‘Read the Experiences of Life’

One clear way in which God speaks is through letters

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Bonnar (new)When I was a Catholic high school student, I vividly remember our morality teacher saying, almost like a daily mantra, “Read the experiences of life.” What he was telling us students was to prayerfully take time and consider how God was speaking to us in our everyday lives. The point was that God is always speaking to us, and, for our part, we need to be attentive.

That message, even though delivered to me as a high school student, is something that is just as real and important now. I continue to strive every day to “read the experiences” of my life, to hear God’s voice, and to see his presence so that I might live in accordance with his will and grace.

God speaks to us in myriad ways. It is not just the stirrings inside our hearts or the voice in our minds that emanate from a solid prayer life, but also the many events of our lives that unfold within the context of family, relationships and strangers. We certainly cannot put a limit on God’s communication devices. God places messages in our inboxes every day.

Historically, one clear way in which God speaks is through letters. I am not referring to the letters of the alphabet, but rather letters written and sent from one person to another. Or, in the case of St. Paul, from one person to a particular community.

The Christian tradition is replete with letters. I am referring not only to the letters in the sacred Scriptures, but the letters passed on through time from saints, popes, bishops, pastors and others. We encounter some of these letters every day at holy Mass or in the Office of Readings.

Popes and bishops often utilize an encyclical or a pastoral letter, respectively, to address the People of God on a specific subject. As a new bishop, I have found great wisdom and direction in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). As a young priest, I always looked forward to Pope John Paul II’s Holy Thursday Letters to Priests. Indeed, letters can be inspirational and thought-provoking. Letters are an integral part of our Catholic lives as priests.

Before I was ordained a priest, I remember being on a retreat in which the director shared with us seminarians a letter addressed corporately “To the Ordinands.” The letter focused on the high priest in the Letter to the Hebrews: “He is able to deal patiently with the arrogant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness” (5:2). The gist of the letter addressed to us was, “Are you weak enough to be a priest?” I will never forget that letter with its poignant question, for, like the great high priest, we, too, are beset every day by weakness.

I forever treasure the letter I received from the bishop appointing me to my first priestly assignment, not to mention, all the letters thereafter reassigning me to a new charge. And then there was the papal bull, a letter of sorts, presented to me by the nuncio on the day of my episcopal ordination. This special letter was signed and sealed by the Holy Father and hung on the wall in my office as a reminder of my calling to be a servant of Christ and a successor to the apostles.

When I was a vicar of clergy, it was my responsibility to respond to letters on behalf of the bishop. I found this to be both interesting and challenging. In doing this work, I learned that virtually every priest, for better or worse, has a letter sent about something he did or did not do. I see this again in my new role as bishop. For the record, in full disclosure, I want you to know that the bishop receives letters too, not all of which are praiseworthy or supportive. Having been a pastor for 16 years in three different places, I can vouch that pastors receive letters. Of course, in today’s world, many of these letters come in the form of an email.

In each of these cases, the letters can be challenging and hurtful. Nevertheless, amid all the emotion, perhaps God is trying to tell us something that could be difficult to hear. We need to read the letter and, therein, “read the experience.” And, when possible, it is always the right thing to respond genuinely in a charitable way. Don’t be afraid of letters.

BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.

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