?” she asked. She noted that the simple act of assembling together, as attendees had chosen to do, was itself a kind of testimony.

“You deepen your faith as you live it,” she added.

During a Q&A session moderated by Hidalgo, Dr. Harris addressed a question on overcoming clericalism by advising that we “know ourselves” and “pay attention to our own heritage and culture.”

Thinking about “the gifts and challenges of your culture” and how “it has formed you in your priesthood and vocation” will help individuals better understand what they are bringing into relationships, she said.

To another question on increasing opportunities for women’s ministry, Dr. Harris suggested that priests gather “conversation partners” for their homily preparation. Using the lectionary, these “partners” could reflect on the week’s readings and communicate to priests “how they are received by a diversity of people.”

On Wednesday afternoon, assembly attendees traveled to St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, the first historic black Catholic Church for the Convington Diocese that joined to the Lexington Diocese in 1988.

St. Peter Claver recently completed the second of a two-phase renovation program. As part of the renovations, the original church building was demolished. Architectural elements from that building, including a series of stained-glass windows, have been incorporated into the new church sanctuary.

Additionally, the new altar was intentionally placed in the identical location of the old one—a kind of visual metaphor for the way tradition develops around a common point of reference.

Presiding over the Mass was Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv. Dr. Harris, switching roles from her morning keynote, served as cantor along with Stephen Michael Elery. Deacon James Weathers welcomed AUSCP attendees to the parish.

Bishop Stowe praised St. Peter Claver for its “witness of hospitality,” even in times when African American parishioners were not always welcomed by the surrounding community.

“I don’t know a bolder group than the AUSCP, and I don’t know a bolder parish than St. Peter Claver,” he said.

In his homily, Bishop Stowe drew on the notion of vicinanza, or “nearness,” a favored Italian term of Pope Francis.

This sense of nearness, of “getting your hands dirty” or “smelling like the sheep,” is a key of living out the Eucharist, he said. This means “getting close to all people no matter their background, status, orientation, or gender,” he said.

He exhorted listeners “to take the Eucharist seriously enough to lay down our lives for others.”

An evening banquet featured the presentation of the 2024 St. John XXIII Awards, an annual award given to those who live out the values and ministry espoused by the AUSCP. This year’s honorees were Archbishop John Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and Sr. Marge Eilerman, OSF, who has served in pastoral and social outreach in eastern Kentucky for over 30 years.

In his remarks upon accepting the award, Archbishop Wester praised the AUSCP for “the way you pray and listen to one another.”

“There is so much to admire in how much you give of yourselves,” he said. “That’s the heart and soul of the AUSCP, its relationships.”

“A good bishop is formed by the priests,” he added, “and I think you’ve formed me.”

Sr. Eilerman said that the AUSCP has “done marvels” for the church. “I don’t know how to thank you for that,” she said. “Just know that it’s true.”

She was not accepting the award solely for herself, she said, but “for the countless people who need to remember that they too serve as a vessel for God’s love and Eucharist.” ♦

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

Image: Scenes of life at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, Lexington, Kentucky, June 26, 2024 / Photos by Michael Centore

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