Priests who love

I heard a bishop give a homily not long ago in which he said that priests and bishops need to be men who love people more than administration, who know their people by name and the details of their lives, who enjoy taking time to build meaningful relationships with those they serve and who love to allow their people’s worries and concerns to intrude on their private prayer time. Though the administrative demands of priesthood can be weighty, he said, that should never overshadow the primacy of face to face ministry that requires one to “waste” some time, eschewing expediency in favor of charity. If clergy are too busy for such time-wasting, he said, they need to reassess their priorities and their administrative style. He went on to say that it’s “especially men” who tend to equate busyness with importance and self-worth, and efficiency with best-practices; but if busyness and efficiency are separated from meaningful human relationships and caring in the details, this attitude can become an unhealthy addiction, or as an evasion that serves as an impressive excuse to avoid the messiness and hard work of relationships. Then he added,

And when God’s people feel they must begin their sentences with, “Father, I know you are so busy, but could you…”, that’s not a compliment.

If you love…

The best priests and bishops I have known, and there have been many, are men who love people’s faces; men who are not only sons “after the heart of God” (Jer. 3:15), but are fathers after the heart of God’s people. Theologically speaking, priests and bishops are men who have permitted their sacramental identification with Jesus to empower them to love those whom Christ loves, and to do so with the very heart of Christ. Their love for Jesus is expressed most perfectly in their care for God’s people. “Simon, do you love me?…Feed my sheep.” As Bl. John Paul II argued in his Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, the essence of priestly and episcopal holiness is to be found principally in the exercise of “pastoral charity.” Hence, the heart of priestly prayer is a daily re-consenting to Christ that says: Master, love your people in and through me. If that attitude shapes the way a priest or bishop celebrates the Liturgy, runs meetings, responds to emails, receives complaints, hears confessions, visits the sick or buries the dead, he becomes in reality what he is in sacrament: Christ’s visible, grace-giving sign even when he’s not celebrating sacraments. In persona Christi becomes not only an ontological impress on the soul, but a description of the work of sacred art that’s been writ into the whole man. To the parishioner’s post-Mass expression of gratitude, “Thanks for bringing Jesus to us today, Father,” should be added, “Thanks for being Jesus for us today, Father.”

For whatever reason, here I think of the remarkable priest in Terrence Malick’s movie, To the Wonder. Though I won’t try to summarize the movie, I will say that it’s worth seeing. Especially, though, I think of author Dawn LaValle’s comment on this priest as she contrasts him with the movie’s very self-centered main character, “Neil,”

The priest walks through those same streets of the poor, into prisons and emergency rooms, welcomed into the lives of the destitute. Whereas Neil never brought himself to touch those with whom he spoke (fences feature prominently), the priest carries only his Bible and touches everyone he meets. He listens and watches and performs his duties. He lacks emotional satisfaction but achieves perfect transparency in his simple recitation of the Breastplate of St. Patrick:

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left.

Perfect transparency, Yes, that’s it.

Papa Francesco

I’ll leave you with some Pope Francis. I happened on this speech he gave several months ago to Papal nuncios from all over the world in which he talks about the kind of men he wishes to see as bishops. It contains some gems on the “pastoral core” of those men who have been called by Jesus to be bishops. Here’s an excerpt that gets at my point well:

There is always the danger, even for the men of the Church, to surrender to what I call, taking an expression from De Lubac, “spiritual worldliness”: to surrender to the spirit of the world, which leads to action for self-fulfillment and not for the glory of God (cf. Meditation on the Church, Milan 1979, p. 269), in that sort of “bourgeoisie spirit and life” which leads people to settle and seek a peaceful and comfortable life. Speaking to Alumni of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy I remembered how for Blessed John XXIII, his service as a Papal Representative was one of the areas, and not secondary, in which his holiness took shape, and I quoted some passages from the Journal of a Soul relating to this long stretch of his ministry. He claimed to have increasingly understood that, for effectiveness of action, he had to continually prune the vineyard of his life from that which was merely useless foliage and go straight to the essentials, which is Christ and his Gospel, otherwise there was the risk of ridiculing a holy mission (Journal of a Soul, Cinisello Balsamo 2000, pp.. 513-514). These are strong but true words: giving in to a worldly spirit exposes us Pastors to ridicule, perhaps we may be applauded by some, but those same people who seem to approve of us, then criticize us behind our backs.

We are pastors! And that we must not ever forget that! Dear Papal Representatives, be the presence of Christ, be a priestly presence, as Pastors. Of course, you will not teach a particular portion of the People of God entrusted to you, you will not guide a local church, but you are Pastors who serve the Church, with the role to encourage, to be ministers of communion, and also with the not always easy task of reprimanding. Always do everything with deep love! Even in relations with the Civil Authorities and your Colleagues you are Pastors: always seek the good, the good of all, the good of the Church and of every person.

I would like to conclude by saying just one word about one of the important points of your service as Papal Representatives, at least for the vast majority: collaboration in providing bishops. You know the famous expression that indicates a fundamental criterion in choosing who should govern: <<si sanctus est oret pro nobis, si doctus est doceat nos, si prudens est regat nos>> – if holy let him pray for us, if learned teach us, if prudent govern us. In the delicate task of carrying out inquiries for episcopal appointments be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers, that they are gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life, that they do not have the psychology of “Princes”. Be careful that they are not ambitious, that they do not seek the episcopate – volentes nolumus – and that they are married to a Church without being in constant search of another. That they are able to “watch over” the flock that will be entrusted to them, take care to keep it united, “vigilant” of the dangers that threaten it, but above all that they are able to “watch over” the flock, to keep watch, imbue hope, that they have sun and light in their hearts, to lovingly and patiently support the plans which God brings about in His people. Let us think of the figure of St. Joseph, who watches over Mary and Jesus, of his care for the family that God entrusted to him, and the watchful gaze with which he guides it in avoiding dangers. For this reason Pastors must know how to be ahead of the herd to point the way, in the midst of the flock to keep it united, behind the flock to prevent someone being left behind, so that the same flock, so to speak, has the sense of smell to find its way.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr
Christ-food for the sheep

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s