RANGELEY---“Do you know why this is a great day?” Bishop Robert P. Deeley asked the young children, who wore nervous but beaming smiles, as a full assembly looked on at St. Luke Church in Rangeley.
“We will have communion,” answered Elijah.
“And be confirmed,” added Elucia.
“That’s right!” said the bishop. “Those are gifts. So that makes today a very special day.”
Watching young people receiving the sacrament of confirmation and first Eucharist, joining them in communion with the Catholic Church and bringing them closer to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is a joyful moment in any circumstance, including the bishop’s most recent Mass on Saturday, September 7, at St. Luke Church next to beautiful Rangeley Lake (seven pictures below).
If you’ve been fortunate enough to witness and be strengthened by this sacred scene in a Maine church over the past five years, Bishop Deeley has been a part of the memory.
The bishop celebrates all of these Masses himself. There are no regional celebrations or delegating of the responsibility to others. These celebrations take place in the parishes themselves, the very places where the children learned about God and had their faith nurtured.
“I tell the children that the bishop really likes to talk with them and ask them questions, not to quiz them, but because he wants to hear from them and wants to know what they learned in their parish religious education,” said Fr. Louis Phillips, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Gorham, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Westbrook, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Windham. “Bishop Deeley does much better than I in fielding their questions and responses!”
“Having the bishop come to our parish for first communion and confirmation is a big deal,” said Fr. Bill Labbe, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Sanford and St. Matthew Parish in Limerick. “With kindness and gentleness, the bishop fertilizes the seeds of faith planted at baptism and encourages all gathered to grow our faith through the sacraments and through love of God and neighbor.”
“In every parish I've been in, our children are always excited about when the Bishop makes a visit,” said Fr. Kyle Doustou, pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord in Old Town. “They enjoy him, and he has a wonderful way of engaging with them. It opens up a whole new world for them. They love the miter and crosier and always ask questions about them. We're able to talk to them both before and after about who he is: the chief shepherd for all Catholics in Maine and a successor to the Apostles. Then, when you make the connection between the bishop and the Pope, you can start talking about Catholics with their own bishops all throughout the world. The bishop expands the children’s understanding of the Church from their local experience to something that is really universal.”
Making the commitment to be present in 54 parishes and 141 churches would be a massive undertaking in any location, but the task becomes greater when that location is Maine. The Diocese of Portland spreads out nearly 35,000 square miles with a population of over 275,000 Catholics.
In the last year alone, the bishop celebrated Masses or visited with parishioners at special events in 47 different Maine towns and cities (a number that will climb to 49 after Masses in Cherryfield and Limestone this month). During one week in May, the bishop celebrated Masses in Fort Kent, Madawaska, York, and Biddeford, a journey of almost 1,000 miles.
There have been lessons along the way to be sure.
“Early on, I was driving with Monsignor Dubois, the vicar general for the diocese who travels in the car with me for most trips, and we were in a remote part of Maine,” said the bishop. “We realized we were shorter on gas than we had figured. I then learned that gas stations are not as plentiful in some rural areas. We coasted into a station on fumes that day. Lesson learned!”
Bishop Deeley’s quest to be an effective shepherd of the faithful by “getting to know the smell of the sheep,” a promise he made during his Mass of Installation in 2014, has been astounding to observers.
“It’s quite impressive to have a bishop who is conscientious and attentive to all the Catholics in his diocese, especially one that covers the vastness of the entire state of Maine,” said Fr. Philip Clement, administrator of St. Peter the Fisherman Parish in Machias. “Down east, we ‘don’t get out much,’ and we can feel somewhat removed from the larger Church. It’s comforting to know we are not forgotten when the bishop makes a special visit. I believe it makes our children and our adult parishioners realize that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. It’s very humbling.”
“It’s a big moment in the life of this community that the bishop is here,” said Fr. Anthony Kuzia, administrator of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Rangeley. “The people are excited about it. They read his messages and hear his words, but for them it’s a great honor to see him and speak with him.”
“I’m so happy,” said Maureen Seaberg, the mother of two of the children who received first Eucharist and confirmation on Saturday. “It’s a big deal to have the bishop here. Rangeley is a small town, a long way from the city. To have him come here and do this, it’s amazing for the parish, including our children.”
The countless trips around Maine have also helped Bishop Deeley enhance the special bond that exists between a bishop and his priests.
“Bishop Deeley was often a guest at the rectory in Old Town,” said Fr. Labbe, who previously served as pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord. “This gave me the opportunity to get to know him not just as a bishop but as a brother priest. I know, because of time spent with the bishop, that he has an abiding affection for his priests and a deep love for the Church and her people. This has been an inspiration to me.”
And as the number on the odometer grows, so does the bishop’s closeness with the faithful and his affinity for a state that has given him so much.
“Maine is a special place unmatched in its storied history, caring people, and beautiful scenery,” said Bishop Deeley. “Life as a priest in the diocese offers the opportunity to explore and enjoy the many fruits of the state and its residents. The people in the rural north are very different than the more urban south. It’s enjoyable to be with both groups of people and to see the things that are of interest to them and to learn what is happening in their lives. The ways in which they help each other really display what our faith is all about. They care for each other as we are called to do.”