Sunday, April 1, 2012

Priesthood, ever old and ever new

Conference for Presbyterate

of Latin Diocese of Mukachevo – Holy Week 2012

          “Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?”
          In these last months, by way of the various means of communication which the Vatican has at its disposal, we have been treated to the Holy Father’s ad Limina talks addressed to the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. If we have occasion to read these talks from the Pope to the American bishops, you and I can have some insight into the priorities and issues facing the Church there and perhaps elsewhere in the world as well. Rightly, Pope Benedict does not waste much time bemoaning the secularization of society (which to a great extent is the central problem of our day), but rather he puts the focus on evangelization, on how to proclaim the Gospel, on how to bring this world of ours to Jesus Christ, our Joy and our Salvation. At our level, I’d like to do something similar with you here today. I want to talk to you a little bit today about the urgency of leading all to Christ, about your responsibility as priests here in the diocese of Mukachevo for bringing the Good News to those around you, of enabling others to choose life rather than simply let death overtake them.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing my bishop friends and colleagues in America today is the same one facing the Catholic Church in Ukraine, even if the origins of this challenge are quite different on that side of the Atlantic as opposed to here on this side. If I had to formulate the content or the substance of this challenge as one specific question facing the leadership of the Church (here and there) it could go something like this: With too few priests for the kind of ministry centered on the parish which we have always known and with most of these men ordained only a few years, how do we go about fostering Catholic life? How do we proclaim the Gospel (evangelize) in a way which meets the needs of our people and reaches out beyond ourselves to all of those sitting in darkness, yes, in the shadow of death? Given our human and priestly resources, how do we build up the Church, how do we build up the Kingdom of God in our day and time?
          You might rightly ask, why am I posing to you priests a question which in the first place must be faced by bishops and, if we stretch things slightly, then also by the bishop’s vicars general and specific? Most priests do not see pastoral strategy as a part of their portfolio nor really need that be so. Over history the most successful priests and the greatest saints among them (like the patron saint of parish priests, St. Jean Marie Vianney) have always been those who stuck to basics, dedicating themselves to the administration of the sacraments, to prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people entrusted to their care. Besides celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they were constantly teaching and readily available to hear confessions, visit the sick and bury the dead. The best priests in the history of the Church have not been known for sitting at the planning table but rather for getting the job done, for sacrificing themselves for the good of the flock entrusted to their care.
Very simply I’d say: that is indeed the case. However, in this new world of ours in some ways different from times past you as a priest have a double responsibility: on the one hand, to counsel and encourage your bishop as his college of presbyters, as the bishop seeks ways to serve the needs of the Church and of the faithful in these different and difficult times; on the other hand, like the curé of Ars you need to live the essential life of a good and zealous priest. While contributing to future strategies, you, like the 12 year old boy Jesus in the Temple, you have to be about your Father’s business. Your fundamental job description has never changed, will never change, and urgently calls you to act and to do so with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.
          To introduce this talk, I just read to you one of the questions posed by the bishop in the renewal of priestly promises from the Chrism Mass; I did so not so much to offer you an answer to my question about how we contribute specifically as priests to building up the Church in our time but as to point out really how difficult the question is to answer. In conscience I cannot recommend taking the promises I made on my ordination day as the single best roadmap for guiding my priestly ministry.
Don’t misunderstand me! While it certainly would be great if I took the promises I made on the day of my ordination, including that of obedience to my bishop and his successors, and conscientiously measured myself over and against them, striving always to do better, that would not be enough. It would be a great start and a great help, I think, for most of us priests, but it is not sufficient as method or approach. Where do I stand in terms of what I promised on my ordination day? I ask the question, while stating at the very same time that renewing my promises from time to time is not enough; life is growth, not necessarily a march forward (progress, if you will), but certainly always a deepening of my appreciation of things based on insight derived from experience and reflection.
          I don’t know if a similar saying exists in Ukrainian, but in English we say, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Wishing or willing alone does not really accomplish anything and for many people promises are little more than wishful or well-intended resolve. In terms of vocation discernment, I have to think twice before accepting a young man into the seminary who comes from a totally dysfunctional family: he may be well-intentioned, but confession and counseling may not be enough to prepare him to accept the burdens of the priesthood. In a sense I would be foolish to recommend to you, as if it were enough, to look again and again at the promises you made on the day of your ordination. Why then do we renew them each year in the Mass of Holy Chrism? I think that it is celebratory for us priests and instructive for the faithful who take part in the liturgy. As I mentioned in my homily, I think today’s celebration can stir the faithful to aid you, to pray for you, to challenge you to be a better priest.
Renewing promises is not a dynamic process in the sense that it is not dynamic enough to achieve personal renewal; it is sort of like the custom in some counties, like my own, of renewing marriage vows. The people who renew their marriage vows in public on their 25th or 50th wedding anniversary do so to celebrate, they do so knowing full well that their marriage vows have become much more for them personally, they have become much more intelligible, filled with more meaning, more joy and a lot more pain. Their vows now have a rich history; in a sense the couple has moved beyond them. Most long-term and faithfully, happily married people will look back with a smile at the thought of their firm purpose on that wedding day and say “Yes, weren’t we young back then!”
