‘Priesthood in a Synodal Church’ – Archbishop Rino Fischella, Pro-Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Evangelisation

25 Apr 2023

One of the distinctive features of Christianity is the notion of being embedded in history. The Church cannot be effective in her work of evangelization if she forgets two defining aspects: how to enter into the culture, and how to create history. These two poles cannot be separated. To remain connected to the story of our time, it is necessary to look at the phenomena that force the Church to rethink her work of evangelization. Just as in the past she inserted herself into the cultural context of Greece and then Rome; how she was capable of reaching the furthest cultures in the era of the great missionary history (Mexico, Africa, Japan, and China), similarly today, the Church reflects on how to inculturate the Gospel. To think of evangelization as if the need for inculturation did not exist, is not a viable path to go down.

The courage of evangelization inexorably pushes us to discover new paths and to follow them under the working of the Spirit, who cannot be limited to merely human calculations. In this context, the duty that falls to the Church today in her work of evangelization, seems to be twofold: on the one hand, the need to pass on that which has “always been believed by everyone and everywhere”; on the other hand, the need to understand the new emerging culture that will define the coming centuries: digital culture. Firstly, this means that there is a need to rethink the concept of vocation because it pertains to people who live from this new culture that has a global impact and increasingly imposes itself by changing our language and behaviors.

The Internet certainly represents an opportunity for dialogue, social exchanges between people, as well as ease of access to knowledge and information. The real question we must ask ourselves in the face of this new culture, however, is not how to utilize the new technologies to evangelize, but rather how to become an evangelizing presence in the digital continent. How, for example, can we be capable of decoding the innumerable data being received daily, and how can we support the search for truth in pursuit of a coherent answer to the question of the meaning of life. There is an urgent need to know the power of the medium and to use all of its potential and positive aspects, but while simultaneously realizing that evangelization isn’t only done using digital instruments. Evangelization is meant to offer spaces where there are experiences of faith, where an interpersonal encounter ends up being the winning card. Otherwise, we will be confronted with a virtualization of evangelization that too closely resembles other virtual worlds, with the real risk of ending with a weak and ineffective evangelization.

That which rises to the surface, consequently, is our vocation to mission. Without the mission, there is no Church; we will always have to be very radical about this. Moreover, the mission is the proclamation of a truth that has been passed on under the responsibility of dynamically maintaining its integrity until the end of time. What we offer are not technical instruments or material means, but the announcement of the salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Church was willed and created by the Lord so that his Gospel of salvation would reach all people (Matt. 28: 19-20). This calls for an understanding of a community that grows in the knowledge of its Lord and by virtue of this, lives in the commitment to communicate Him to all. The mission is an intrinsic element to Christianity, and at the same time, it becomes a judgement criteria for the effectiveness of pastoral work. Without the push for missionary outreach, the Church loses strength and falls into the temptation to stand on its own and in its own structures, no longer possessing passion for the proclamation that makes her truly be the Body of Christ. For there to be an understanding of the mission, however, it is necessary to rediscover the value of the truth of the Christian faith. If we no longer live with a true understanding of the responsibility that the mission of proclaiming the Gospel has been entrusted to us, this is probably due to the fact that there no longer is a full awareness of the intrinsically truthful value that Christianity possesses. If all religions are the same, and if there isn’t really only one truth, given the great number of people in the world, what sense would it make to become missionaries of the Gospel? If the newness and originality of the revelation of Jesus Christ is discarded, the very presence of the Church in the contemporary world becomes futile.

Evangelization happens under the light of an encounter. The vocational dimension rests, in its entirety, on this concept. To begin with, we must address our relationship with the Lord: has there truly been an encounter? When did I find the Lord? What did that encounter do in me? These are not rhetorical questions; rather, they demand us to return to our roots: our vocation and the purpose of being ministers of the Lord for his Church. A ministry that first and foremost, is accomplished by the power of the Spirit that has descended upon us. Evangelize, therefore, by laying these two pillars down: our personal calling, as a consequence of our encounter with the Lord.

The word of God comes to our aid when it comes to confirming the account of the calling of the disciples. As Jesus “walked beside the sea of Galilee” (Mk. 1:16) he sees Peter and his brother Andrew as they are putting away their nets: “for they were fishermen”. The evangelist tells us nothing more. Only the essential, so as to not distract us. If we wish to know the scene in more detail, we must turn to Luke. Here, we can capture two details that should not go ignored: the first that “he was standing … with the crowd pressing round him listening to the word of God” (Lk. 5:1); the second, that Jesus “caught sight of two [empty] boats at the water’s edge” (5:2), because “the fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets”. Luke does not immediately tell of the fishermen’s disappointment: we worked hard all night long and caught nothing” (5:5); the fact that Jesus is preaching the Gospel to the crowds is too important to change the subject right away. Jesus then enters one of the boats: “Simon’s” (5:3), and asks him to “put out a little from the shore”. “Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat” (5:3). The content of that teaching surely was what Mark tells us in its essentiality: “The time is fulfilled (more appropriate in the literal sense: The time has been filled), and the kingdom of God is close at hand (it is near). Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). Announcement of the salvation brought about by God, and an invitation to conversion and faith as a response, are but the two aspects concerning the kingdom of God that has come among us. In fact, it is so close that there is no more time to hesitate; the kairos is placed in my hands for me to grasp and live it intensely.

