Conversation with Tony — #2: The Prophetic Path

Conversation with Tony — #2: The Prophetic Path

Picture: the Prophetic Path (New Mexico; Richard Rohr)

Background: Those of you who have read some of my most recent blog posts regarding conversations with my deceased parents are familiar with this literary technique. It has provided nuance in describing my antiracism journey and helped illuminate the foundational aspects of my life’s journey in “understanding racism” as well as other discoveries since publication of my memoir about a year ago.

I developed nine conversations with them, one for each chapter of the book, in ways that we may have talked with each other as if they were still alive.  The dialogue was framed in a way that provides some insight on who I think they were as people of the times they lived in, as well as the significant influences they were as my parents.

I continue this conversational approach for the second time with another person who has also had a significant impact on my life. My good friend Fr. Tony Valente, who is featured in Chapter 4 of the book, was a charismatic priest in the Diocese of Rochester for over thirty-five years until his untimely death in 1995.

A cautionary note: I will be relying on my memory of him as a friend and try not to overstep into his living role as priest, and only anecdotally based on my many observations during the last fifteen years of his life. If you have the book, you might want to refer to Chapter 4 for more background as to how he influenced my life.

I also recognize that much of this particular conversation is framed around the Catholic Church and I have attempted to both explain related terminology as well as be mindful of other faith orientations. The ideas expressed I hope will be taken in a broad, universal context well beyond those of us who are Catholic.

So we start …

Me: “Welcome back, Tony! As you implied when we concluded our previous conversation, there is a lot more to discuss. I’d appreciate any thoughts or insights you may want to start out with.”

Tony: “It is great to be back with you, Bill, and I hope you had a great holiday season. To get right into it, one of the things you mentioned early on when we talked last is that many Catholics are no longer attending Sunday Mass, or perhaps like yourself are exploring other alternatives vs. the local parish.

You may recall from our Parish Council days at Blessed Sacrament over forty years ago that we discussed the growing (even at that time) Diocesan and overall Church dilemma about the declining number of active priests. I realize that this priest situation is much, much worse today resulting in a significant number of consolidations and shutdowns of parishes and schools locally as well as unfortunately across the country.

 How do you think this has impacted the declining engagement of the laity and are there other possible contributing factors?”

Me: “It has been stated by Diocesan officials I’ve talked to recently that the number of active Diocesan priests today numbers about eighty or so and it is projected that in 3-5 years, at least one-third of those will become inactive for one reason or another. To counter this, things like regularly scheduled priest retirements at age 75 are being deferred, and several “retired” priests, some well into their eighties, continue to assist active pastors at parishes.

Furthermore, and as you will remember, back in the early 80s the Permanent Diaconate program began. However, Deacon numbers are rapidly dwindling too with coincidentally close to the same declining/disturbing numbers and projections as for active priests.

At the same time, there are local Diocesan restrictions such as lay preaching especially for women. So, more consolidations and shutdowns are likely to occur (an accelerating downward spiral in my view) and Diocesan officials should take pause to assess how far it can go in that direction without becoming counter-productive.

Alternatives to offsetting these losses, especially given the Church’s overall stance on celibacy and the ministerial role of women, to name just two possible areas offering solutions, will be very challenging.

To complicate matters further, I feel this consolidation movement, as dire as it suggests, is not the real reason for the decline in church attendance/engagement. And one notable outcome of this increasing disengagement is the growing phenomena and demographic known as the ‘Nones’, or those who claim ‘no religion,’. They are purported to be the largest religious demographic in the US.

To digress a bit, according to one recent report in 2021 from, those of ‘no religion’ (23.1%) are statistically the same size as evangelicals (22.8%). There was also a small resurgence of mainline Protestants, while Catholics are down 3% in the last four years. For Americans, this is new territory, and represents a marked departure of where our nation has been throughout its history.

Therefore, those claiming no religious faith whatsoever now outnumber those who claim to belong to any other religious group, including both Catholics and Evangelical Christians!”

Tony: “This is very disturbing to hear. So, at least for the Catholic Church, what do you think are the causes of laity disengagement beyond the dramatic decreasing number of clergy and related outcomes of that disturbing trend?”

Me: “To be blunt, I believe the key reasons for laity disengagement are that many (though not all) of the clergy and Diocesan officials are ineffectively engaged with the more modern, diverse elements of the laity (or potential laity if you include the many ‘Catholic Nones’); secondly, our faith leaders are seemingly dissonant and lack the required desire to actively listen to these more non-traditional voices; and they are also systemically challenged in providing consistent education and awareness to the overall laity regarding the Church’s social justice policies.

Said another way, there is much official clergy avoidance of acting with ‘radical and loving intentionality’ in the full Jesus or St. Francis ‘beatitudinal’ spirit, and I believe the laity must dramatically, forcefully, and lovingly step-up to assist them. But I realize that this is much easier to say than to do!

I have attempted to do this within my own “work” as we discussed the last time and admittedly with little impact so far; but that does not deter me from continuing, including with this conversation.”

