Archbishop Vigneron reflects on 10 years: Sharing Christ's love 'is the heart and meaning of my life' (VIDEO)

Archbishop sits down with Detroit Catholic for wide-ranging interview on 10th anniversary as archbishop of Detroit

Listen to the full interview (SoundCloud)

DETROIT — On Jan. 28, 2009, God blessed the Archdiocese of Detroit with the installation of its first-ever homegrown archbishop, as Pope Benedict XVI named Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, a native son of the archdiocese, as the 10th ordinary for the church in Detroit.

Ten years later, as Archbishop Vigneron celebrates a decade as chief shepherd of the church in the Motor City, he sat down with Detroit Catholic editor Michael Stechschulte to offer his reflections on where the Holy Spirit has led the archdiocese in these historic 10 years — from Synod 16 to Unleash the Gospel to the beatification of Detroit's first saint — as well as where God is calling the Church to go in the years ahead.

An edited version of the interview can be seen above. The full interview will be broadcast on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit (CTND)


A transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, is below:

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Your Excellency, thank you for joining us.

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: I’m happy to be with you, Michael.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: As you approach this milestone, what are your thoughts? It seems like these 10 years have gone by quite fast.

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: I find it very hard to believe it’s been 10 years. It seems so very quick. My thought is gratitude, above all. There have been so many blessings in these 10 years, and certainly challenges, too. But even there, I’m grateful to God for all the ways He’s helped me respond to challenges and lead me through these 10 years. Gratitude. I’m very, very grateful.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Over your ministry, one of the things you’ve said a couple of times is that one of the parts that you enjoy is being a pastor to your priests, and being a “priest’s priest.” Why does that part of your ministry give you such joy?

Archbishop Vigneron embraces newly ordained Fr. Robert Slaton after Fr. Slaton's ordination to the priesthood in 2012. (Larry A. Peplin | Detroit Catholic file photo)

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: Well really, it’s about the priesthood itself. When I was a very little kid, I had some ideas. I don’t know that I ever wanted to be a fireman, but there are some things that any little boy thinks about. But from very early, I wanted to be a priest. As I matured, my sense of vocation matured. But I consider, after my faith in Christ, being a priest to be the greatest gift God has given me. And I treasure the priesthood.

"I consider, after my faith in Christ, being a priest to be the greatest gift God has given me. And I treasure the priesthood." -Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron

So, if I can be an instrument to help my brother priests to flourish in the priesthood and find joy in it as I have found it, I consider that a really great privilege. And not the priesthood for its own sake. The gift of the priesthood is to be an instrument through which people come to Christ, particularly in the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession. If I can be of some help to the priests, for them to flourish and to find joy in doing what we do, in what God has entrusted to us, I give Him thanks for that. This is really the heart and meaning of my life.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: What part of your ministry gives you the most joy? What is the most rewarding part of what you get to do day in and day out?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: The most rewarding thing is when I feel I’ve been able to be a medium by which people come to know Christ better. Certainly, that’s what brings together the sacraments, my celebration of the sacraments, my preaching and my teaching. And it’s also how I think about the duties that fall to me as an administrator, as a steward and a leader of the diocese. That’s not for its own purpose, but to help the Church be the conduit, the connection between Christ and those he loves. That’s what means the most to me.

I’m not an athlete, never was. But I find analogies with sports very interesting. And it seems to me that being a priest is very much like being a coach. Somebody wants to be a coach in a sport because he or she loves the game, and it’s a way to be engaged in it and to help other people connect with it. It’s not a game for me. This is about life in Christ, and my joy comes from helping people to be connected to Christ and to have life there.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself in these past 10 years, as a leader, as a pastor, or even just as a Christian?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: I think I’ve learned a couple of things. One, it’s not likely that I’m going to “drop the baby.” I think about the parents of a newborn child, how sometimes they can be afraid that they’re going to break the baby. At this point in my life, I’m less afraid that I’m going to break the child. I have a little more serenity about the ups and downs.

