In my role as Vocation Director, I spend a lot of time on the road. This past week, I was at events, meetings, Masses, or talks in nine out of the eleven deaneries in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, putting almost 1,000 miles on my car in 7 days, just in central and southern Indiana. I interacted with people from at least 12 different parishes, three Catholic high schools, a college campus, and a seminary. I presided at Mass in four different churches in four corners of the Archdiocese – Richmond, Brookville, Nashville, and Greencastle. I participated in meetings of the Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary Policy Board and the Local Steering Committee for the upcoming National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). I spoke to two different groups of young people preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation. I met with several young men who are discerning the priesthood, including a couple who are currently in the seminary application process. And in between the travels, my ministry continued through e-mails, texts, phone calls, and personal conversations. It was a wonderful, whirlwind week.
While the extent of my travels this past week was a bit unusual – I don’t often visit nine out of our eleven deaneries in one week – I do spend a lot of my time on the road. It’s quite different than parish ministry, in which you become immersed in a particular community and minister in and with the people of that local place – with a type of stability that is not unlike monastic communities. There are certainly times when I miss the stability of parish life and the opportunities for growth in faith, love, and service that are only possible through extended relationships in a specific locale. But there are also great blessings of a ministry on the road – being able to meet and encounter and pray with and have conversation with people in a variety of settings, having the opportunity to get to know the wide variety of parishes and schools and ministries in our Archdiocese. In my two years as Vocation Director, I have been to churches, schools, and Catholic agencies in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that I had never been to before – giving me an extraordinarily rich view of the entirety of our local church. And I am also privileged to be able to witness the great things happening in ministry in our parishes, schools, college campuses, and seminaries.
Ministry on the road calls to mind the experiences of Mendicant Friars in Europe who wandered from village to village preaching the Good News; or Circuit Riders in the early years of this country who would travel countless miles on foot or horseback to bring the Sacraments to the people of a sparsely populated land. When the Diocese of Vincennes (now the Archdiocese of Indianapolis) was founded in 1834, Bishop Simon Brute and two other priests were responsible for all of the ministry in the entire territory of the Diocese, which covered all of Indiana and the eastern third of Illinois, including a small town named Chicago. They would ride from town to town, farm to farm, celebrating the Sacraments and ministering to the small Catholic community. And, in time, that community grew – as did the number of priests who served the Diocese.
Today, many of our priests are once again living as a kind of Circuit Rider – although often on a more limited scale than in the time of Bishop Brute. Many priests serve multiple parishes, or within one parish have more than one worship site – and although cars have made travel much easier than horseback, much of ministry these days for many priests is spent on the road. And in some parts of the world, the long-distance Circuit Rider is still very much a reality. And that’s the way it was for Jesus. He spent a lot of time on the road, going from village to village, proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
So there is a tension – between the values of stability and mobility, between the benefits of being immersed in a particular local community and the necessity of life on the road to encounter as many people as possible. And it’s a healthy tension that can keep us from getting too comfortable or too isolated or too busy or too scattered. Because the Church is both local and universal.