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THE PRIESTS OF THE FUTURE:

THE PRIESTS OF THE FUTURE:

EMERGING STRONG FROM THE CRISES IN THE CATHOLIC PRIESTHOOD

The author is a member of St John of the Cross Carmelite community, Ibadan, Oyo State – the Vicariate of Nigeria House of Studies. In this article, drawing on his experience, he takes a clear and honest look at the crises affecting the priesthood today, and writes of the urgent and necessary need of renewal – which, as he says, can only be achieved by those priests who take seriously the true nature of the priestly ministry and its spirituality.

 

ISRAEL EMEKA ANI

 

The need for renewal

 

From the years after the Second Vatican Council and up to the present day, the Catholic priesthood has faced many crises, which have shaken the Church to its very foundations. The effects and consequences of these crises (such as the crisis of identity and the sexual abuse crises) on the priesthood as an institution are simply unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church. Some of these effects and consequences include loss of faith and of confidence in priests, in the priesthood and even in the Church; the loss of many priests; and a terribly diminished interest in the priestly vocation, which has resulted in a severe shortage of vocations, especially in Europe and America.

 

Crises, problems and challenges are, however, part and parcel of life. No life is without its difficulties and challenges; and the Catholic priesthood, as a specific vocation in the Church, is no exception. The success or failure of any life depends greatly upon the way in which challenges are encountered and managed, and how lessons are learned from them, especially for the future. Thus, not to learn from the ongoing crises in the priesthood, or to act accordingly, will not only be asking for more trouble in the Church but will guarantee imminent failure in the life and ministry of priests. To achieve the renewal that the Church so much desires at present and for the future is dependent, to a very great extent, on the renewal of its priests. Only those priests who take seriously the true nature of the priestly ministry and its spirituality will enable the Church to achieve this renewal. Such priests will emerge strong from the present crises and will exist, with relevance, in the future.

 

Of the utmost importance

 

It is obvious, from the above, that much depends on the individual priest. He acts in the person of Christ (in persona Christi) and in the person of the Church (in persona Ecclesiae). Ordained to offer the sacrifice of the Holy Mass and to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he participates in Christ’s threefold mission of sanctifying, teaching and governing. Yet, although the priesthood is a divine institution, priests are mere men of flesh and blood, and so must cooperate with grace in order to ensure the continued relevance and existence of this divine institution. Unfortunately, a good number of priests do not have a deep grasp of the theology of the priesthood. Some of them are now in crisis and have even abandoned the priesthood because they did not understand their own identity, mission and vocation. A proper understanding of the ontological character and nature of the priesthood is of the utmost importance. Priests who have a clear understanding of this doctrine are more likely to be content in their ministry, joyful in their vocation, and fruitful in their service of the Church and of society.

 

In this regard, not only is initial formation of potential priests to be properly carried out; ongoing formation of priests has to be taken very seriously. Pope St John Paul II wrote: ‘Ongoing formation helps the priest to be and act as a priest in the spirit and style of Jesus the Good Shepherd.’[1] With ongoing formation, the priest is continually learning and being fashioned into God’s worthy instrument. Reading the signs of the times, we can see that ongoing formation enables the priest, through creative fidelity, to respond to the diverse challenges and problems of our changing times with the unchanging truths of our Christian faith. Besides according ongoing formation the seriousness it deserves, the renewal of the priesthood would also require discipline on the part of priests in giving heed to what the Church, in her wisdom over the years, teaches about the priestly life and ministry.

 

The danger of activism

 

In choosing his apostles (his first priests), Jesus wanted them to be with him before they were sent out (cf. Mk 3:14). In another instance, Jesus asked them to come away to a lonely place (cf. Mk 6:31): this was firstly for the silence and solitude that would enable introspection, reflection and evaluation; and secondly for rest, refreshment and renewal.

 

To remain focused and strong, priests must avoid the trap of functionalism or activism. Activism, in its various shapes and forms (such as an excess of pastoral and apostolic work) is not the essence of the priesthood. Priests are certainly to engage in the pastoral care of souls, but they must also disengage from it, from time to time, so as to spend time with the Lord. Priests who are constantly taken up with the work of the Lord, and have no time to spend with the Lord of the work to be nourished and strengthened, do not as a rule go far; and even if they do, they are most probably moving in the wrong direction. Pastoral work and people in need will always be there, creating demands. Priests must, in the midst of these, withdraw at times to reflect, evaluate and rest. They have to foster a balanced lifestyle in which they get the proper amount of sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and recreation.

 

‘When I am weak, then I am strong’

 

It is indeed of paramount importance to emphasise the need for priests to strike a balance between giving and receiving, emptying and refilling. While engaging in various pastoral activities in which they act in favour of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised, priests are never to neglect being faithful to prayer (the Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, silent prayer); spiritual reading and direction; recollections and retreats; and regular confession. And then, they must also give some time to rest and recreation, for they are human – and not pretend to be superhuman. Everyone knows, of course, that priests are human beings, yet no one seems to accept the fact. Kennedy and Heckler have said, of the life of priests: ‘Many of their conflicts and challenges arise precisely because they are ordinary men who may have to live as though they were not ordinary at all.’[2]

 

As the suffering servant, Jesus was seen to be weak, bruised, mocked and humiliated. This personality of the suffering servant is one that many priests seem to be afraid of, or ashamed to emulate or assume. Society teaches us from a very early age to be strong, powerful, successful, always on top of things; it almost expects us to be superhuman, but certainly not weak. It would require a lot of humility – in the Teresian sense of walking in the truth – for a priest to accept his weakness and limitations; and thus, striking the required balance, to meet the many challenges of our modern day and age.

