Just as a fish tank needs a delicately balanced environment for fish to thrive, the Diocese of Wichita provided the right environment for stewardship to thrive in the years immediately following Vatican II. The ingredients for this balance were fourfold: inspired pastors, highly engaged lay leadership, visionary bishops, and a collaborative presbyterate.
Lay involvement through such efforts as Marriage Encounter and the Charismatic Movement produced highly motivated leadership that provided the seedbed for stewardship to flourish. Msgr. Robert Hemberger, former Vicar General of the diocese, said that these movements heralded “the awakening of a sleeping giant among the laity ... They were more than simple adult education; they were also spiritual formation.”
At the same time, in the year 1959, a young priest by the name of Fr. Thomas McGread, now known as Monsignor McGread, was looking for a new way to engage parishioners in the life of a parish. Msgr. McGread recalled: “Some Catholic pastors were trying to come up with a Catholic theology for the Protestant idea of tithing. One of the things I noticed in their writings was that there was a tremendous emphasis on the fact that people are looking for standards in life. If we’re looking for standards in life, we also must be looking for standards in our relationship with God. I realized there must be more to this idea of building a relationship with God. So that’s when I came up with the idea that all of us have a certain amount of time in this world, and all of us have a certain amount of talent.”
Armed with this conviction, McGread took this message to four parishes within 10 years from 1958 to 1968 until he was made pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in West Wichita. It was in this parish where stewardship spread its wings as it is practiced today in Wichita. One parish document stated: “Msgr. McGread’s message was simple: strive to share our gifts of time, talent, and treasure for the service of God and all His people. Do this out of thanksgiving for all that He has given us.”
Knowing people were striving for standards, Msgr. McGread put those standards squarely in front of them. With the persistence of “a steady drum beat,” he encouraged his parishioners to “give time to spouse, to family, God, and parish.”
In the 1960s, St. Francis of Assisi Parish was on the verge of closing its school. It was in this environment that Msgr. McGread proposed the idea of Catholic schools as an extension of the parish mission, with no tuition. By the 1970s, this same parish was burgeoning with good income and a growing population. Simple mathematics coupled with highly engaged parishioners made the decision to go to stewardship- provided Catholic education, in both grade school and high school, easier to adopt.
Later in the same decade, on the other side of town, Msgr. Bill Regan successfully presented this way of life to the Church of the Magdalen. It was a historically important moment, as Hemberger relates, “It showed that the theology, spirituality, and practice of stewardship was bigger than Fr. Tom McGread or some special charisma that he had or just the favorable demographics at St. Francis.”
About the same time Bishop Eugene J. Gerber, originally a priest of the Diocese of Wichita, returned to Wichita from Dodge City. As a young priest of Wichita, he witnessed the development of the stewardship way of life, its effects on people and parishes, and its blessings for the entire diocese. Returning as its bishop, he joined Msgr. McGread as one of the pioneers of this way of life both within the diocese as well as nationally.
In 1985 two key events took place: A People Gathered, a series of diocesan listening sessions, and Emmaus, a convocation of priests. Concurrently new lay movements were again stirring in the diocese, specifically, Cursillo and Perpetual Adoration. The confluence of these events created a new environment of engaged lay people, now coupled with a motivated presbyterate. The decision was made for the entire diocese to adopt stewardship as a way of life under the title of United Catholic Stewardship. It took 25 years to arrive at the fruits we now experience.
Today, Stewardship is in a new generation. A new understanding needs to be articulated. A new flame needs to burst forth. That is the torch we need to pick up.
Father Jarrod Lies, Pastor