After the 2015 Synod on the family, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington DC, gave a press interview in which he spoke of the way in which the Synod was conducted and the open participation that was evident. He said that we are moving away from a Church of legalism to a Church of mercy, that the framework for the Church is no longer Canon Law but the Gospel.
It is clear that Pope Francis wishes us to focus our eyes on the mercy of Christ – to be merciful like the Father – and that like Christ “we see the person”.
As priests, we ask ourselves “how do we change? How do we deepen our understanding of the merciful Father? How do we become more merciful and caring and be like Christ the Good Shepherd? How do we move away from legalism to the mercy of the Gospel?” We often hear views on the “institutional” Church. What is meant by the institutional Church may differ from person to person. Some may think of it as the Curia in Rome, others as “the Chancery”, yet others as the “hierarchy” or the bishop. But the fact of the matter is that we need the Curia, we need these structures. The “institutional” Church is far more of a mindset, a way of thinking, a system of pastoral practice and ministry – an ecclesiology.
- As priests we know that it is through our ministry that we become channels of God’s grace and loving mercy. We know what is expected of us in our pastoral ministry:
- to teach and preach, and that to do that well we have to prepare well, to ensure that we participate in on-going formation, to continue to read, to be abreast with current issues and affairs;
- to celebrate the Eucharist with dignity, respect and reverence, and never losing our sense of awe at this great miracle and mystery;
similarly, to celebrate the other sacraments with dignity and respect;
- to visit parishioners and families;
- to visit and show a special concern for the sick;
- to be available to penitents, even out of the set hours for Confession, recognizing that it often takes a great deal of courage for a person to request Confession
- especially is he or she has been lapsed for some time;
- to be available to our parishioners in general. Recently, at the episcopal ordination of the new nuncio to South Africa, Archbishop Wells, Pope Francis instructed bishops to be available to their priests, saying that it was unacceptable when the bishop’s PA says that an appointment will only be available in 3 months time. In the same way, priests should be available to parishioners;
- to give comfort to the bereaved, whether they are bereaved through death, divorce or some other form of loss;
- to welcome strangers, refugees and immigrants.
But all these things we do can easily become routine unless we also work on who we are as priests. Priesthood is not simply a matter of doing, it is a matter of being. “Doing” well depends on our “being” been well.
To ensure this, firstly we must be men of PRAYER – something which the Holy Father reminded bishops of in the same homily at the ordination of Archbishop Wells. As priests we are conscious of the fact that we are only the earthenware vessels: it is not us who heal, it is Christ. It is not us who baptize, it is Christ. We cannot teach Christ unless we are in communion with Christ, and prayer is our communion with Christ. Ultimately, prayer is a discipline and we need to be faithful to it, especially to Sacramental Life, the Liturgy of the Hours, meditation or reflection and to the rosary. When we celebrate Liturgy we should ensure that it is a real celebration, our prayer to God, and not merely ritual.
The second point is much more personal. Henri Nouwen said in his book “The Wounded Healer”: the great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. Can we heal when we have never recognized our own wounds? Can we be merciful is we have not recognized our own need for mercy and have implored God for that mercy? St Peter, in his first letter, reminds us that “by his wounds you have been healed”. Christ’s wounds are the source of our healing from sin, from death. His wounds are the source of our salvation and he was wounded in order to save us. As priests we have to come to terms with our own “woundedness”, no matter what the source of that is. It may be through past hurts, harm that was done to us by others, a sense of loneliness or incompleteness. There may be disappointment, unfulfilled dreams or disillusionment. We have to start by acknowledging that we are wounded whether through our own sinfulness or through what has been done to us or simply through life’s knocks. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT must lead us to deal with these things, and we may need help with that through spiritual direction or counseling. If we do not face them, they easily fester and become a residual anger, frustration and inner conflicts. Thirdly, whatever pain we have or do experience must be transformed from an unhealthy introspection and turning inwards, to merciful (wounded) ministry and recognition of the suffering of others. Our own experience of suffering and pain enables us to support and give solidarity to others in pain.
The best example I can think of is a South African. South Africa has produced many great people, and one of them is Dr Beyers Naude. As you know, he was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, a theologian and supporter of apartheid. But he was also an honest man and a person of integrity. He came to realise that what he believed about the Biblical justification of apartheid was wrong. He went against his own church and his own people. For that he was derided, ostracized, rejected, despised, harassed, expelled by his own people. But, he never showed any bitterness or anger, his forgiveness and understanding were unfeigned. He was always gentle and able to accept all the anger and hatred against him. It was as if he were able simply to absorb it all and transform it into compassion, understanding and forgiveness. He remains a great example of Christian maturity.
Similarly, we too move away from self-pity and a sense of being a victim to a Christian maturity of not been overwhelmed by suffering but allowing it to make us more Christ-like. Only then do we understand the words of Jesus that to find life we must lose it first, and that the beginning and end of Christian leadership is to give our lives to others (Nouwen).
Thirdly, and finally, as priests we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation and are called to RECONCILE PEOPLE to God and people to people. We may do this through the Sacrament, spiritual direction or advice. But we are also conscious of the fact that it is a Christian imperative to seek reconciliation and to restore, mend and heal broken relationships. As disciples, and as priests, we are conscious of our own need to be reconciled to God and to seek to be reconciled with those we have hurt, ignored, disregarded or treated badly – as well as to be reconciled with those we have allowed to hurt us. It is only when we ourselves seek reconciliation that we truly become ministers of reconciliation.
Without these, we may be efficient, “professional”, reliable and punctual in all we do – these are all good things. But, we can lack the foundation of ministry, love. Love of Christ, love of neighbour, love of the Church and love of our priesthood is the motivation for our ministry. Without love ministry becomes a “job”, something we have to do. If we, like Christ, can look into the eyes of those we serve, and recognize their happinesses and joys, but also their sorrows, anxieties, insecurities and pain, then our ministry moves from legalism to mercy.
OUR LADY HELP OF CHRISTIANS – LANSDOWNE
24 MARCH 2016