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Priestly Spirituality

,Saturday, July 24, 2010

Diocesan Spirituality-A Reflection

The following is a reflection on the Priestly Year

Holy Father Pope Benedict XV1 proclaimed on Friday 19, June 2009, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus , in celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of St. John Mary Vianney ,2009-10 as the Year of Priests to highlight the meaning and the importance of Priesthood. Declaring the celebration, he said: “ I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and labors.” Without any note of triumphalism, the Holy Father pointed out the greatness and awesomeness of the priestly gift, acknowledging at the same time that this gift is given to weak and fragile human beings.

Because of the various scandals associated with a few priests in the U.S. and Europe, there was a widespread diminution of the image of the priesthood in the secular media. All the good that was accomplished by the sacrificial lives of thousands of priests all across the world was misrepresented. The consolation and comfort offered by the clergy to millions of people in their spiritual struggles have been very callously ignored. Who can give a satisfactory account of the millions of hours the priests have spent in consoling and comforting the bereaved, in offering spiritual support to the millions who have come to the confessionals, in administering the sacraments, in offering the Eucharist from day-break to sunset in all the continents of the world, and in engaging in the development of the rural areas of the world?

Hence it is right and fitting that a year should be chosen to highlight the spiritual magnificence of the Catholic priesthood. The late Holy Father in his Apostolic exhortation, Pastores Da Vobis has pointed out:

“ Priests are called to prolong the presence of Christ, the one high priest, embodying his way of life and making him visible in the midst of the flock entrusted to their care….Priests exist and act in order to proclaim the Gospel and to build up the Church in the name and person of Christ , the head and the shepherd.”

Cataclysmic changes have taken place in the world of Catholic priesthood in the US. According to a research study of modern Catholic priesthood in the U.S., done by Dean Hoge, published under the title “Evolving Vision of Priesthood”, the number of priests and vocations to the priesthood has come sharply down. “In 2001 there were 30,223 diocesan priests and 14,968 religious priests…..for a total of 45,191.This compares with 57,317 in 1985, or a decline of about 12% to 14% per decade.” The study adds further: “This number has been thinning down through the years in the U.S….The number of Catholics in the U.S. has risen continually over the past century. In 1970, the estimated number was 47 million and in 2000, it was about 61 million.” A similar change was happening at the educational level of Catholics. According to this study, in the mid 1920s , about 6% of all American Catholics had college degrees, and in 1980, it was 28%.”.What is shown by this study is that as the religious landscape in the U.S. is changing, a lot more stresses, burdens and expectations fall on the shoulders of the clergy. The study also points out the shifting of the emphasis in ecclesiology. “The essence of the priesthood has undergone two shifts. The first occurred at the time of Vatican ll---from the older model of priest as administrator of the sacraments and teacher of the faith, to a new model of priest as a spiritual and social leader of the community. This change was accompanied by the Council’s new theology of the Church as the “People of God.” The young priests in 1970 were strongly in favor of this model. The second shift which began in the early 1980s, continues today and seems to be reversing the first.”

The changing understanding of ecclesiology also causes great tension in the lives of the priests. The old and the young have different visions and different approaches to their ministry.

Of course all these changes at the sociological and at the ecclesiological levels will not affect the essential function of the priests in their role as prophets, teachers and shepherds. The burden is much greater now as the present world, with its instant forms of communication and great technological advancements, puts great stress on the lives of priests. As communicators, administrators and as shepherd they have to remold their ministries to conform to these changing demands of the age.

It is only when one’s life is deeply anchored in the life of Our Lord that one can withstand the shifting sands of tastes and aptitudes of the faithful and hold aloft the torch of faith. Priests have to re-commit themselves to preaching the Word in the best way possible and to administering the sacraments in the most spiritual way possible. The words of the Holy Father should resound in the ears of all priests: “Lest we experience existential emptiness and the effectiveness of our ministry may be compromised, we need to ask ourselves ever anew: are we truly pervaded by the word of God? Is that word truly the nourishment we live by, even more than bread and the things of this world? Do we really know that word? Do we love it.?”

The late Holy Father John Paul II has called his memoir of his priestly life A Gift and a Mystery.” It is a gift because priesthood transcends the merits of the individual and it is a mystery because the call comes from God at a time and place unknown to the individual: “ You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you(John 15:16).Of course, every priest is aware of his unworthiness for such a call and knows that the ministry entrusted to him is beyond his qualifications. Who can say he is worthy enough to stand in the place of Christ and pronounce over the bread and wine that “This is my body and this is my blood.”? Who has the holiness to stand in the person of Christ to forgive the sins of others? As the late Holy Father John Paul II points out, “At its deepest level, every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery; it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual.”

Hence,what are the special tasks of priests? Is there a special spirituality for him as a diocesan priest? As one who works in the world, constantly interacting with people, preaching, offering the Eucharist, administering the sacraments, and running institutions and organizations on behalf of the Church, how can he be a living witness to Christ? Should he get away from the world to develop his spirituality? No, it is not in getting away that the diocesan priest finds his spiritual self but in immersing himself in the lives of his people. In celebrating the sacraments, offering the Eucharist, preaching the Word of God, and running the institutions of the Church, he grows closer to Christ. In all the things he does, he sees the presence of Christ. “Holiness is not something a priest can practice by himself or apart from the community of faith. The priest becomes holy within the community by ministering to it and leading it” (The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest, Donald B.Cozzens,p.2).

The priest unlocks the doors of holiness when he is working in close collaboration with the laity. He is the one who brings Christ to them in all the different spheres of their activity. As the Holy Father Pope Benedict XV1 points out in the Proclamation: “Priests should be willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes, and acknowledge their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity.”

Cardinal Kasper in his book “Leadership in the Church” deals with the role of priests as leaders of the community. Referring to the distinction between “production “and “representation”, he points out that for priests what is more important is representation and not production. “ There is nothing for us to make…all we can do is to offer ourselves for the purpose of representation.” The center-stage is not for priests. They must be hearers and doers of the Word. “Priestly existence”, he points out,” is existence as a witness and as a sign, not only with our lips, but with the whole of our existence.” These words of the Cardinal do explain the essence of priestly ministry which is to be a sign for Christ .

The priests know deep in their hearts that the Lord who chose them will always be with them.His walk towards Emmaus continues with them at every breaking of the bread for the people. They would hear, day after day: “ I came not to call the righteous but the sinners.”

May this Year of Priests give all of us a renewed understanding of the gift of the sacrament of the priesthood.


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