 

Furthermore, the priesthood of the future will consist of priests who continue to be prophetic, preaching the word and speaking the truths of the gospel openly, firmly and fearlessly. The fact that it is no longer fashionable in our society to speak about sin and its dire consequences has unfortunately crept into the priesthood. It seems to have become the norm that many priests are concerned with making politically correct statements and so shy away from condemning sin in the strongest possible terms. This could be because they have sold their prophetic voices for material benefits or favours; or, being guilty of certain things, they lack the moral authority to speak out against sin. Like the prophets of old who spoke fearlessly, priests, in order to be faithful to their calling, must swim against the negative tides of our times by being counter-cultural and counter-oriented, in their proclamation of the Good News to the world.

 

Brothers in unity

 

Lastly, the priests of the future are those priests who will continue to work and bear witness to the gospel as a group – not as individuals. Sadly, individualism is common among priests today. For greater support and effectiveness, Jesus sent out his apostles and disciples in pairs (cf. Mk 6:7; Lk 10:1). St Luke makes it clear (cf. Acts 4:32-35) that the early Christians witnessed to the gospel as a community of believers. The Vatican II document on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, insists on the necessity of priests being united with their bishop (cf. PO, # 7). This is because no priest on his own can accomplish his mission in a satisfactory way; he can only do this if he joins forces with other priests, and in obedience to his bishop and superiors.

 

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council encouraged some form of common living among priests, one reason being for the sake of an enhanced ministry: ‘And further, in order that priests may find mutual assistance in the development of their spiritual and intellectual life, that they may be able to cooperate more effectively in their ministry and be saved from the dangers of loneliness which may arise, it is necessary that some kind of common life or some sharing of common life be encouraged among priests’ (PO, # 8). For protection, support and effectiveness, then, it is important for the priest to stay connected to his brother priests. Just as it is easier for a lone sheep to be attacked and devoured by a wild animal, so a lone-ranger priest is exposed to a whole lot of dangers. Besides, it is lovely when brothers live together in unity (cf. Ps 132:1) – for their witnessing is much more resplendent.

 

*

 

The crisis in the priesthood, which is actually a reflection of a wider social crisis, has ultimately led to the decline in priestly vocations in Europe and America. Presently, the Church’s hope for the supply of priests lies heavily in Africa and Asia. However, an examination of recent incidences in these continents indicates that the stage is being set, slowly but surely, for the same or a similar fate to befall Africa and Asia. It is, of course, true that even in our changing world the priesthood is changeless, since it is a sharing in the eternal priesthood of Christ. Nevertheless, the way to be a priest today in any part of the world, with the hope of surviving the present storm and remaining relevant in the future, calls for a genuine change in the life and ministry of priests.[3]

[1] Pastores Dabo Vobis (Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day), March 25, 1992, # 73.

[2] E C Kennedy & V J Heckler, The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations, Washington, DC: USCC Publications, 1972, p. 2.

[3] I would like to list here some relevant sources. From Vatican II: Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church); Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests); and Optatam Totius (Decree on the Training of Priests). From John Paul II: Pastores Dabo Vobis (Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day). Two helpful books: Kennedy & Heckler, quoted earlier; and Sebastian Kizhakkeyil, The Priest: Theological Reflection on Priesthood and Priestly Spirituality in the Light of Church Teachings, Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2010. Finally, three articles: ‘“Crisis of identity” in Priesthood Reflects a Wider Social Crisis’,

https://www.irishcatholic.com/crisis-identity-priesthood-reflects-wider-social-crisis/;

‘The Identity of the Priest: A Participation in the Priesthood of Christ’,

https://www.opusangelorum.org/crusade/2010_cp_summer.html; and ‘Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal’, https://www.ewtn.com/library/PRIESTS/zpriestident.htm.

 

 

[1] I would like to list here some relevant sources. From Vatican II: Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church); Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests); and Optatam Totius (Decree on the Training of Priests). From John Paul II: Pastores Dabo Vobis (Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day). Two helpful books: Kennedy & Heckler, quoted earlier; and Sebastian Kizhakkeyil, The Priest: Theological Reflection on Priesthood and Priestly Spirituality in the Light of Church Teachings, Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2010. Finally, three articles: ‘“Crisis of identity” in Priesthood Reflects a Wider Social Crisis’,

https://www.irishcatholic.com/crisis-identity-priesthood-reflects-wider-social-crisis/;

‘The Identity of the Priest: A Participation in the Priesthood of Christ’,

https://www.opusangelorum.org/crusade/2010_cp_summer.html; and ‘Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal’, https://www.ewtn.com/library/PRIESTS/zpriestident.htm.