Pastoral visits create opportunities to listen and offer encouragement

Motivated by his interest in learning how parishes in the Diocese of Gary are answering the call to become missionary disciples, Bishop Robert J. McClory recently started a series of pastoral visits to see how parishes are continuing to operate in a post-COVID, post-Synod 2022 world.
“When I originally arrived, I had regional gatherings in each of the deaneries. That was in the first month of my arrival and COVID came within five weeks of my arrival, so my desire to be at all of our churches in the diocese was delayed,” said Bishop McClory. “Nonetheless, once we got through that period of initial severe restrictions, I was able to return to the celebration of Mass at all of our parishes. That was a great blessing to at least be able to experience some aspect of the Mass and church life in all of our church buildings.”
The notion of a pastoral visit by the bishop, however, is more comprehensive. Bishop McClory shared that before he arrived in the Diocese of Gary, Bishop Donald J. Hying had begun some parish visitations to explore the response to Synod 2017, but was only able to make a handful of those before he was reassigned to the Diocese of Madison. Similarly, after the conclusion of Synod 2022, Bishop McClory made it one of his commitments to return to the parish visitation model. 
Bishop McClory said the visits are a way for him to encourage the parishes as they continue their planning following Synod 2022 and is also “a deeper personal engagement on my part and it allows me to be more immersed in the life of our parishes.”
“I see it as an opportunity to encourage our parish leadership, to support our pastors and our priests and our deacons,” he added. “It’s also a chance for me to learn and experience more deeply the history, the depth, and the vibrancy of our parishes.”
During the Synod 2022 process, parishes within the diocese initiated a period of formation of their key leaders on the principles of missionary discipleship. All parishes were given a series of assessment questions relative to being a disciple and a missionary, and how these principles can be lived out within parishes. They were then asked to draft a plan that would seek to advance missionary discipleship and enhance the life of the parish.
“My visitations are a way to understand how the parish’s plans are coming along as well as to listen, to understand where the parish is at, where they hope to be, and how I can support them,” he said. 
Most of the initial eight parish visits have included some exposure to one of their ministries or apostolates, a celebration of Mass and an opportunity to meet with key parish leaders. 
Bishop McClory said he came into the visits looking forward to hearing firsthand how the parishes were reacting to Synod 2022 and the call to missionary discipleship. He noted that “parishes have responded well.” He also acknowledged that parishes are still dealing with the disruptions of COVID and “that they’re all looking at ways as to how to continue to reach out to those we haven't seen back in the pews since COVID came.”
“People love their parishes and are very proud of their parishes,” he said. “I’m impressed by the warmth and the generosity of the faithful not just in their material resources but in their commitment to our various ministries. It’s been beautiful to see how much our laypeople love their priest, and how much they want to grow as a parish.”
According to Bishop McClory, some of the highlights of his visits to parishes have been accompanying priests to the sick and homebound to offer the sacraments stating that, “having that exposure to those very personal needs has been a blessing.”
He continued, “I’ve had beautiful interactions with schoolchildren who were very excited to have the bishop come to their parish. I’ve been able to go to parish catechetical programs for youth and often it's been combined with the sacrament of confirmation. I’ve been to senior outreach programs, to clothing centers and resale shops.”
Father Doug Mayer, pastor of St. Paul in Valparaiso, said he was pleased to share with the bishop some of the success and areas of growth of the parish’s school. He highlighted some of the programs tied to missionary discipleship which include an Edge Middle School Program, Life Teen Ministry, and the cosponsorship of two Theology Uncorked for young Catholics. In addition, he shared details of the many adult spiritual programs of the church ranging from retreats in English and Spanish to Bbible studies. 
“Having so many parish leaders of our ministries and our hard-working staff, gathered with our bBishop, was such a humbling experience,” said Father Mayer. “The Easter mystery of our risen Lord was made present. Bishop McClory chose to make his pastoral visit on the night he would confirm our teens. As we concluded the day with the celebration of Mass and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, I could only marvel at the mystery of being one of the living stones with my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Bishop McClory pointed out that almost all the parish visits have included some level of time for anyone in the parish who wants to be able to meet him. “I like asking questions, listening to their answers and offering some words of encouragement,” he said.
While not all the parish visits have been scheduled, Bishop McClory expects the majority will be done this year with a few remaining to be done next year.
“I have tried to be very flexible in terms of the format and how the parish wants to structure it,” he said. “My parish visits have been anywhere from four hours to 24 hours.”
Bishop McClory concluded by saying it's a high priority for him to be very visible and engaged with the members of the faithful, adding that the parish visits are just one means of doing that. He also expressed his appreciation for the work done by each of the deans representing the four deaneries of the Diocese of Gary who often gather the priests to address any needs at that level. 
“The joy of the people of God is quite beautiful to see,” he said. “I feel that I’m in a privileged position in that I’m able to experience the joy of our parish families and how much they love their parishes. Parishioners have a healthy pride in their parishes. They were all given a chance to reflect on challenges, but underlying all that is a sense of joy and hope.”