Given by Greg Schwietz at the Chiang Mai, Thailand, Serra Convention, June 22, 2023
Your Eminences, your Excellencies, Reverend Fathers, Sisters, Serrans and guests;
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you and this great organization as your president over these past 12 months.
This past year has confirmed to me and to my colleagues on the Serra International Board the tremendous power and impact of Serra on today’s Church. Today, allow me to share what I have learned about Serra in the world and to offer a few recommendations as action forward.
Serra, Yesterday and Today… Some statistics
Forty years ago, in 1983, James Brennan of the United States was the Serra International President. It was in that year that I joined Serra in Omaha Nebraska, Club #67. That year, Brennan talked about the growth of Serra in North America which he personally observed through his travels to many cities on the continent that year. He also thanked Past President Frank Metyko, the father of our own incoming Serra President-elect Kurt Metyko, for his personal effort and assistance in the international arena of Serra, including a visit to the recently formed Serra Club of Bangkok, Thailand, the first in this country.
In 1983 Serra membership just broke over 15,000 members worldwide, in 481 clubs in 31 countries. Thirteen new clubs were chartered that year.
This year, 2023, Serra once again boasts of slightly over 15,000 members worldwide, in 450 active clubs, in 18 countries. While we have retracted somewhat from our peak years, suffering from aging membership and lack of recruitment, we have also reconsolidated and trimmed down our organization to match our current membership reality. After shaking off the lingering effects of the recent worldwide COVID pandemic over these past few years, Serra is now beginning to rebound, focusing its efforts on energetically rebuilding its membership ranks.
This year, like the year 1983, 13 new clubs have been chartered or resurrected, adding over 300 members to our ranks worldwide.
Board Activities this year
As president, part if my responsibilities include being the chairman of the Serra International board. Our board consists of 22 Serrans from around the world, representing many of its furthest reaches. Serra is built around its committee structure. The primary committees model those of most clubs: namely Membership, Internal Programs, Vocations, and Communications. In addition, there are many standing and ad-hoc committees which address both one-time and the ongoing needs of the organization.
Finally, enough cannot be said about the ongoing support that the International Office leadership provides to the furthest reaches of our organization, namely by Executive Director John Liston and his capable staff.
Travels of the president
My role as your president exposes me to many elements of Serra. In this position, one quickly finds that Serra is a multifaceted and multi-level organization. As president I quickly came to realize that while I have limited short-term effect, by the earnest application of my past experience and limited, yet unique, talents, I must try to leave it better than how I found it.
Starting at the birthplace of Serra, the US Council is the strongest and largest of the 9 international councils. It consists of almost 200 clubs and 60% of Serra’s worldwide membership. In the past 12 months I have attended 22 separate events, speaking to the membership or leadership of 50 clubs, not counting the Serra National Rally, which was held this year in January in Dallas and which attracted leaders from many clubs from around the country.
Since the early days of the Covid pandemic, the USA Council has provided monthly informative and inspiring Serra Meets speakers which are shared via Zoom to interested Serrans everywhere. The council puts great emphasis on developing club leadership and intermediary training, recognition and awards. There have been measurable membership increases coming from efforts to support the Missionaries of St. Junipero Serra membership initiative. Six new USA clubs have been chartered or restarted these past 12 months, three of which I was present.
Serra Spark usage continues to increase and improve and Spark Ignite parish vocations workshops are being hosted around the country. Loud and sincere thanks go to council president Mike Downey and the entire USA council board for their continued dedication and work.
Brazil and Italy Councils
Both are going through Covid rebounds. They are meeting once again in an organized and very effective way. These two councils are redoubling their efforts to appeal to new members.
Serra is going through a leadership change in Canada. Bishop and priest support is strong across the country. The annual Toronto Ordinandi event is a premier Serra organized event, with its mid-day youth program and evening adult session, nearly 2,000 interested Catholics are introduced to eight soon-to-be ordained transitional deacons.
Recently retired Toronto Cardinal Collins is a continued blessing to Serra in his capacity as Serra International Episcopal Advisor. We are so grateful for his dedication to Serra. Finally, more good news, the first new club charter in Calgary Alberta was recently approved by the Serra board with a charter date set in September, 2023.
There are currently 27 Serra Clubs — one or more in nearly every diocese. Hosting this very memorable and inspiring international convention has highlighted the Serrans in Thailand with a sincere warmth of Christian friendship. As I mentioned earlier, Serra is organized through a system of nine national councils. This year the SI board began moving towards the establishment of two new councils: Paraguay, now with six clubs, including one new club chartered this year in the Diocese of Caacupe, and Central Africa which is centered in three districts and fifteen clubs in Nigeria, four of which were chartered just this year.