Tony: “It appears to me that what also is lacking is an overall localized ‘prophetic vision’. I suggest it as “local” since that makes this ‘call’ more of a manageable task (despite its complexities) vs. thinking of it as ‘just’ a Rome/Vatican matter or problem.

 It is very easy and tempting to ‘kick the can’ upstream! But nothing important will happen by deflecting these matters to a higher level, while keeping it at a local level also opens up the door for lay participation in forming a new vision … i.e., regular folk including church-goers as well as the ‘Nones’ working with Diocesan and pastoral leaders … and within a co-leadership spirit.

An example of this goes back to the early 80s when you and I worked on setting up one of the first homeless shelters in the basement of Blessed Sacrament Church. That got some people riled up but the shelter’s legacy has been sustained to this day with the well-known Supper Program that Blessed Sacrament still runs today (see

Given the issues of modern life over forty years later, one thought regarding moving towards the making of a ‘prophetic vision’ would be to consider a Diocesan-wide Synod** process similar to what’s going on with the worldwide Church presently. And I’m sure there was probably much input provided from people, Catholics as well as non-Catholics, in this Diocese that could be utilized to jump start these discussions.

I must also say that I love and admire your framing of whatever might happen as “acting with radical (prophetic?) and loving intentionality”. I’m sure any reader of this discussion would like to hear you describe more about this including my addition of ‘prophetic’ to the phrase.”

** Synod Definition:

A council of a Christian denomination, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration or application.

Me: “As good fortune would have it, Fr. Richard Rohr’s 2023 theme for his Daily Meditations is titled ‘Choosing the Prophetic Path’. The following are some excerpts from some recent meditations:

1.4.22 … “Have you ever felt as if God’s Spirit was on you? Although many of the prophets in the Bible are presented as single carriers of God’s word, often there was a community of other prophets that they came from or were associated with. And so, who is your community? … If you’re called to the prophetic task, and I think in some aspects all of us are—where is your prophetic community that will feed you and support you and guide you and help you?”

1.5.22 …  “How do you interpret the events of your life? How do you measure them? Do you live your life on the basis that all that there is to you and what you do is wrapped up in the movement, the isolated, circumscribed movement, pulse beat of your little life? Now, if you do, then you know, you see, that the very nature of life is of such that it is fixed … it is finished, it is complete, and you know you can’t do anything about anything anyway so you don’t try.

Now there is another point of view, and this is the point of view of the prophet. And that is that human life, as well as the lives of nations, takes place within a context that is dynamic. That always when I am in the presence of any event, I am caught in an encounter with a series of potentials that spread out in the widest possible directions and with the most amazing variety of variation. So that if I am alert in the presence of the event, I seek to deal with the event in terms not merely of what it says, what it looks like, but in terms of what seems to me to be the dynamics of the event, the potentials of the event.

Do you deal with events of your life in that way? Do you believe that life is really dynamic? That it isn’t quite finished yet? That not only are you involved always in a circling series of potentials, but that you are potential. You, potential. And no time band, no time interval is able quite to contain you and the dynamics of your life and your situation. Do you believe that?”

Tony: “So, beyond the profound words in these Rohr meditations, what else might you suggest that people can do to activate the “prophetic path” in their own lives whether working within the local Church, other faith communities, or on social/racial justice matters in general?”

Me: “That is more or less a lead-in to reading my memoir since it is essentially the story about my personal experience in answering the oft-faced question of “but what can one person do?” In my opinion, Rohr answers that more eloquently than I ever could. But in terms of some practical, fairly straightforward examples, I offer the following:

  1. Most importantly, move towards an increasingly hopeful, grateful, loving spirit in your daily life. Locally the Mercy Spirituality Center (see is a tremendous resource. This Center is open for people of all faiths, committed to the belief that each of us needs time apart to find, deepen, or refresh our connection to what matters most in life. (Note: in full disclosure, I will be doing an online program with the Center on 1/18.)
  2. It should be no surprise that I recommend the study and read the writings of Fr. Richard Rohr (see; most importantly, see the ones beginning this year on the prophets including those among us today
  3. As my memoir and blog posts have repeatedly suggested, strengthening and broadening relationships is essential. As Rohr said in his 1.6.23 Meditation: “The prophets perceive God as energizing this journey, animating all life forms to bring forth new ways, to explore new relationships.”
  4. Then through these relationships, challenge your listening skills and utilize the power of the ‘question’, or saying something in conversations such as “tell me more” to demonstrate your authentic attention to ‘their’ presence
  5. To take this a step further, adopt a ‘call-in’ attitude vs. the offensive ‘call-out’ culture especially prevalent on social media (see This podcast “offers a compelling mode of engagement that is insistently open-minded and large-hearted, no matter where you stand on the political divide.”
  6. Read a recent article by my friend Joyce Herman titled ‘Why Antisemitism Should be Everyone’s Concern’ (see  In an email about her writing, Joyce said: “I know that you share my fervent desire for more light in all aspects of our lives. In the new year, may that light bring justice, health, joy, and kindness to you and yours. And since we are all interconnected, may those qualities be reflected everywhere.” My comment: please read it … and then more importantly act!
  7. The laity, no matter what your faith and even if you consider yourself a ‘None’, must demand more from our clergy and move from being mere ‘sheep’ in the pews
  8. At the same time and perhaps counterintuitively, we must lower the bar regarding our expectations of the clergy and boldly request of our faith leaders… with radical, loving, and prophetic intentionality! …  how we can help them on our prophetic path together

I could go on but I’d like to pause for your thoughts and reflections.”

