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By Natalie Romano

Smiles, slaps on the back, fist bumps... it seemed like a typical gathering of coworkers, but if you looked a little closer, you’d realize it was anything but. The men, casually dressed and warmly greeting one another, were more than just colleagues, they were brothers – all 187 of them.

Those brothers, including seminarians, priests and bishops, were participating in the Diocese’s Annual Priests’ Convocation held Sept. 14-17 in Rancho Mirage. The gathering focuses on discernment and fellowship, which the priests say are particularly important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We needed this place to breathe and be together,” said Father Erik Esparza, J.C.L., pastor of The Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Redlands and Director of the Diocesan Office of Priest Personnel. “We got through this. It was hard but we got through this.”

The gathering, held at Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort, was organized by the Ministry of Continuing Formation of Priests and led by Bishop Alberto Rojas. Bishop Emeritus Gerald Barnes and Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Rutilio del Riego were also present.

“It’s a week for the priests to renew, to learn, to pray, to strengthen their relationships and really come back refreshed to their parishes,” said Bishop Rojas.

Due to coronavirus, last year’s Convocation was held virtually. So in his welcome speech this year, Bishop Rojas thanked the men for their priesthood and remarked how great it was to see their faces in person. This year’s schedule included more free time for the priests to reconnect.

“We’re able to sit down and share our experiences, our walks with Jesus,” said Father John Gunningham, who serves as a hospital chaplain. “It just becomes phenomenal.”

The theme of this year’s Convocation was “Discerning and Becoming a Diocese of Accompaniment.” National speaker and Vatican II scholar Bill Huebsch delivered the lectures. He said pastoral accompaniment means listening to people without judgement, then helping them understand what God wants.

Huebsch asked the priests to remember that people don’t usually seek help on a good day. “Nobody comes to you and says, ‘Father, I’m so happy. What do I do about it?’ ” he joked.

Huebsch, who has authored dozens of books, handed out his latest, “Promise and Hope, Pastoral Theology in the Age of Mercy.” The book gives priests tips on creating an accompanying parish.

“That’s what we’re here for, to accompany people on the journey,” said Father Ted Drennan, Administrator of St. Thomas the Apostle in Riverside. “They’re leading but we’re there to keep them on the path and ultimately in union with God. If people allow us to accompany them, it’s an honor for us as priests.”

Huebsch went on to say while priests must reinforce Catholic doctrine, they should consider how best to apply it, adding that “mercy heals.” After the lectures, the priests discussed their opinions, wrote them down on sticky notes and placed them on a wall.

“I need to temper justice with mercy,” said Father Celestine Afugwobi, Parochial Vicar of St. Thomas the Apostle in Riverside. “Whoever comes to me in the parish, I need to encounter them. I need to see them the way they are, not how I want them to be.”

Reflecting with him was Father Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku, VF, Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Rancho Cucamonga. “This is helping me to see myself as a bridge builder,” he said. “While teaching about the moral issues of the church, I need to understand the realities of the people.”

Seminarians undergoing their internship year are allowed to attend the Convocation. Bryant Rivas is serving at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Ontario and appreciated Huebsch’s emphasis on young families.

“That’s where my heart is; to work with parents and young people. I see a lot of turmoil in families today,” said Rivas, a seventh year seminarian. “It got my attention; it got me excited and enthusiastic that as a Church we’re thinking about these things.”

Special attention was also given to a different type of family: the migrant family. Bishop Rojas led a day trip to Mecca and Indio that highlighted the Diocese’s “Operation Bienvenida” and its mission to help asylum seekers. A delegation of clergy and lay leaders listened to migrants describe their grueling journeys to the United States. Bishop Rojas blessed the families and prayed with them. (For more details, see story on page 5.)

Bishop Rojas noted that many of our priests come from different parts of the world as well. At the beginning of the Convocation, Bishop Rojas invited those from international religious orders to stand up and introduce themselves.

“We belong to one institution, to one Church and yet there’s a variety, a diversity,” said Bishop Rojas. “It’s just a beautiful, rich experience to come together and learn from one another.”

While the newly ordained and the most seasoned priest may be in different places on the learning curve, both say there’s room for growth.

Father Ian Hollick, ordained in May, said he came to the convocation to “pray and play” with his brother priests. He’s also asking himself the big questions posed during the lectures.

“Now that I’ve seen three months’ worth of ministry, I can start putting some of the teachings into practice and do a little bit of theological reflection on some of the decisions I’ve made thus far,” said Fr. Hollick, Parochial Vicar of St. Martha in Murrieta. “What does it mean to practice justice? What does it mean to accompany someone?”

Retired priests in attendance say they also want to soak up the latest in religious thinking. Father Ron Rusk has been a priest for 53 years and spent many of those in prison ministry.

“I was intrigued by [Bill Huebsch’s] thoughts,” said Fr. Rusk, who is retired. “There was some pastoral theology that I never heard of before. I liked it considerably ... There’s always room for the Lord in many ways.”

When the daily prayers and lectures were over, the priests fanned out across the resort to enjoy leisure activities organized by a committee of young clergy. Like playing pool? Check out the game room. Fancy yourself a crooner? Fire up the karaoke machine. Movie buff? Pick a flick and watch in the ballroom. Sporty priests laced up their sneakers and hit the gym at nearby Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert for a game of hoops.

Organizers say they’re happy with this year’s Convocation. “I was crying when Bill (Huebsch) was finishing up,” said Dr. Antonio Medina, Director of the Diocesan Ministry of Continuing Formation of Priests. “We are planning a future together ... and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

The Convocation’s round table discussions left some of the priests wanting more.

“We need to do this frequently, at least once a month in our vicariates,” said Father Edmund Gomez, Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Chino. “We need to just be with each other, not rushing off so we can actually talk through things, even challenge each other, really be together.”

A lesson learned during the pandemic – the importance of community. “We can’t do this alone,” said Father David Andel, J.C.L., Director of the Diocesan Office of Canonical Services. “None of us is called to do it alone. We need each other.”

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.