“The Jubilee Year of Mercy is a ‘Kairos’ moment in the Church as it has helped people, religious and priests to retrieve a wholesome sense of God’s mercy.” – Bishop Crean
It is twenty years this Easter Sunday since seven Trappist monks were abducted in Algeria. They were found dead later, all decapitated. They were remarkable in their solidarity and discernment. They were very well aware of the precarious nature of the situation they were in, due to the constant threat of Islamic forces, despite their personal warm relationship with the surrounding Muslim community.
Dom Christian de Chergé was the Abbot/Prior of the small community and more than anyone else articulated the “logic of their presence” in Algeria. His “Testament”, written over a year before his death but only discovered afterwards, is a truly remarkable and lucid insight into the thoughts and disposition of the community as they faced death. If I might quote from his testimony:
“When an A-DIEU is envisaged …
If it should happen one day–and it could be today–that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family,
to remember that my life was given to God and to this country;
to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure;
to pray for me–for how should I be found worthy of such an offering!
to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones that have been allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that evil which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have enough lucidity to beg forgiveness of God and of my brothers and sisters in the human family, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the contempt in which the Algerians as a whole can be held. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain Islamism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are body and soul. I have proclaimed it enough, I think, seeing and knowing what I have received from them, finding here so often that direct line bringing the gospel that I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first church, finding it precisely in Algeria, and already in the reverence of believing Muslims.
My death, obviously, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of them!” But these must know that at last my most insistent curiosity will be satisfied. For this is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of his Passion, filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness in playing with the differences. For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in and in spite of everything. In this thank-you where, once and for all, all is said about my life, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, at the side of my mother and my father, of my sisters and my brothers and their families–the hundredfold given as he had promised!
And you, too, my last-minute friend, who would not have known what you were doing; yes, for you too I say this thank-you and this a-diar–to commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may he grant to us to find each other, happy thieves, in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen! Inshallah!”
Dom Christian, elsewhere uses the phrase “the logic of my (own) presence“ here. It is always a pertinent question. What am I doing here and why? What is the logic of my presence as priest at this time? In this context it is worth recalling the incident from Mark’s Gospel (10: 35 – 45) when James and John make their pitch for preferment.
“When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’”.
Our call is to serve not to be served – this we know well, but what form should that service take? If we are to take our lead from Pope Francis we are left in no doubt that the primary focus should be on our personal pastoral care of those entrusted to us. Our personal friendship and concern is the hallmark of the Good Shepherd, the example and model of all service. We need to remind ourselves that the call to service in the priesthood is an honour and a privilege because of the trust people have in us – though they know well our sin and failure – we are instruments of God’s Providence. Our lives, in the Pauline perspective, are fragile vessels that embody an eternal treasure.
This understanding of our lives, this “logic of our priestly presence” only makes sense in the context of faith. Despite our strong cultural Catholicism many in Ireland to-day do not “get it”, do not understand the call of priesthood even to the point of seeing it as a waste of a life. Given this context it is natural for us to adjust the focus of our service. To a degree the bad practice of the past haunts us. Poor theology of ministry led to well-intentioned but controlling service of the people. To shed the shackles of that past is difficult. We protest that things are different now but many do not believe us. It is very difficult emotionally to be constantly at the receiving end of continuous vitriol and denigration. And yet we were never promised a rose garden rather rejection is often the fruit of fidelity.
By way of our personal response we have no desire to wallow in the negative and retreat to the safety of our bunkers. We have known too much joy and peace, reconciliation and serenity pour into people’s lives through their experience of God’s providence and mercy in their lives. The “logic of our priestly service” is grounded on the spiritual riches so many people experience unknown to us who serve them.
The invitation to Peter in St. Luke’s Gospel (5: 1 – 11) “Put out into the deep water and pay out your net for a catch” is a constant for us in the priesthood though, like Peter, we often protest “We worked hard all night long and caught nothing but if you say so, I will pay out the nets”.
“If you say so” – “if the Lord says so” is the other foundation stone of our ministry – the Lord’s call and the Lord’s reassurance both of which come to us in prayer. We have to be constant and faithful in prayer because prayer is the oxygen of our priesthood.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy is a ‘Kairos’ moment in the Church as it has helped people, religious and priests to retrieve a wholesome sense of God’s mercy. While it has often focused on personal sin its deeper meaning comes from the Creator God who loves us into life and thereby will always cherish us. That same Creator God loves us all into life and calls us to cherish then our sisters and brothers. We, as priests, are called to be instruments of God’s mercy, and we are, but wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we did not experience it anew in our own life and ministry. It is precisely this personal experience which enables us to witness in our lives the Joy of the Gospel.
Lord, we give thanks for the blessing of our priesthood. Be with us in our moments of darkness and in your mercy lead us into your Kingdom of light.
Notes to Editors:
- Bishop William Crean is Bishop of Cloyne.
- The Chrism Mass for the Diocese of Cloyne took place last night in Saint Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Co Cork.
- The Chrism Mass is held during Holy Week in every Catholic diocese. During this Mass, the priests, deacons and representatives of the entire diocesan community gather around their bishop, who blesses the Holy Oils for use in the coming year. These are: Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens, and Sacred Chrism. Whenever the Holy Oils are used in a diocese, the ministry of the Bishop who consecrated them is symbolically present. The Chrism Mass reminds us of our oneness in Christ through Baptism and its holy anointing, made possible by the ministry of the bishop and his priests. The Chrism Mass is also a key moment in which the unity of the Bishop with his priests (together, they form the presbyterate) is manifested and renewed. During the liturgy, the entire assembly is called to renew its baptismal promises; deacons and priests also renew their vow of obedience to the local bishop and their commitment to serve God’s people. At the end of the Chrism Mass, the Holy Oils are brought back to parishes of the diocese for use in the coming year.
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