Tony: “I really appreciate your outlining what I would call some commonsense and thoughtful recommendations These can assist in moving towards inclusion and possible common ground within the Church, its faithful and those non-faithful, as well as other faith communities. As you stated, any movement begins with prayer in order to properly discern the individual and collective actions that might be appropriate. I found in my own life that everything starts within an open HEART and loving SPIRIT before important work can happen.

In order to do this, people should acknowledge and even somehow honor their own mistakes as part of life’s journey. Then hopefully this leads to a combination of individual/mutual/collective awareness that we are all on the same path. Through these newly found insights, enlightenment builds on this ‘truth learning’ and leads to a form of individual and community reconciliation. Another essential element I want to reiterate based on what you said is authentic listening. This is an underemphasized skill that should not be taken lightly and must be practiced to attain true relationship.

Each of these initial steps I believe are foundational to broadening and strengthening relationships which, as you mention so much, are the true connecting points for effective understanding of each other. In some strange and somewhat unexplainable way, we are all ‘others’ to each other no matter what our faith, color, and beliefs… even within families or communities where we profess to know and love each other.

A personal recollection and example of ‘coming together’ from our days at Blessed Sacrament was how the homeless shelter came to be. This is a small, beatitudinal example of how dozens of committed individuals were able to literally open up the Church doors to the ‘marginalized of the marginalized’ much to the consternation of others in the parish.

It was a very controversial initiative as you will recall, yet its legacy thrives to this day since the remnants of that starting point unfortunately continue to be necessary in the form of the supper program mentioned previously.

Additionally, I’d like to highlight the example you gave in your book about your own personal failure in connecting to the needs of a street person named Dimitri. Hopefully by you taking the risk to reveal this memory suggests to others that admitting our individual ‘stumbling and bumbling’ in life is a powerful, meaningful, and necessary first step on the ‘prophetic journey’ that may help others understand theirs.

Lastly, before I conclude this mini-sermon(!), I’d like to mention the importance of our YOUTH — who are both our present AND our future. This includes our youngsters, young adults, and all those just starting out on their individual paths as adults. They all should be listened to just like Jesus encouraged us to do and even allowed and encouraged to lead. I would even go as far as to say that in many cases adults and elders should graciously step-aside to serve as mentors, guides, and allies allowing these new eyes and hopeful voices to be heard. And trust me, the young people will know if this is done with sincerity.

Based on where we older folks find ourselves today in this so-called modern Church or world, we can’t do any worse, can we?”

Me: “You ‘nailed it’ as you usually did with your insightful reflections years ago. I recall the children flocking to you including our youngest son who not by coincidence is also your Godson. So, this is just another recollective memory of our time together on this earth that still carries on today through these conversations.

But it’s important to move from reflections and discussions like this and put these words into action once read or heard. So, in closing I simply ask any reader: “what’s your call?” You don’t even have to add the perhaps intimidating term of ‘prophetic’ to it.

I encourage any reader to please refere back to the excerpts of the Rohr meditations above which conclude as follows:

“Do you deal with events of your life in that way? Do you believe that life is really dynamic? That it isn’t quite finished yet? That not only are you involved always in a circling series of potentials, but that you are potential. You, potential. And no time band, no time interval is able quite to contain you and the dynamics of your life and your situation. Do you believe that?”

If you do choose to believe that, I hope you then take that courageous next step on your personal prophetic path.

So, until the next time Tony, many thanks for assisting me in conjuring up these important messages at the beginning of this new year here on earth. Our discussion and the many memories of the shared time we had together are a tremendous kickoff to the year and enveloped in much hope looking ahead.”

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Comments ( 4 )

  • Terry

    This talk that you had with Tony is a lot to digest. What I got mostly was the changes in the Catholic Church. I have seen those changes and over the years I became a NONE. This past year has been overwhelming for me. I am looking to understand more of the spirit of us human beings. This past year was the first time I recognized my mortality. I think at some point, I need to feel for some type of spirituality. I don’t have that now. Reading your blogs is helpful. Thanks Bill

  • Joyce Herman

    Fr. Tony must have been quite an inspiration. Bill, I appreciate your honesty and courage in naming your struggle and sharing it, and am deeply grateful to be in community with you and others of whatever religious background who are on an inquiring spiritual path.

    And thank you so much for your kind reference to my blog.

  • W.E.Wynne

    Thanks, Terry for your note and your honesty … that’s where it all begins! … Bill

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