The same is true with our priestly promises. Renewing them in a liturgical context is positive but not bent on personal renewal. For better or for worse, we priests too have moved beyond who we were on ordination day. Granted, it will never be enough, we can always grow and at some point or other, looking at those ordination day promises, we may figure out that, despite our desire “to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him”, to Jesus the Perfect Man, the Son of God, Who took His place at the right hand of the Father already at 33 years of age, we still fall short at 60 years plus of that perfection which is required of us for our own sake and for the sake of the salvation of His People.
          We are fewer priests than in days now long gone and for the moment quite a few of us are very young. How does the Church go about building up the Kingdom without sufficient numbers and with young men who sometimes, for lack of maturity, grate on the nerves of their parishioners? Certainly, we do the best we can; we don’t have any other option. Here in Ukraine the present situation is basically the fruit of upheaval and persecution of the Church throughout most if not just about all of the 20th century. We can only be thankful, as Catholic Church, that we have made what amounts to a miraculous comeback after National Socialism and Communism did so much to try and destroy us.
On the other side of the Atlantic there was no such terrible suffering for the Church, in fact, many people from here found refuge over there. In the Americas, however, the social upheaval of the last three decades of the 20th century did similar harm and placed all sorts of obstacles in the way of young men following their call from God to priesthood. The few good men who are there today are faced with the challenge of bringing a society to Christ, a society which, more than ever before in modern times, is not exactly healthy. Our society, in point of fact, is much more generally disordered and lacking safe and sacred spaces for children and therefore also for youth and adults than in any time or any where other than in war zones. The social status of priests, at least for Catholic priests, is a far cry from what those who have gone before us enjoyed in another day and time.
          Without much effort, I guess I could develop my topic into a week-long retreat, but I think it is time to repeat and summarize again these two points about you, really, about your situation, your task, your duty for the sake of the life of the world, starting from the parish or chaplaincy where you find yourself today:
1. We need to reflect on the concrete situation in which we find ourselves; we need to turn matters over to God in prayer; we need to offer to our bishop, for the good of the diocese as local Church, our insights as brother priests, as a presbyterate, a college of priests. Why do I say college of priests? I am thinking of the patristic image of the bishop and his clergy as the image of the Most Holy Trinity: The bishop is seen as God, the Father, his deacons standing beside him and ready for service in the ministry of charity as God, the Son, and the presbyters seated around him in council as God, the Holy Spirit. I would hope that your bishop had more time for reflection and analysis than you do, but you need to share your experience with him just the same; you need to support him and urge him on for the sake of the whole flock entrusted to his care.
2. Guided by the example of traditional models of priestly sanctity, we need to give ourselves entirely to celebrating the sacraments for the good of God’s people, to being teachers and guides for them. Looking ahead to the Year of Faith which Our Holy Father has proclaimed starting this next autumn, we need to so order our lives that we have time for study, both for our sake, that is, for our own growth in faith, and for the sake of the people entrusted to our care. Regardless of how great your seminary training was, you need to continue studying and reading approved authors. When preparing your Sunday homilies, besides the Scriptures, you need to have the Catechism of the Catholic Church at your side; you need to know it and how to use it. I admire the fact that most of you are multi-lingual, but I know myself that it is one thing to speak another language or to be able to celebrate Mass in another language and quite another to read in that foreign language. What can I say? If what you need for the sake of your people or for your own spiritual nourishment is not available in your mother tongue, then you have to bite the bullet and do the hard work of thoroughly appropriating another language.
          In times past, that was sufficient as a plan. Today we find ourselves less than equal to the task because others deny the sufficiency of what we say and do. I have not been here in Ukraine long enough to know if it happens here or not, but especially in the Americas, despite the cry for more young priests, there is a genuine intolerance on the part of many, when those young priests are there and then proceed to act their age. The ages of a man are what they are. A priest in his late twenties or early thirties may assess a certain situation with the same accuracy as an older man, but his assessment might have a bit of an edge; it might actually be brutal. All of the great spiritual authors, Fathers and Doctors of the Church tend to teach that patience, for instance, is not infused but rather learned or cultivated through a schooling which is painful and for some of us even lengthy; it is a matter of failing and then starting over again. An older priest may not have all the energy for activities, but he may have acquired a lot of virtues and gifts in the course of his ministry. There is no substitute for experience.
          To the older men among you, I would say, greet and accept your younger brethren with great joy and gratitude! Be available to them and help them in their struggle to mature in the priesthood which is already fully theirs!
          To the young men among you, I would say, rise to the occasion! In all humility, learn from your mistakes, curb your excesses and give of yourselves totally after the manner of Jesus Christ. The Perfect Man only made it to 33 years of age here on this earth. Identify with Him Who invites us to share His yoke, to learn from Him, meek and humble of heart as He is.
          “Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?”


  1. Reading the last part of this post, I remembered a quotation from St. Philip Neri:

    "If you wish to go to extremes, let it be in sweetness, patience, humility and charity."

  2. Yes! Today I read a meditation in German which described a number of the characteristics of holiness, sanctity, Godliness. One of them was "Absichtslosigkeit", and as attributable to God in and of Himself. St. Philip goes well with that. I'll keep you posted on how the thought develops.


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