Earlier this month, our new episcopal vicars spent the better part of three days praying, reflecting, brainstorming and dialoguing about their new mission.

I see them primarily as parish priests, collaborators with you and me in pastoral work around our Diocese, especially the regions in which they are living. We all want to work more closely together to spread the Gospel, to grow our communities of faith and to carry out the mission to which the new evangelization calls us.

We enjoyed the comfort and wonderful hospitality of the Dominican sisters at their retreat center in Niskayuna. Our moderator, Jon Allen, offered us his very professional and focused services as facilitator. The episcopal vicars are Revs. Michael Cambi (Leatherstocking Vicariate), Edward Deimeke (Catskill), Martin Fisher (Adirondack), Robert Longobucco (Tech Valley), John Provost (Beverwyck), Christopher Welch (Mohawk Valley) and Thomas Zelker (Taconic).

Rev. David Berberian also participated throughout the gathering, since he will be assisting me in communications among the episcopal vicars as the vicar general. Elizabeth Simcoe, Deacon Frank Berning, Rev. Dominic Ingemie and Sister Kitty Hanley, CSJ, also joined us during some portions of the gathering to support our reflection and prayer.

Pastors first
Although all Catholics share the common mission of every disciple of Christ -- to know Jesus and to spread the Gospel -- the main thing I wanted the episcopal vicars to understand well (so they can answer those wondering about what to expect from them in their roles) is that they are first and foremost pastors, and that, if they are a pastor of a parish, they continue to see their parish as their primary responsibility.

Furthermore, their ministry as episcopal vicars in their regions is to be priestly and pastoral, not administrative. Their skills in listening, encouraging, coaching and facilitating conversation are what I feel we most need if I, with them, am to serve the entire Diocese well. I want them to extend a sense of my personal presence and pastoral care into every region of our Diocese.

I enjoy moving about the Diocese and visiting parishes so I can develop and maintain an active relationship with the parish leaders and the communities they serve. Whether it is for confirmations, regularly scheduled or special Masses, parish feasts or celebrations, or simply attending events where people are gathering in the area, I want to be present and experience what is happening and learn from it.

Often, parishes or groups of parishes have developed wonderful methods of evangelization, prayer and catechetical initiatives, programs for families and young and aging people or for persons with special needs. I like discovering these efforts and spreading the good word around so they can be shared.

Read all about it
We read what happens around the Diocese in The Evangelist, on the diocesan website (www.rcda.org), or by following a link like the one I recently posted (www.rcda.org/MarianConsecration) as a way of celebrating the Year of Mercy. What other initiatives are parishes undertaking? Let us know, so we can share the Good News. This is what I hope the episcopal vicars will do and on a regular basis: sow seeds of hope.

Having discussed how the episcopal vicars might do this, I think we have a clearer understanding that this will take time and practice to work out. Although each region has roughly the same number of parishes, all regions are not the same geographically, historically or culturally; nor do they have the same particular resources and challenges. Like some of deaneries had done effectively, I would encourage gatherings of parish leaders within the regions where feasible and desirable.

I do not expect every episcopal vicars to get to every parish within a certain time frame. I myself have not been able to do this. But I do look forward to them sharing their conversations, travels and experiences with the other episcopal vicars and with me, both together and individually when we meet. To that end, we are developing a protocol whereby the episcopal vicars will meet with me periodically, both individually and as a group.

Council of priests
All the episcopal vicars will be ex officio members of the Presbyteral (Priests' Council) and will be at those meetings, which will also serve as an occasion for me to meet with them afterward. Each Presbyteral Council meeting will take place in a different region of the Diocese on a rotating basis. This will give me the chance to be in the region a few days before and after the council meets.

Individually, of course, I will meet with each of the episcopal vicars at least twice a year and as often as any of us might want.

As I hope you can see, this is all about building relationships, learning about and sharing best practices, encouraging a ministry of presence and servant leadership. By "servant leadership," I mean a style of leading that it is built on the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity, much lauded in Vatican II.

Collegiality means involving those affected by decisions in the process of actually making them, at least by consultation and communication. Subsidiarity means decisions should not be made on a higher level than can best be made at a lower one. A servant leader strives not so much to tell others what they are to do, but to set the vision, goals and directions we need to go. Rather than tell a delegate or assistant how to do it, the idea is to be clear on what needs to be done and trust the creativity, initiative and gifts of the collaborator in getting it done.

I say again: The episcopal vicars will not be telling others what to do or how to do it. Nor will they be implementers of diocesan policy or "spies" for the Bishop to see who is or who is not in compliance. They will, however, want to learn about what is happening, what the challenges are and how they are being handled. They will have access to all of the diocesan resources that I and parish leaders have.

Bishop and people
My deepest desire as Bishop of Albany is to communicate to and enable every disciple of Jesus to first come to a deeper, more personal relationship with Him. There are many ways of doing this but prayer, both individual and in community, and the sharing of our spiritual journey with others is absolutely essential.

We grow as a Church by experiencing the transforming power of God's grace -- which is fundamentally an experience of Divine Mercy -- and by witnessing to and celebrating this experience. This is what the new evangelization is all about: everyone being a part of this.

You might say, then, that the main mission of our episcopal vicars is to do whatever they can, personally, prayerfully and creatively, to foster the new evangelization, the involvement and inclusion of every person in the Church's mission of knowing the joy of the Gospel and spreading the Good News. This, of course, is what the Church is all about, and this is what everyone in every region of our Diocese is invited and challenged to do.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)