“In preparing my thoughts for this Chrism Mass this morning, I came across a lecture given in 1995 by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, reflecting on the challenges of priestly spirituality in a situation marked by a conspicuous fall in the number of priests.
Some of you may say that an article written over twenty years ago by a speculative academic theologian will hardly be relevant to the changed situation in which priests finds themselves today and will hardly be relevant to the specific situation in Ireland today.
Let me read a somewhat lengthy section of the lecture so that you can make your own judgement. Ratzinger spoke of:
“the difficult problem of the interior unity of life that the priest has to deal with when he is faced with a great number of different tasks; it is a problem which, with the continuing decline in the number of priests, threatens to become ever more the real crisis of priestly existence. A pastor today, who is in charge of three or four parishes, and always on the move from one place to the other, a situation that the missionaries know well, is becoming more the norm for the countries of ancient Christianity.
The priest, who must try to guarantee the celebration of the sacraments in the communities, is tormented by administrative duties, is challenged by the complexity of every kind of question, and is aware of the difficulties of persons that he does not even have the time to contact. Torn between the variety of activities, the priest becomes drained and finds fewer opportunities for the recollection, which would give him the new energy and inspiration, he loses the joy of his vocation”.
I think that many of us can indeed identify with the difficulty of establishing – to use the words of Cardinal Ratzinger – “an interior unity of life” in a time in which priests are “externally stretched and interiorly drained”.
Each year at this time I find myself struggling with the challenges regarding the appointment of priests within the parishes and other services of the diocese. The number of priests is going down and the number of vocations is declining. The challenges for priests are on the increase and the indications from the recent census are that the population of Ireland is increasing and that the largest concentration of increase will be along the east coast of Ireland and especially in the greater Dublin area and the larger towns within the Dublin diocese.
It is a daunting thought but with these demographic trends there is a clear sense that the strength of Catholicism and of belief in Jesus Christ in the Ireland of the tomorrow will depend to a great degree on us – clergy and laity – who form the Church in this large diocese today. We do not have the time to sit back in our old ways, or as cynical bystanders, or to dream of a time that will not return. We have to identify radical new ways of truly working together for mission and freeing priests to carry out their ministry effectively and with human fulfilment.
You are all aware of the strategies which we have been attempting to introduce in order to establish a strong pattern of working together. These involve not just forging closer collaboration within parish groupings, but also in strengthening the ministry of deacons, in ensuring the sustainable future of our pioneering initiative of parish pastoral workers and in launching a new initiative of catechetical activity in parishes. This cooperation must be widely extended to involving lay people – especially women – in a real way in having responsibility within parish life.
It is hard to say how successful we have been. Progress has been slow but I feel strongly that despite everything we have parishes today which have never been so vibrant at any other time in their history. Our parishes have changed. The priests, diocesan and religious, who work in our parishes deserve unreserved gratitude for this. The enthusiastic presence at this annual Chrism Mass of representatives of lay men and women who are actively involved in our parishes is a clear sign of the respect, admiration and affection in which they hold their priests. I have often said that if we were to carry out a survey of categories of people who are most respected in Irish society then “our local priest” would be one category which would score very highly.
The vibrant presence here today of lay persons from all our parishes is also a sign of a new willingness of lay men and women to bring their contribution to the ministry of the Church and of their desire to see that contribution welcomed. The priest has an irreplaceable role in the ministry of leadership in the believing community, but that unique role of the priest can never relativize or override the equally irreplaceable role of lay faithful. The years to come call for a tangible cultural change in our understanding of working together as clergy and laity for the common mission of the Church.
That said, allow me at this special celebration for priests, to reflect for a moment on the nature of our ministry as priests and on our personal identity and spirituality, on that “interior unity of life” which Ratzinger spoke as a vital dimension of our spirituality.
The foundation of any priestly spirituality is an intimate communion with Christ. This fundamental union with Christ must be the hallmark of everything that we do. All my activities as a priest constitute only one vocation: to be together with Christ acting as his instrument and in communion with Him.
Personal spirituality cannot be placed just in a sort of separate package alongside pastoral activity, as if it were an added dimension, one of many that I have to fit somehow into my busy day. Priestly spirituality is an irreplaceable dimension of ministry. A deep priestly spirituality will bring comfort in success, but also support in delusion and failure. I cannot speak in the name of Christ if I do not speak with Christ. Pastoral planning needs discussion and debate and strategy but it has an even greater need of prayer. Ministry without a spirituality becomes merely activism.
Let me quote Ratzinger’s article again:
“Not a few priests who began their mission with the greatest idealism, ended in failure because of the hesitation about spirituality. To take time for God, to be personally and interiorly before Him is a pastoral priority that is of equal or even greater importance than other priorities. This is not an added burden, but the breath of the soul without which we necessarily remain out of breath; we are deprived of our spiritual breath, of the breath of the Holy Spirit within us”.
Priestly spirituality is especially vital in one urgent dimension of our ministry today: reaching out to young people. Pope Francis has chosen ministry to young people as the theme of the next Synod of Bishops. Ministry with young people is a vital yet a difficult ministry. It is difficult for priests, it is difficult for parents and families. What do young people aspire to today? There is no doubt that they are generous, idealistic and people who reject any form of sham or hypocrisy. But in the complex world in which they live, in their ups and downs, successes and failures, they also seek that very “interior unity of life” about which Ratzinger spoke. They will only begin to bring their idealism and generosity into the life of the Church if they encounter in the Church people and especially priests who themselves possess that interior unity of life founded in a real love for Jesus Christ.
Young people will not be deceived by sham or superficiality. They will only be attracted by a Church which truly reflects Jesus Christ and challenges them to measure their own lives on a relationship with Jesus.
This will not be an easy path with a pre-prepared answer. Young people will be led into real depth in their human qualities when they encounter a Church which leads them and which welcomes them in their challenges and frustrations, accompanies them, listens to them and learns from them how the Gospel message is always new and can respond to the newness of any age.
The priest cannot be, and should not attempt to be, an instant expert on everything. The priest can however be one who lives and reflects Gospel wisdom and who can lead his brothers and sisters into that wisdom which can enrich their lives, lift them up when they fall and offer them the constant hope even in the face of what may seem humanly impossible.
We come together now to bless and consecrate Holy Oils, beautiful symbols of what God’s anointing means in terms of bringing good news and liberation and new sight, and in binding hearts that are burdened. Along with these oils we call God’s blessings on the all the people of God in this Church of Jesus Christ in the diocese of Dublin, that we can be witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ with conviction, with joy and united as one.”