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About 75 lay ecclesial ministers from throughout the eight-county Catholic Diocese of Cleveland gathered recently at a lunch meeting to hear from Bishop Edward Malesic and to pay tribute to Sister Rita Mary Harwood, who is retiring after 26 years of leading the Parish Life and Development Secretariat.
The bishop told the group that he spent time that morning with the cloistered Poor Clare Colettine Sisters in Cleveland. “Contemplative orders are the spiritual engine of the diocese,” he said.
He also shared his vocation story, noting he is the youngest of four children born to “an interfaith marriage. My mom was a German Catholic and my dad was a Slovenian Catholic,” he quipped. “We went to the German church.”
The bishop said his family attended Sunday Mass regularly. He developed an interest in other religions, but his parents insisted that he continue attending Mass. In high school, he dated several girls and sometimes went to their churches. “But I still attended Mass,” he added. “There was never a time when I didn’t believe in Jesus.”
During his first year of college, the bishop said he received a copy of the Bible from the Gideons and began reading it. As a biology major, he said he had an analytical mind and applied that as he examined various religions before concluding that “Catholicism is the one true religion – the only one founded by Jesus Christ. My parents were right.”
He also recounted discovering his vocation after attending a ministry conference with his pastor and a religious sister. They asked if he’d ever considered the priesthood. “I never had,” he said. But they planted a seed that eventually grew. He studied biology for a couple of years before entering the seminary.
After ordination, he worked in parishes and campus ministry before the bishop asked him to study canon law. He served as a pastor before being appointed bishop of Greensburg, Pennsylvania and spent five years there before being named bishop of Cleveland.
During a question and answer session, Bishop Malesic stressed the importance of the work done by the lay ecclesial ministers. “Much of the ministry happens at the parish level. You are among the greatest assets of the diocese,” he added. The pandemic has made ministry more challenging, but the bishop said there is a need to find ways to bring people closer.
He also talked about how the American bishops want to do something to explain the Eucharist, which he said is central to our faith. “What brings young people to church? The Eucharist.”
When asked his vision for the LEM, he had a simple answer: “To bring Jesus to the people. He doesn’t care about my vision. We heed to preach Jesus clearly and his vision. Then things like social justice will follow.”
He said with the decreasing number of clergy, the LEM role could be increased. “But it needs to be in collaboration with the clergy,” he added. The bishop said each parish is different, so a plan must be developed that works best for the parish.
He said LEM could help improve the faith life in a parish by helping to engage families in a prayerful, dignified way. “It’s important to get people back to Mass and to understand that the liturgy is a sacred meal,” something he said young people seem to understand and appreciate.
Regarding youth ministry, he said it must focus on more than just single young people. “We need to include young married couples and those with children. Find a place for them in your church,” he said.
When asked what he sees LEM doing beyond evangelizing, he answered in six words: “Stay close to Jesus in prayer.” Being consistent with the message of our faith and wanting to make the Church of Cleveland vibrant and deep are important goals. He also reminded them this work is a vocation.
The group also offered accolades to Sister Harwood, relating their experiences with her. She was described as “always centered on Christ,” and “the glue that holds our diocese together.” One LEM said she has a history of empowering others and called her “the feminine face of God in our diocese.”
Her work with the incarcerated, their families, migrants, immigrants and refugees was lauded, as well as her kindness and compassion for all. “You are always very much a lady,” one minister said.
Sister Harwood said she was very happy as principal of St. Boniface School in Cleveland when she received a call from the superior general of her religious congregation, the Sisters of Notre Dame. “She called to tell me the sisters wanted me to be the next provincial. I said, ‘No,’ but she persisted.” After some back and forth, Sister Harwood said she agreed to pray about it and let her superior know.
She recalled being upset and going to talk to her mother, who promised to pray for her. “God must want you,” her mother said, so Sister Harwood accepted the position.
“I believe when God calls you, he works through us and doesn’t abandon us,” she added.
Bishop Anthony Pilla asked her to take on her role in the diocese, a position she embraced. Someone remarked that her blood must be of all colors because she represented so many people of every color, nationality, shape and size. “You represent all of us,” she was told. “That was a powerful statement,” Sister added.
She told the group, “I’m not retiring; I’m rewiring. I loved my ministry to all the parishes and offices of the secretariat. Much of my work was at an administrative level, but I tried to stay in touch.”
She plans to “put my life back together” before determining her next step. Bishop Malesic has asked her – and she agreed – to help for a time with the ministry to the incarcerated.
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