Editor’s Note: Father Al Baca has been named by Bishop Vann as the Director for Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange. Father was ordained for the Diocese of Orange in 1989. The following is an interview that was done with Father over his new appointment:
Father, congratulations on your new assignment and welcome back to the Diocese. Can you tell us what you were doing before your appointment as Director?
Thank you! These past couple of years I was the Director for the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs for the United States Bishops Conference (USCCB). Previously, for 10 years, I had been Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism and Inter-religion in the Diocese of Orange, so the work in D.C. was very familiar. My main work was overseeing the 21 ecumenical and interfaith dialogues going on throughout the United States. That also included a number of “conversations” with religions that we hope will be in full dialogue with us some day. It brought me into contact with many amazing Catholics who, through their own discipleship and expertise, represent the Church in the search for understanding and unity in the religious world. Our ecumenical work was aimed at restoring Christian churches and communities back to the one Church that Christ intended and established. Inter-religious work was to find ways to work for the greater good, family life and culture in our world.
It seems you returned home sooner than was expected.
Yes, my appointment was actually for three years renewable. I came home in November of 2018 for a short visit and while home my mother had a stroke. This brought on other health situations that made it difficult for me to return to D.C. My parents are in their 90s and I am the only surviving child so I resigned in order to come home and help them. The USCCB and Bishop Vann were both very supportive of my decision and have continued to be a great support for me during this transition.
In those two years you were in D.C., the Diocese has been undergoing some important changes…
While in D.C., Bishop Vann kept me up to date with the local news. That helped me stay in touch with my Orange County roots. He also kept me on page with the many changes happening in our Diocese. Key among the changes, was the implementation of the Strategic Plan. I was impressed with the preparation and work that had gone into the plan. Nationwide, statistics show that less Catholics are attending Mass; less are actively involved in their faith. We have seen an unprecedented rise in Americans who claim no faith.
That the Diocese of Orange is trying to be proactive, trying to address concretely this crisis in faith is commendable. In our own examination of diocesan faith formation, input was given by hundreds of people as well as the pastors of our diocesan churches. The input recognized a need to teach and support faith differently.
So, Father, how extensive is this change in how we do things?
Pope Francis often speaks of “missionary disciples.” Bishop Vann uses the same words to describe what he hopes will become second nature to all of us. I would say that to be authentically Catholic, I need to be in relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that determines my life vision, my decisions both small and large. When I deepen more and more my love for Jesus I find the grace and the strength to live the Gospel. The Christian faith is not easy but it can and should
be lived with conviction and joy. This has to be the reality at home, at work and in Church.
Can you talk a little about the new institute for pastoral ministry that you are developing?
IPM or the Institute for Pastoral Ministry served the diocese well for many years. Part of the feedback that came from the Strategy Task Force was that a new approach was needed. Changes will address curriculum and courses. There will be an increased emphasis on the methods of evangelization. My guiding principle is the notion of “missionary disciple.” We will communicate the faith from a well-formed intellect faithful to Catholic teaching and from a conviction of love for Jesus Christ. Everything we do will be immersed in evangelization.
What will happen with those who are already in the process of courses or the certification?
When Bishop Vann made the decision to develop a new catechetical institute for the Diocese he was sensitive to the situation of those who were already in the process for certification. The Bishop has asked that in a year’s time there be a new institute in place. When that happens, there will be a transition for all those taking courses into the new institute. The bottom line is that no one will lose their place in the certification process. If someone in a program needed one last year they will continue until completion. If there are multiple years needed they will eventually finish their certification under the new institute. Iniciacion Cristologica and Estudios Biblicos will continue and finish their current coursework.
Father this sounds timely given national and world events. The world seems to be changing so quickly.
Yes, I believe we have an opportunity to bring people into faith and deepen our own commitments at the same time. From what I read, most people who have left a religious commitment are not angry or opposed to religion. They want to see real faith demonstrated to them. I think many of them would be attracted into the Church if we were more obvious in our discipleship. The USCCB reported during the past Holy Week that over 37,000 people were going to be received into Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil. That is a beautiful reminder that Christ is still calling people to belong to us. There are great challenges but there are real blessings too.
You seem very optimistic about your new position.
We have a vibrant Catholic Church here in the Diocese of Orange. We have vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. We have a growing deaconate ministry. Our clergy work hard in their parishes and other ministry assignments and our people love their parish priests. The devotional life is strong. Look at how many people attend daily Masses and adoration hours. There are “underground Masses” that gather Catholic young adults for the celebration of Mass with contemporary music and the active presence of our bishops and priests. These Masses usually gather over 600 young people. Think for a moment how many children are being given a Catholic education in our grade schools and high schools. Our cultural communities are alive and thriving.
Our Catholic community is also engaging the bigger world. Our Catholic healthcare is one of the jewels of our local Church. We have countless St. Vincent de Paul societies, Catholic Worker and other groups that assist the homeless and those with temporary and long-term needs. Bishop Vann has continued to deepen our relationships with other Christian faith communities and with non-Christian religions. There is a lot of good going on.
We do have challenges too.
Yes, but maybe that can make us more approachable and believable. The Church will always be made up of sinners, people who are on their way to holiness. This is not to lessen the seriousness of our failings but it is to say that a humble and servant Church is probably more attractive to people who know that they themselves are flawed. Part of the Strategic Plan is to move the Church into a more engaging model, more transparent in her decision making, accountable and still strongly built on the bishop/church model that Christ gave us. Of course, the main goal of the strategic plan is to make us true missionary disciples of Christ.
Any last thoughts Father?
I believe the new Cathedral is symbolic of what we hope to do as a diocese. Christ Cathedral is the center of our local Church. She is the mother church, setting the example for all the other diocesan churches. She is beautiful, open and inviting. Catholics will find in her a place where the sacraments are celebrated and the Gospel is proclaimed. Like a large tree she will give shade, rest and comfort to all. By that real hospitality she will attract many to her and many will pass through her great doors and find the Lord waiting for them. In the Gospel of John, two disciples are asked by Christ, “What do you want?” They answer Him, “Teacher, where are you staying?” And He answers, arousing their interest, “Come and see.” (Jn 1:38-39) Not only for our new cathedral but that is what I hope people will ask of every Catholic when they see our faith alive, real and approachable.