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“Vibrantly Live out the Catholic Faith”:
An Interview with Bishop Rozanski

Posted: December 19, 2019

Note: The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, was the 2019 Convocation Speaker at Thomas Aquinas College, New England.

 

What are your thoughts on bringing another Catholic college to your diocese?

When I look at the beauty of these grounds, it just cries for a presence, a human presence here. And it’s so fortuitous that Thomas Aquinas College was given this grant of the land and the buildings that are here, to bring life to it and, in keeping with the mission of Dwight Moody, maintain a Christian atmosphere. In this case it is a very Catholic atmosphere that Thomas Aquinas will bring to this campus, to the Northfield area, and to the Diocese of Springfield. To see it come together is really satisfying for me as a bishop and, I’m sure, for everybody who has been involved in this long journey.

Some of our readers may not be familiar with D.L. Moody, the 19 th century evangelical preacher who founded the school that formerly occupied our New England campus. Can you speak more about his legacy in the region?

Dwight Moody was a man of great faith. He was practically uneducated because of family circumstances. His mother was widowed when he was only 4 years old; she gave birth to twins a month after his father died. So education was not a part of his life, and yet in getting to know the Gospel, in getting to know evangelical Christianity, Dwight Moody embraced it wholeheartedly. And even though he did not have a chance at education himself, he was determined to provide that opportunity to others. That’s why he established the Northfield Mount Hermon School, so that both young women and young men would have a great education founded in Gospel values. That is also why the Chapel is such a prominent part of this campus.

For me, that speaks to the fact that the mission that Dwight Moody originally had in mind is being carried out through Thomas Aquinas College today: enlivening young people with a wonderful education imbued with the Faith, and really finding that faith transforming their lives. I think Dwight Moody found his Christian faith in his life’s transformation, and he wanted others to experience that transformation. And for Thomas Aquinas College, the faculty and students working together, that transformation is experienced in a wonderful way.

You mentioned in your Matriculation remarks that Massachusetts is, according to polls, the second-least religious state in the Union. What role can the College play in helping to re-evangelize the region?

New England is one of the most secular parts of the country. Over the years there has been such a skepticism about faith and living out religious faith that the practice of the Faith has greatly eroded. So, Thomas Aquinas College coming here, to me, is a real sign of hope, because I know of the commitment of Thomas Aquinas College — the faculty, the administration, and the students — to vibrantly live out the Catholic faith. And when we vibrantly live out the Faith, we show the beauty of the Faith. That’s the way we attract others to it.

When I have the Rite of Election each Lent, I sometimes get a chance to talk with those who are entering the Church. When I say, “What brought you to make this decision about the Catholic faith?” nobody says, “It’s a church building” or “a church structure.” What they usually say is, “You know, I am dating a young lady who’s a Catholic, and she shared her faith with me, and I really felt called to Catholicism,” or “I had this neighbor who is very active in his parish, and I just see how happy he is in life, and I wanted to be happy like that. So that’s why I became a Catholic.”

The goodness of living out our Catholicism draws people to want to become Catholic, and I find that very much here at Thomas Aquinas.

How do you explain the way that secularization has taken hold in Massachusetts, which has such deep religious roots?

Well, Massachusetts prides itself on the number of universities that are here and its emphasis on education, and we tend to think that there is a tension between faith and science. Over the years that notion has placed a gulf between people’s perceptions of rational thinking and faith, leading to the belief that the two have nothing to do with each other. It has happened slowly, and subtly the message has sunk in that education and reason are incompatible with faith.

Plus, many here look upon the Gospel and Jesus’ teachings as being restrictive: “They hamper my freedom.” There is a belief that anything that hampers my freedom, my individual freedom, is something that restricts my life. It is a misunderstanding of what the Gospel is all about, because if we really do immerse ourselves in the Gospel, it’s freeing. It’s liberating. And I think the education that is here at Thomas Aquinas College delves into the Gospel, delves into the Church Fathers, delves into the wisdom of the Church – and the students do find that message very freeing for them.

What is your advice to the College as a new neighbor in the region?

First of all, the best evangelist is a person who knows his or her faith. We are presented with so many challenging questions, and I am afraid that when Catholics are presented with those challenging questions and don’t know the answer, it doesn’t help the situation. Knowing the Faith is very important.

Witnessing to the way faith makes a difference in an individual’s life also really has an impact on others. Being faithful to our Catholic tradition, knowing our Catholic tradition, witnessing to our faith, and not being afraid to speak about faith are the ways in which we can attract others to the Church. There’s such beauty in the Catholic faith, which I take for granted because I’m a cradle Catholic. But then when I hear of people who convert to Catholicism, and they speak about what attracted them — the beauty of the Mass, the reading of the Church Fathers, somebody who in their neighborhood is Catholic and really lives out his or her faith — that is an inspiration to me, and I realize what I daily take for granted.

You probably saw the recent Pew Research Center poll which showed that three-quarters of self-identified Catholics do not believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist — which, in most cases, probably means they have never learned about it. How do we go about correcting such widespread lack of basic catechesis?

I think we go about correcting it by talking about the Eucharist in homilies — not only on Holy Thursday or Corpus Christi Sunday, but different times during the year, to say, “Why is it that we gather each week for Mass? It’s the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that nourishes us, and this is not a symbol, but this is the presence that Jesus willed for us until the end of time!” When we have children preparing for first Holy Communion, we should include parents in the catechesis, because I think that may be where the message does not get across.

There are many ways in which we can witness to the power of the Eucharist. I love to share the story of the Jesuit priest Fr. Walter Ciszek. In 1940 Pope Pius XII wanted to see what remnants of faith were left in Russia, so he sent Fr. Ciszek there, and he was captured and convicted as a spy. But prisoners who found out that he was a priest saved pieces of bread and smuggled in a little bit of wine where they could find it, and he would say Mass in the pit of a garage, just so they could have Mass. When I think of the heroic virtue — in the midst of a Soviet gulag — of saying Mass in that way, and prisoners saving their morsels of bread so that they could receive the Eucharist, that really speaks to me of the Real Presence. Who would go through all of that if the Real Presence weren’t there?

Do you have any advice for the College’s students here in your Diocese?

Well, what strikes me first about this campus is the beauty. We are here in the summertime; trees are in full bloom. In a few weeks, we will see the change in the color of the leaves; we will feel the chill in the air that fall has arrived. Later on we will have the stark beauty of winter. Take that all as a sign of the wonder of God and the beauty of God. Enjoy the campus and see God at work in this beautiful nature.

Second, take your studies seriously and apply them to your lives. We can’t just come and learn great things and think their only purpose is to get us a good job. At a Catholic college like Thomas Aquinas College, we learn our faith, we apply it, and we live it. That’s how we become good witnesses to our Catholic faith in the world.

You are celebrating the 15th anniversary of your episcopal ordination. What have you learned as a bishop?

I was a parish priest for 20 years before I was a bishop. So I still say the one thing I miss about parish priesthood was the privilege of being involved with parishioners in the very meaningful moments of their lives: preparing a couple for marriage, celebrating that marriage with them, baptizing children, offering funeral Masses. These are all poignant times in people’s lives. I envy priests who are able to minister in parishes because they have that with their people.

What I have learned over these past 15 years that I may not have learned had I remained a parish priest is the wideness of the Church. The way the Church reaches out in different cultures, the way the Church is celebrated by different cultures, always amazes me. It is a blessing to see. So I thank God for the privilege of being able to participate in a wider church than I normally would have had as a parish priest. But I still think the most wonderful vocation is being a parish priest.