Only after the proclamation does Jesus turn to Simon asking him to set out and cast out the fishing nets once more (Lk. 5:4). Simon is not ill-mannered in this moment. He very well could have told him: “Teacher, I am the fisherman here, you are a carpenter! Fishing happens at night, not in plain daylight. Not to mention, we have not caught anything all night.” No. This is not Simon’s reaction. After he listens to Jesus speak, Simon is drawn to Jesus’s radiance; he was no doubt deeply impacted by his teaching. The words “the time had now come”, touched him personally! “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (5:5). And having done so, “they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break” (5:6).

The first response is that of calling to others for help: “They signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them” (5:7). When there is so much work involved, it cannot be done alone; there is the risk of the nets breaking and losing it all. It takes humility to ask for help, and generosity to share the outcome. The first partners to arrive are James and John the sons of Zebedee, who inspired by friendship, rush to help. For them too, however, the fact that Jesus “saw” them applies as a foundation for their lives (Mk. 1:19). The call to the sharing of the work comes from Peter, but the choice to follow is grace placed under the gaze of Jesus and his personal call to follow him. No one can substitute for the call. There may be mediations, but the encounter with Christ must be personal: the Master’s eyes must be on mine, and only then does the encounter become a vocation.

It is important, therefore, to grasp even from these details the teaching that Scripture intends to place in our hands. When the Word of God is proclaimed, people listen and crowd around Jesus, not us. We are called to discover that that Word is first of all, addressed to us personally and asks to be received into the “boat” of our existence. It calls us to ask ourselves questions; especially the fundamental one about the meaning of our lives. Someone “fulfilled” my time; the time has come for me to put out to sea, and get Jesus on my “boat.” Only in this way, does work become positive, and full of meaning. With Jesus we call others so that they may share in our work and our experience of the grace that has been given to us, not in a casual way, but because Jesus “has seen” my boat and chose to come into it. A further suggestion being offered to us is that these disciples leave something behind, to be fully at the service of the proclamation. The nets, together with the father and the boats left behind, goes to show that which those called to be with the Lord as his disciples will have to do in the future.

What quickly follows is something radical that leaves one surprised, but which is only understood the moment one grasps the “newness” of the person to whom one entrusts oneself and the “authority” he possesses. Those who proclaim the Word of God are vested with an authority that comes from above, but requires of those who accept it to be disciples, not lords or masters; always and only disciples of the only master. Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, who delay in recounting the events of Jesus’ birth, leaves an evangelizing imprint from the very first verses of his gospel. It does not begin in Jerusalem or in Judea, but in the most peripheral region populated by simple, illiterate people. What we are told is that Jesus proclaims “good news” that consists of the “nearness” of God – that God is “in our midst.” The use of the term “news” should not be overlooked; it is of paramount importance. It means, first and foremost, the communication of a fact! In fact, we are not being presented with a teaching, nor a spiritual exhortation, much less a theory for societal improvement; no. The reference to “news” is to emphasize the underlying truth: it is an event, a fact that involves the listener and asks them to make a choice and take a stand.

To return to Mark’s verses, here we find the twofold reaction of Jesus’ listeners: first, amazement; and then the realization that this teaching is new and delivered with authority. Wonder and amazement are a sign of a knowledge, ever-new, that is being discovered. Awe destroys apathy and fills life with enthusiasm. Wonder demands one to look with new eyes and is the enemy of the obvious, as if everything were passively subject to the repetitiveness that leads to boredom. Being before Christ allows no neutrality; one cannot encounter the Lord and remain the same, it is not possible, it is not acceptable. An encounter with him changes your life and leads you to a new path. Sure, it is a path that enters into mystery and is often uphill, but that does not make it any less fascinating. In our lives we can often experience that the path breaks off, we do not find clear directions, and there is a lingering doubt of where we should go and which direction to take. That is when we need to stop, reflect, observe, look more toward the summit as the end goal, and then resume the path knowing that soon afterwards the path is clearly laid out again, and we can quickly resume our journey with more certainty. We cannot afford to lose our amazement at the wonders the Lord performs in us and through us. It would be unfair to the vocation we have received, and detrimental to our very existence.

Vocation, after all, is not pre-emptively based on the qualities one possesses; perhaps, one should say the opposite: the calling to a vocation enables one to value and support what one is. Helping to discover the primacy of God in our lives and the power of his grace become the means by which one can consciously come to direct one’s existence. A vocation, after all, is never an improvisation; it is, rather, the discovery of a project that comes from afar and of which, perhaps, due to distraction I was not yet aware. We should repeat with Paul, “when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace” (Gal 1:15). To grasp the everlasting and constant presence of God in my life. You are part of God’s plan within which you discover your personal dignity for the fulfillment of your existence.

