New Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Cross: ‘Vocations Are Gifts From God’ So Be Vigilant About Cultivating Them
Brother Paul Bednarczyk speaks of his groundbreaking election, his work in religious life among ‘educators in the faith,’ and admiration for holy witnesses.
On July 8, Brother Paul Bednarczyk assumed office as superior general of the Congregation of Holy Cross. It was a groundbreaking election because, previously, all 13 superior generals had been priests.
A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he graduated from Notre Dame High School in West Haven in 1975. He pursued his vocation through the congregation’s Eastern Province of Brothers via Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, as CNA reported.
In 1985, Brother Paul took his final vows with the congregation, founded in 1837 by Blessed Basil Moreau. His background is in keeping with the congregation’s emphasis on education: He taught high school in Maryland and then became assistant headmaster at Notre Dame International School in Rome. From there, he served as the congregation’s vocation director for nine years and also as a member of the congregation’s provincial council. Among many other roles, he also served on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, working with major superiors and collaborating with other Catholic organizations around vocations in the United States and internationally.
Brother Paul shared his love of religious life and his congregation — including the holy witnesses whose canonization causes are underway, citing a brother who fought pirates — work with vocations, and hopes and future direction for the congregation during an interview on Aug. 2 from Rome with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.
What was your initial reaction when you were elected superior general?
It was a total surprise. Pope Francis had issued his rescript on the 18th of May. It was a derogation of canon law, allowing brothers to serve as superior generals in mixed congregations of priests and brothers. In our congregation, we have been petitioning the Holy See since 1987 for this privilege, since we already have the privilege of having in our constitutions that a brother could be a provincial within a mixed province. We were asking if we could simply do that on the congregational level. So this rescript came totally out of the blue, and we were surprised by that. It was issued on May 18, we entered into our chapter on June 19, and I was elected superior general on July 1. So this was nothing that I was anticipating. It really kind of took me by surprise. I’m still trying to process it. But I’m just very grateful to Pope Francis for his courage as well as his fortitude in issuing this rescript because I believe that it becomes not only a recognition and affirmation of the brother’s vocation within the Church, but it really is an unprecedented validation of the vocation.
I’m very much aware of Church terminology, canonical language. But people will say that I’m the first non-cleric [elected]. I don’t think of myself as a non-cleric; I think of myself as a brother.
What do you see standing out in particular from what you’ve done over the years with Holy Cross and elsewhere that will help you in your new role?
I do think having served on my provincial council for four terms helped prepare me for religious leadership as well as my work with the National Religious Vocation Conference, which gave me the ability to see a breadth of the Church in the United States.
In 2002, I became the executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference.
That was a ministry that I loved because it gave me a very broad perspective of Church as well as religious life, since I was dealing with the vocation directors of both men’s and women’s communities not only in the United States but in 16 countries. So it was a fascinating work for me.
One thing that I was very proud of in my work at the National Religious Vocation Conference was that I established the National Fund for Catholic Religious Vocations to assist religious communities in financing the educational debt of candidates for religious life. As of this year, we had assisted 52 candidates at over a million dollars. Educational debt was an impediment in bringing people to religious life. The communities couldn’t afford to pay that off.
But then, in 2016, after serving 14 years with the National Religious Vocation Conference, I was elected vicar general for the congregation. I was vicar general since then, until recently elected superior general.
I believe the past six years have been a wonderful opportunity for me to meet our members around the globe. We have 17 jurisdictions; I have visited all of them but one country now. I never got to Peru. I have visited our members, I have seen their ministries, and I have been impressed with their commitment to our mission of Holy Cross, which is to be educators in the faith in our parishes, in our schools, and in our social ministries. I’m just very grateful for that opportunity because it really has enabled me to fall in love again with our charism as well as with our mission of Holy Cross.
Do you have any particular immediate plans upon taking the reins?
Two things come to mind. The Holy Father has spoken an awful lot about synodality. That was one of our topics at the general chapter. So I would like to use some of those concepts of synodality with our general council. As leadership, we need to be listeners, first of all to our members as well as to our colleagues in ministry. We need to listen and to discern what it is that God is really asking us. Also, the sense of communion and mission that Pope Francis speaks of — that’s one of the things that I certainly would like to implement within the leadership of the congregation.
The second thing is that we have been given a rather ambitious agenda from our general chapter with our legislation. We have established two new provinces in India as well as in Africa, and they will require some accompaniment in their early stages. We have also restructured our provinces in North America, creating one province. So that will be another challenge, working with the provincials. We will continue to strengthen our consecrated life and continue our vibrant vocation and formation programs, as well as establishing new missions in countries where Holy Cross has not been before. That’s an ambitious agenda, but I do think it’s doable.
Have you given any thought to long-term goals or direction for your congregation?