What else have I learned about myself? That I’m still a novice in some sense in discipleship, that there’s so much in me that’s not yet configured to Christ, and I need to be patient with God as He sometimes has to work pretty hard and be disruptive to get my attention and to call me to a greater abandonment to Him.

Archbishop Vigneron prays the consecration during a vigil Mass during Pentecost at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in 2016. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic file photo)

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Certainly, your ministry comes with great blessings and great challenges. When times get tough, what are some ways that you feel close to the Lord? How do you draw that strength to continue when things aren’t going so well?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: Well, the Eucharist is the most important thing. Celebrating the Eucharist is a way to renew my commitment to Christ, to try to love him in the measure he has first loved me. Receiving the holy Eucharist is a way to receive his strength, to make the gift of myself. The sacrament of penance is a very important way for me to be forgiven for my failings but also to receive strength to work against them.

I’ve developed a great spiritual friendship over the years with St. Francis de Sales, who was a great bishop and one who faced remarkable challenges as bishop of Geneva at a time when he wasn’t even allowed to go into the city. There are certain passages from his writings that I end up reading again and again about abandonment to God’s providence, and that I don’t really know God’s plan. What looks to me like a trouble spot very well might be God’s way of making things go forward in His kingdom. I need to trust God’s providence to guide my ministry and to guide the archdiocese.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Certainly these last 10 years have been historic in the Archdiocese, from Synod 16 to your pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, which has changed a lot already in just two short years. What are some moments over these past 10 years that stand out to you? Any favorite memories?

"I have perhaps the most vivid memory of the procession between the meeting place at the hotel and St. Aloysius Church, which represented to me in some ways a sacrament, a kind of symbol, that the Church is present in our community, and the Church is the call to our community to come to Christ."

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: We’ll see if somebody writes a history in 100 years, and what that writer says, but for me the Synod has been the central moment of my ministry. And I don’t just mean the three days we were gathered here downtown. I mean the whole process. But in the three days downtown, I have perhaps the most vivid memory of the procession between the meeting place at the hotel and St. Aloysius Church, which represented to me in some ways a sacrament, a kind of symbol, that the Church is present in our community, and the Church is the call to our community to come to Christ. That’s a very important moment in my memory.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Two years removed from that, we have Unleash the Gospel, which has called for radical changes in the way we do our ministry, in the way parishes work, in the way schools work, in the way that Central Services operates. Have you seen some evidence that Unleash the Gospel is starting to take root in these things?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: I do think that the Synod has already started to bear good fruit. I would just say that I would not ever want to be communicating the idea that what we did in the past was a mistake or was wrong and now we’ve got to get it right. It’s about responding to a new situation in a new way, and building on what God has done in the past. And I do think we are adopting this attitude of missionary discipleship in a more vigorous way. I see that as we talk about schools, in the way priests talk about things and leaders in the parish, and also us here in the Chancery. We are changing our culture to think more clearly about the mission, the Great Commission.

Archbishop Vigneron celebrates the opening Mass of Synod 16 at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Detroit on Nov. 16, 2016. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic file photo)

DETROIT CATHOLIC: A new word that has come up in these past 10 years that maybe wasn’t as frequent in the life of the Church here in Detroit is the word kerygma. Maybe some of our readers don’t know what kerygma means, but what is the kerygma and what role does it play in the new evangelization?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: Well, it means a “basic proclamation” in Greek, but I think another way to talk about it is it’s the evangelist’s “elevator speech.” You might hear someone ask, “What’s your elevator speech?” What can you say in just a short amount of time if you want to explain something to someone? It’s this short, concise presentation of the good news, that God loves the world; He sent His son Jesus to die for our sins; he is risen and he is our deliverance; and we all need to belong to him. That’s the kerygma.

In some ways, the kerygma is summarized every time we respond to the Mystery of Faith after the consecration during Mass: “Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the savior of the world.” That’s the kerygma.

In some ways, the kerygma is summarized every time we respond to the Mystery of Faith after the consecration during Mass: “Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the savior of the world.” That’s the kerygma.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: The kerygma is one part of being able to share the Gospel with someone who you don’t maybe have a lot of time with. God isn’t asking you to give them a whole catechesis, but he’s just asking you to share your faith with someone. And maybe one other way someone could do this is through personal witness.

