TYLER – “Extraordinary.”
This is the word Bishop Joseph E. Strickland chose to describe his recently-concluded pilgrimage across the Diocese of Tyler from March 2-19.
In all, the Bishop Strickland visited 61 parishes and missions as part of his pastoral visit which was geared toward praying with the faithful in each community and hearing about the successes and challenges across the diocese.
According to Bishop Strickland, the 2,000-plus mile pilgrimage was about “celebrating our Catholic faith – seeing it action in these small churches scattered over our 33 counties.”
“I came away appreciating what we have. Yes, we have challenges and face issues,” he said. “But one of the most gratifying things was that in the vast majority of places the people showed their great appreciate and love for their priests.” He also noted how grateful that the people were for the opportunity to sit down and share their thoughts about the Church with their bishop.
A central focus of the pilgrimage was the pride people have in their Catholic faith and better ways to share what Bishop Strickland called “the greatest treasure imaginable.”
“One of the things I emphasized was an appreciation for our Catholic faith – we are a minority in all 33 counties, but I was gratified by seeing what an impact even our smallest communities have beyond their number because of what we have: the Gospel being proclaimed, the grace of the sacraments, and the hierarchy and connection from our smallest communities in to the pope in Rome. It is an incredible source of strength.”
Bishop Strickland stressed that an understanding of the basic facts and events of Christian history is essential to evangelization and a deepening of the Catholic faith, especially in East Texas where “Bible-only” Christianity, a 16th century innovation, sometimes dominates conversations about religion.
“One thing I that I really emphasized and spoke specifically about was that we have to understand the Bible, especially its origins – where it come from. We live in a culture where people speak as if Jesus Christ handed out Bibles,” he said.
“As Catholics we have to understand that we absolutely believe in the inspired word of God, the Old and New Testaments – but we sometimes don’t have a basic understanding of where scripture came from. The Catholic Church, in an ecumenical council, determined which scriptures were inspired.”
Invitation, love and truth were the basic tools that Bishop Strickland emphasized for sharing the Catholic faith, what he called the “greatest treasure of human life,” with the people of northeast Texas.
I talked with many of the communities about being creative, thinking outside of the box – this is what Pope Francis is asking us to do. We have Christ living in these churches, we have his word that grows out of the Church. We need to be less timid, frankly, but out of love, to share the treasure we have.”
Bishop Strickland joked that Catholics are often shy and afraid of something as simple as inviting a friend to Mass.
“How many times do we say to someone ‘Why don’t you come to Mass with us on Sunday?’ If a Catholic said something like that, the person would faint, and the Catholic would faint! We just don’t do that, but why not?”
The inspiration for the pilgrimage came from Bishop Strickland’s reflections about the his opportunities to visit sacred sites in the Holy Land and Europe. “It occurred to me that it would be good to make a pilgrimage to the sacred places of the Diocese of Tyler – those places where the Eucharist is present and the people are gathered in prayer, those are all sacred places.”
According to Bishop Strickland, the pilgrimage will be a source of inspiration as lays out plans for the future of the diocese.“The more I reflect on it, the more impact it has for me. In months and years to come, I will return to what I learned from this pilgrimage.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2015 print edition of the Catholic East Texas.