We have been blessed in the United States with vocations as well as around the world. But I always say that vocations are gifts from God, and we need to be grateful for them. And because they are a gift, they’re given, but there may come a time when they may not be there. So it’s something that we also need to be very vigilant about.
I do believe that there are young men who would be interested in our mission. As you know, it is very challenging in the Western world. However, I do see some encouraging pockets. In France, for instance, with our congregation, we have some new postulants. We just professed seven men on Saturday [July 30] in North America who have taken their first vows. So that vocation question is one that we must always keep in the forefront.
Not only the vocations, but it’s the formation, ensuring that we have quality formators, people who are trained in formation, because I believe that the foundation that our young people receive in their early years of spiritual training will be what carries them through in their religious lives. Formation must be solid, it must be rooted, and we must have competent people in order to do this because our young people are our future.
And I do believe that we need to train our young people in leadership, not only leadership for future religious leadership in the congregation, but leadership in schools and parishes. That’s something I would like to look into and how we could do that around a collaborative, collegial system of working with our colleagues. I just see that as being extremely important because we’re preparing our future leaders within the Church.
Will you be involved in working on the beatification cause of Father Patrick Peyton?
I was vice postulator for our causes of saints when I was vicar general. Father Peyton’s cause for canonization comes under Holy Cross Family Ministries, which is one of our ministries, but it does not come under the general administration at this point.
Of course, we’re very proud of our St. Brother André [Bessette], the founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. I’m amazed at the number of people who know Brother André. When I tell them, “I’m a Holy Cross brother,” they often say, “Same as Brother André!”
We continue to promote the canonization of our founder, Blessed Basil Moreau.
I’m also very proud of the fact that Bishop Kevin Rhoades in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend just announced that one of our brothers is a Servant of God, Brother Columba O’Neill, who was nicknamed the “Brother André” of Notre Dame. Right now, Father Peyton is “Venerable,” and I anticipate that his beatification will take place, hopefully, within a couple of years.
We also have three other Servants of God: Archbishop Theotonius Ganguly, the first Bengali bishop in Bangladesh; Brother Flavian LaPlante, a French-Canadian missionary who had a fascinating life [working in Bangladesh]; and also Bishop Vincent McCauley, first bishop of Fort Portal, Uganda. I pray for their intercession frequently. We’re very proud of the fact that we have these models of faith in the congregation.
Do you have any particular highlight during your years with the congregation that you look back fondly upon or that stands out?
I would continue to say that it’s primarily meeting our Holy Cross religious around the world. It’s wonderful to see our charism as well as our mission being moved out in other parts of the world. For instance, I was in one of our houses in this remote area of India, and you felt as though you’re at the end of the world. But then, when you walk into the house, you see our symbol of the cross and anchor, you see a photo of Brother André, of Blessed Basile Moreau, and you know that you’re home. Having this experience of our internationality has been a great gift for me because you can see it’s very much like the Gospel. The Gospel is lived out in different countries, different cultures, and even though in Holy Cross we share the same rule, the same tradition, it’s different in, say, West Africa than it is in North America, but it’s still Holy Cross, and it’s still authentic. That has been a most enriching experience for me. It has opened my eyes, in many ways. I’m in a very privileged position that way.
Do you have any special personal devotions?
I have to say my work as vice postulator has really cultivated within me a greater devotion to the saints and to the lives of the saints, as their stories of faith are inspirational to me. I just love reading stories about these holy men and women.
But in particular, I do have a devotion to Brother André as well as to our founder and to Flavian LaPlante. He was an amazing missionary. He fought sea pirates. He fought for the rights of the poor fisherman and became a hermit in his elder years. I would say those three in particular. But definitely my work, as far as vice postulator, has only increased my respect, my esteem and devotion to the saints of the Church and how important that is for the People of God to have these role models to aspire to.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with readers?
I would just like to say I believe that Pope Francis’ vision is changing the Church. With his recent revision of the apostolic constitution, his renewal of the Roman Curia and its structure, he is changing the face of leadership within the Church. And I think his rescript from May 18 is consistent with that. I think that is encouraging to the People of God.
In his apostolic constitution, he said that each Christian, by virtue of their baptism, is a missionary disciple, and therefore they should be involved in roles of government and responsibility within the Church.
I think that’s a wonderful message to the People of God, that the future is not just in the hands of the hierarchy and the clergy, but as baptized Christians, as baptized Catholics, we all share in that responsibility.
So I think it really becomes that renewed commitment to that synodal approach to government, that we do become a Church that listens. And I want to be a superior general who listens. St. James, in his epistle, said, “Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak” (1:19). So I think that’s wise advice that I need to take.
- reliigous vocations
- congregation of holy cross
- joseph pronechen
- father patrick peyton
- Blessed Basil Moreau
- religious life
- st. andré bessette