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: Well, that’s very important. That’s the bright complement to what I just said. “By your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the savior of the world,” and then, “And this is Jesus for me. He has saved me. He is the most important person in my life, and I’d like you to know him, too.” Witness is so indispensable. That’s how the world will be won to Christ.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the third component of this. We mentioned encounter and we mentioned witness, but “grow” is also a very important thing in the life of an individual. What are some ways that the faithful here in Detroit can grow in their faith and relationship with God?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: There are all different sorts of avenues by which to grow in faith. Precisely, in the science of theology, there’s a distinction between faith that’s content, and the dimension of faith that’s about reliance. It has to be both of those things at the same time: to grow in knowledge of the revelation, and to grow in knowledge of the Christ who is revealed.

Archbishop Vigneron chats with a young adult during Theology on Tap at a restaurant in Midtown Detroit. (Tim Hinkle | Detroit Catholic file photo)

That can be by reading, and with the internet, there are so many avenues that are available — excellent resources for learning more about the faith. But that always should be accompanied with prayer, with getting to know Christ personally. And above all, Scripture is the most important way that we have outside of the sacraments to grow in this relationship with Christ. And like any good relationship, it involves the head and the heart: knowing him better and loving him more.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Your anniversary happens to fall on the first day of Catholic Schools Week here in the United States. What is the role of Catholic schools, especially as it relates to evangelization and the plan of Unleash the Gospel? We’ll also be talking a bit next week about some of the visions we have for Catholic schools here in Detroit. What fruits can we expect to see from the re-envisioning of Catholic schools, and what role do they play in evangelization?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: The general mission of Catholic schools I think has been the same from the first years when we as Catholic Christians were free to have our own institutions. It’s about offering an education that equips someone for life, but particularly our view equips boys and girls, young men and women to be able to live their lives as disciples. It’s this new context for learning, and it gives a whole new goal to learning. It’s always been that way. We could be a Church if we weren’t allowed to have schools. But we wouldn’t be the Church God wants us to be without schools. That’s part of who we are.

"One of the great joys that I have when I go into our schools is to see the faith life, the commitment to the mission that the teachers and staff have. They make great sacrifices to be engaged in this apostolate, and I admire that very much. I admire the enthusiasm of our students, and their desire to be good. That is very striking."

I would say the focus of that mission changes depending on the context in which it’s exercised. We live in a moment when there are competing understandings of the nature of the human person and the goal of human life, and some of those understandings are really hostile to the way we look at the world and who we are and what we should be about. So it’s very important that we have our schools in which we can specifically offer our vision for what it means to be a mature human being and live a satisfying life here and prepare for the world to come. It’s with this renewed focus that we look at re-founding our schools as well.

The schools began in an atmosphere in the 19th century where what we were about was teaching our young people a way of life that allowed them to exist in a community that was not Catholic, but was Christian. Now, we’re in a new time, and our schools are as important as ever. So I see our schools as not the only vehicle for evangelization and forming evangelists, but an indispensable means for that. So that as our young people finish in our grade schools and high schools and go on to university and go into the trades or get married or whatever their calling in life is, they’ll be able to evangelize the culture and their community. They’ll be equipped for the work of the saints, as St. Paul says.

Archbishop Vigneron chats with students at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills during a visit to the school in 2017. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic file photo)

DETROIT CATHOLIC: One of the things you make a habit of doing is visiting our schools. I look at your calendar and it seems like you’re visiting a different school every couple of weeks. What do you notice when you walk into these schools and talk to some of the teachers and students? What stands out?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: One of the great joys that I have when I go into our schools is to see the faith life, the commitment to the mission that the teachers and staff have. They make great sacrifices to be engaged in this apostolate, and I admire that very much. I admire the enthusiasm of our students, and their desire to be good. That is very striking.

