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Maine bishop's diocesan travels strengthening bond with faithful, priests


Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, distributes Communion to a boy as he celebrates first Eucharist and the sacrament of confirmation during Mass Sept. 7, 2019, in St. Luke Church in Rangeley in rural Maine. In the last year alone, Bishop Deeley celebrated Masses or visited with parishioners at special events in 47 different Maine towns and cities; by the end of September that number will climb to 49, after Masses in Cherryfield and Limestone. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Portland)

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RANGELEY, Maine (CNS) -- "Do you know why this is a great day?" Portland 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."

The youngsters received first Eucharist and the sacrament of confirmation during Mass the bishop celebrated Sept. 7 at St. Luke Church next to beautiful Rangeley Lake.

It was a joyful moment, with Bishop Deeley joining them in communion with the Catholic Church and bringing them closer to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

For those who have witnessed and felt strengthened by such a sacred scene in a Maine church over the past five years, the bishop has been a part of the memory.

He celebrates all these Masses. There are no regional celebrations or delegating of the responsibility to others. These celebrations take place in the very parishes 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 Father Louis Phillips.

He is pastor of three parishes -- St. Anne in Gorham, St. Anthony of Padua in Westbrook and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham.

"Bishop Deeley does much better than I in fielding their questions and responses!" Father Phillips said in an interview.

"Having the bishop come to our parish for first Communion and confirmation is a big deal," said Father Bill Labbe, pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Sanford and St. Matthew Parish in Limerick.

"With kindness and gentleness," he added, "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 Father Kyle Doustou has been in, "our children are always excited when the bishop makes a visit," he said.

"They enjoy him, and he has a wonderful way of engaging with them. It opens up a whole new world for them," said the pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord in Old Town. "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," he added, "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 statewide Diocese of Portland covers nearly 35,000 square miles and has a Catholic population of over 275,000.

In the last year alone, Bishop Deeley celebrated Masses or visited with parishioners at special events in 47 different Maine towns and cities; by the end of September that number will climb to 49 -- after Masses in Cherryfield and Limestone.

During one week in May, the bishop celebrated Masses in Fort Kent, Madawaska, York and Biddeford -- a journey of almost 1,000 miles all tolled.

Bishop Deeley made a promise during his installation Mass in 2014 to be an effective shepherd of the faithful "by getting to know the smell of the sheep." His quest to fulfill that promise has been astounding, say 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 Father 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," he explained. "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."

In Rangeley, Father Anthony Kuzia, administrator of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish, called the bishop's visit "a big moment in the life of this community."

"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," he added.

Maureen Seaberg agreed. She's the mother of two of the children who received first Communion and confirmation Sept. 7 at St. Luke, a mission church of the parish.

"It's a big deal to have the bishop here. Rangeley is a small town, a long way from the city," she said. "To have him come here and do this, it's amazing for the parish, including our children."

Bishop Deeley's trips around Maine also have helped him enhance the special bond a bishop has with his priests.

Father Labbe can attest to that. The bishop was often a guest at Resurrection of the Lord's parish rectory in Old Town when he was pastor there.

"This gave me the opportunity to get to know him not just as a bishop but as a brother priest," he said. "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."

As the number on the odometer grows, so does Bishop Deeley's closeness with the faithful and his affinity for a state that he said has given him much.

"Maine is a special place unmatched in its storied history, caring people and beautiful scenery," he said.

"The people in the rural north (of the state) are very different than the more urban south," the bishop noted. "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," Bishop Deeley added. "They care for each other as we are called to do."

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