You’ve been our Bishop for five years. If the Pope calls tomorrow to check in, what would you tell him?
I would tell him it’s a great blessing to be here in Allentown. Of course, blessings come in all different ways: they come in ordinary ways, and they also come as challenges, as successes, and as failures. And in my first five years, all of that has been true.
What is your vision for the next five years and beyond?
In the next five years, priority must be given to strengthening marriage and family life, which are the building blocks of the Church and society. Marriage and the family are under assault through societal changes, redefinition of their meanings, and social media.
When we strengthen and accompany couples before and into marriage, they can be better prepared to raise a faith-filled family. When our families are faith-filled and able to resist the detrimental influences around us, so many things fall into place: greater stability in the home, regular attendance at Mass and participation in the parish, a nurturing environment for vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life, and greater care for our elderly.
We simply must find more effective ways to engage our families and deepen their spiritual role as a “domestic Church.”
You’ve said the Church needs to do a better job of teaching its people about our faith. Can you say more about that?
It’s really a return to basics, which are the core of our faith. We need to help people understand what our faith is. Having knowledge only increases our faith. Faith is a gift, but it has to be reinforced with knowledge of what we believe. That’s why steadfast transmission of the faith is so essential to our stability and growth as a Church, and why education of the young and evangelization of adults are so important.
What can we do to get more people to return to church?
First, everyone needs to feel welcome in church, so they can hear the Gospel and the truths that the Church proclaims. At the same time, we can’t rely on people just coming back to church. They need to be invited back, and that’s where evangelization comes in. We can’t just stand at the door and wait to welcome them. They may never walk through that door unless someone goes out and encourages them to come.
When they come back, we need to keep them coming back, through reverent liturgy, prayer and the celebration of the Sacraments; well-prepared homilies; beauty in the Church’s architecture and music; and a feeling of welcome by the people in the parish. It’s important to understand, however, that “feeling welcome” does not mean hearing what someone wants to hear. In love, our people deserve to hear the Truths of the Church when they come.
What do you see as the future of our Catholic schools?
We have a tremendous gift in Catholic education. Unfortunately, over the years, fewer families have been choosing Catholic education for their children, and we have been forced to consolidate some schools. We are allowing a treasure to slip through our fingers, so we have to reinvigorate what remains with a view toward strategically expanding again.
Schools must, above all, be unabashedly Catholic in their identity. Many secular schools tout the high percentage of students who go on to college, their many extracurricular activities, and their low student-to-faculty ratios, and our Catholic schools are right there among the best of them.
But those measures are not why we exist. We exist to promote, to deepen, and to propagate the Catholic faith. The hallmark of a Catholic school, along with its Catholic identity, is the dignity with which people are treated, both students and faculty. After the pandemic, we saw a modest increase in enrollment at our Catholic schools, and we are praying that the trend continues.
I can’t leave the topic of our schools without thanking our teachers and administrators who sacrifice a great deal, including heroically serving during the pandemic, transitioning immediately to online learning, and then being among the first to come back to in-person instruction.
For the first time in the history of the Diocese there are fewer than 100 active priests. What can we do about that?
Above all, we must pray for more young men to answer the call to the Priesthood. I would ask every person in every parish, particularly while in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, to ask God to send us more priests. Also, if you know a young man who you think might make a good priest, mention that to him. He might already be thinking along those lines, and that encouragement might help him make his decision.
The prospects we have now for the seminary, and our seminarians already in formation, are very promising. While we need more candidates and seminarians, the ones that we have now look very hopeful.
Our priests were heroic during the pandemic, visiting the sick, especially those dying of Covid, still offering Sacraments to those who requested them, and burying the dead. I’m praying that God will send us more heroic men like these. Good examples of priestly living are a key to vocations coming from our parishes.
I also must say a word of gratitude to our deacons and religious sisters and brothers who also worked tirelessly during the pandemic and at other times for the benefit of the faithful in our Diocese. They are a rich presence among us.
What has surprised you about the job of bishop?
I had many years as vicar general before becoming Bishop, so I can’t say there have been many administrative surprises. One thing that has surprised and humbled me is the number of people who write or speak to me and ask me to pray for them or their intentions, just because I am a bishop. Of course I am happy to do that, and I keep a list of prayer intentions in a box before the Tabernacle in my private chapel. Additionally, Confirmations and visiting in parishes give me a lot of joy.
What is your advice to Catholics at this time in the Church?
Stay close to the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance. Stay firm in your faith. Don’t become discouraged, even in confusing times. Develop your relationship with God, through prayer and reading of the scripture. Praying and reading scripture does not take any special skill. All you have to do is be open to talking to God and what He is saying. That requires silence, and too often we fear silence in our world.
I’m sure you’ve had a busy first five years. How many miles did you put on your car during that time?
I’m pretty sure it was well over 100,000 miles during that time, visiting parishes around the five counties for Masses, Confirmations, and other events. It’s always good to meet the people in our Diocese. I’m always inspired by their faith and perseverance.
(For the record, Bishop Schlert drives a car which has an odometer reading of 143,767 miles.)