Also, something that’s very interesting is that our schools particularly develop and cultivate a spirit of community and family. The students always tell me that that means a great deal to them, that they can find friendship and support among their fellow students.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Obviously, one of the principal highlights of your ministry in the past 10 years was the beatification of Blessed Solanus just about a year and a half ago now. Can you take me back to that moment? I know it was a very powerful experience for everyone here in the diocese, and especially anyone who was able to be at Ford Field. But when you were at that altar and being able to proclaim that God has blessed us in this way, what were some of your emotions? What was going through your mind as you saw these 60,000 people all praising God at the same time?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: I was particularly impressed, struck, touched in my heart, at the solemn prayerfulness of these tens of thousands of people all of one mind and heart and glorifying God for this gift of Father Solanus. Also, that Father Solanus belongs to the universal Church and to the Capuchin order, but he’s ours. Father Solanus is part of Detroit. I think Father serves as a kind of marker that God loves Detroit. Sometimes we don’t feel very loved, I think. We can feel forgotten. But God hasn’t forgotten us. He gave us Father Solanus, and that’s a sign of all the other marvelous good gifts He gives us.

Archbishop Vigneron addresses tens of thousands of Catholics gathered at Ford Field in downtown Detroit for the beatification Mass of Blessed Solanus Casey on Nov. 18, 2017. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic file photo)

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Another striking thing that happened early in your ministry, in 2011, was when Pope Benedict gave us St. Anne as our patroness. Since then, these two saints, St. Anne and Blessed Solanus, have really intertwined themselves with the life of the Church here in Detroit. How powerful is it to have those special intercessors?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: Well, we all need friends, right? Nobody can get along without them. And we have friends in high places! St. Anne’s friendship and love for us is a very significant reminder that from the very first days of the establishment of our community — now, certainly, there was a Native American community here prior to that, but when these two peoples from Europe and the native peoples met, they created a new community — and when that new community, which we call Detroit, began, from the beginning the life of faith and the Gospel and the Church has been part of our community.

What is true about the past is a reminder of what we’re called to do for the future. As I said, Father Solanus is a sign that this faith life has borne great fruit here.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: When you accepted your crosier from Cardinal Maida in 2009, how much of this did you have in mind? Have you been surprised at where the Holy Spirit has led us?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: (Laughing) Yes. When I came, people said, “What’s your game plan?” Well, I don’t know that I had a game plan, except that since the celebration of the millennium by St. John Paul II, I have been convinced that the call to the new evangelization is the Holy Spirit speaking. And I believe it was for the sake of responding to that call that the Holy Spirit inspired St. John XXIII to call the (Second Vatican) Council together. The Council wasn’t an end in itself. It was to prepare the Church for a renewed mission of evangelization.

So, I had that basic orientation when I came home, and now I’ve tried to respond to the signs that I see for how God wants that to happen.

Cardinal Adam J. Maida hands Archbishop Vigneron his crosier during the latter's installation Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Jan. 28, 2009. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Five years ago, when we sat down for an interview just like this one, I had asked you what your goals were for the next five years. I’ll never forget your response: You said, “I have two goals: I hope to see Blessed Solanus beatified here in Detroit,” and you also said, “I hope we all become saints.” One down, one to go?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: (Laughing) Well, I would go for two. It would be wonderful if for the time that’s left for my ministry here, we can go to Rome for the canonization of Blessed Solanus. And I do see that there’s many saints in our midst. Holy men and women. Young people. Old people. All growing closer to Christ every day.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Archbishop, is there anything you’d like to add as we conclude our interview?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: I said how grateful I am to God. I’d also like to say I am so very grateful for so many people who are happy to work with me and support me, give me advice, and be my coworkers in the work of the Gospel. Certainly (this includes) the priests, deacons and lots of lay people. There’s a whole theme in the media today about the need for clergy and laypeople to cooperate for the advancement of the good of the Church. We can always do better on that, I’m sure. But I am very proud at how God has led our diocese to have a very fruitful collaboration between the clergy and the religious and the lay faithful.

DETROIT CATHOLIC: Archbishop, would you mind giving us your blessing as we close?

ARCHBISHOP VIGNERON: Lord, God, we ask you to bless us with every good gift, so that we may do Your will, glorify Your name and be of service to the kingdom of Christ. And may Almighty God bless you, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.