In October, we resumed our annual meetings in Rome with our direct link to the Vatican, Cardinal Lazarus You Huang-Sik, recently appointed Prefect of the Dicastery of the Clergy. He was very excited to hear from us, and promised increased cooperation in our efforts to expand Serra into more countries. Later we met with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, then Prefect of the Dicastery of the Bishops and sponsor of the worldwide symposium on the priesthood and, coincidentally, a speaker at this convention. We continue to be blessed with the remarkable connection that we enjoy at the highest levels of the Church hierarchy, and personally I am always humbled by their sincere vocal appreciation of Serra and its worldwide efforts in support of religious vocations.
Challenges: Siempre Adelante
This year, as in every year of Serra’s existence, there are and will be challenges of Serra around the world. Let us once again contemplate some important words of Pope Francis from his June 2017 address as we face the challenges of today’s Serra and the vocational needs of today’s Church:
“So, you too, siempre adelante! With courage, creativity and boldness. Do not be afraid to renew your structures. Do not rest on your laurels but be ever ready to try new things. As in the Olympic Games, may you always be ready to ‘pass the torch,’ above all to future generations, knowing that the flame is lit from on high, precedes our response, and exceeds our efforts. Such is the Christian mission: ‘One sows, and another reaps’ (Jn 4:37).
“Dear brothers and sisters, I encourage you to be true friends to seminarians and priests, showing your love for them by promoting vocations and through prayer and pastoral cooperation. Please, keep pressing forward! Forward in hope, forward with your mission, ever looking beyond, opening new horizons, making room for the young and preparing the future. The Church and priestly vocations need you.
“May Mary Most Holy, Mother of the Church and Mother of priests, be with you every step of the way.” ~Pope Francis to Serrans, Rome, Italy, June 22, 2017.
Accepting Risk: We must put New Wine into New Wineskins.
Our Holy Father’s comments bring to my mind the gospel reading, Matthew 9:17: “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
The first challenge is new club development and member recruitment. This requires new ways of thinking and forming. Examples of new wineskins from this year include: 1) the resurrection of a dormant club in Topeka, Kansas with a re-charter class of 54 Serrans and an average age of under 50 years; 2) a new club in the low population, rural Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, holding many of their monthly meetings electronically via Zoom due to long distances; 3) North Houston Hispanic Serra, the first primary Spanish speaking club in the United States; 4) in addition Nigeria new club expansion; 5) the young Serrans initiative in Mexico and Brazil; these are all descriptions of a new, future Serra.
The second challenge is that we need to grow Serra more significantly worldwide. We claim Serra to be a worldwide apostolate, but with just a little knowledge of geography, we realize that we have a long way to go to truly be worldwide. Thinking about Serra here in Thailand, Asia, we need our own St Francis Xavier, someone like Fr. Jose Clara who decades ago traveled some 8,000 miles from the Hong Kong Serra Club to help establish the first Thailand Serra Club in Bangkok, and then many other Serra clubs in Southeast Asia.
We need more Ralph Hauensteins, past Serra International president from Grand Rapids Michigan and international Serra promoter. the example of this Serra giant should inspire many Serra International leaders to answer the call to promote priesthood and offer the support that Serra can provide to dioceses around the world where Serra does not currently exist. We need more Chainarongs Monthienvithienchai, past Serra International president (2004) from Thailand—Serrans who are influential in the upper levels of the church; we need more Fr. Miguel Solorzanos and Fr Thomas Maddocks—pastors and new club chaplains from Houston and Topeka who take the initiative and lead the formation of non-traditional Serra clubs in both urban and rural dioceses. We need more Serrans like Judy Cozzens and Jerry Biese who helped start the first rural Zoom based in Crookston, Minnesota, a remote diocese in northern United States with a small but inspired Catholic population. And finally, we need more Serrans like Adam Herink and his wife Shannon, who are raising four young sons in the first seminary—the home—where a personal faith is nurtured and the possibility that God may one day call any one of them to a life of joy as a priest, serving the people of God, is a reality.
In short, we need more Serrans like you! Serrans who will step up the to needs of the church today, applying your considerable experience and talents to this remarkable Serra mission.
Serra, Now more than ever!
In conclusion, let us return to the closing comments of President Brennan in his 1983 report. He asks, as I do now, this question: “What can you do for Serra until our next convention, next summer? Let each of us resolve to make certain that Serra International fulfills its great potential for doing good in the world. We can be assured of fulfilling that mandate by adhering to the motto of our patron, St Junipero Serra: Always to go forward, never to turn back.”
Because it’s Serra, now more than ever. And your commitment and involvement has never been more important, more relevant, and more needed than now.