The Church does not evangelize because she is faced with the great challenge of secularization, but because she must be obedient to the Lord’s command to bring his Gospel to every creature. In this simple thought is concentrated the plan for the coming decades that must find us fully understanding the responsibility that rests on Christ’s Church at this particular historical juncture. From the vocational perspective this means that we need a great work of accompaniment of our young people. This requires a very special attention to the person with whom we walk on the road together. It requires listening, and thus the silence necessary for the listening to grasp the depth and the innermost of the speaker.

In this context, it is important to possess the awareness that when we walk together we accompany each other and the movement, therefore, is never one-way. Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium has an important indication in this regard when he writes, “Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.” (EG 46). In short, the one who accompanies is also accompanied by the person they are accompanying; and it could not be any other way. The journey is accomplished together, otherwise it is destined to be ineffective. Accompanying in the process of evangelization, moreover, places in the foreground the category of witness with all its significant value. Almost spontaneously, the words of Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi spring forth: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (EN 41).

In short, accompanying is not a one-way path; it involves the wisdom of one who knows that he or she has a responsibility to lead a person toward freedom. This means making oneself a participant in a dynamic movement that allows one to combine the truth of the Gospel with the deep longing contained in the innermost of each person. In other words, accompanying is tantamount to leading the person to the depths of their own existence, to discover the presence of a call to truth, the key to realizing freedom, which allows us to go beyond ourselves to fully entrust ourselves to a mysterious plan of God that brings meaning and significance to personal existence. In the end, we arrive before the discovery of a true, genuine vocation, which opens up horizons because it allows us to discover something that was once locked up within ourselves, and we would never even have imagined being able to accomplish.

Once again the Word of God comes to our aid. The Letter to the Hebrews has a rock-solid expression: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The proclamation of the Gospel does not change with the passage of time and generations. It is always the same, as in the early days of the Church. And yet, the sacred author precedes this expression with extremely significant words: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). We are not far from a coherent interpretation of the text if we apply it to those who perform the ministry of accompaniment. Those who perform it, in fact, possess an authority that is recognized, and because of this they are qualified to be accompaniers.

This same invitation that comes from the author of the Epistle could be referred to a young person today: remember those who accompany you! Before going into the text, it is interesting to note that the term “leaders” has a special meaning in this specific verse. Throughout the Epistle, the sacred author refers to “leaders” by normally calling them “priests” or “bishops”; here, however, he uses the term “εγουμενοι”. To understand the meaning of this term, it is necessary to go back to Luke’s gospel where Jesus, in response to the discussion among the disciples as to who was the “greatest,” says, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves … I am among you as one who serves” (Lk. 22:26-27). The foundational meaning of one who is a “leader” is to be of service; any other logic would take one outside the horizon of Jesus’s teaching. The first “service” that is performed by these “leaders”, however, is the ministry of the Word: “they preached to you the word of God.” The service of accompaniment, then, is primarily to bring the person to a living encounter with the living Word of God in the life of the Church. Preaching is not a static phenomenon but a dynamic one. It refers to a word that abides as an expression of questioning, provoking, narrating, sustaining, consoling … In short, the word, by its very nature is dynamic.

The second insight that emerges from the text is the consideration about the “lifestyle” of the “leaders.” Their behavior (αναστοφη) is consistent with the proclamation of the Word; not just for a moment in their life, but until the end. There is an art of accompaniment that is carved into the lifestyle of those who accompany. The accompanist, therefore, must be an expression of living under the shadow of God’s Word, for he marks his existence as a living space that shapes the form of discipleship. The example of spending a long time listening, meditating, and studying God’s word is not a transient exercise, but a life commitment that shapes our existence to the point of making it transparent in the action of daily life.

It is not easy to live one’s vocation with intensity. It requires great readiness to follow knowing that one is in Christ who first chose and loved us. In a world so jealous for one’s autonomy, the priest shows that there is no contrast whatsoever between autonomy and self-surrender in following. His life shows that nothing of his humanity is taken away as he chooses to follow the call to the priesthood, and instead, much is granted to him. As with any choice that involves one’s whole life, this one also involves a great sense of responsibility and a strong capacity to love. What is asked of the priest, in the end, is precisely this: to be a concrete sign that the love of Christ is neither a utopia nor something only heroes are capable of, but a reality that ordinary men can experience when they are capable of gifting themselves. Never more than in this case does the statement that God is indeed bold acquire meaning. Boldness is probably the most consistent term for expressing God’s courage in having to entrust all of himself to an ordinary man. It seems that God loves taking the risk of placing his body and word in my priestly hands so that it may be nourishment and support for the lives of those I come near to.

To summarize these pages it might be useful to turn to literature, which is able to enter into the folds of mystery better than many other expressions. The value of boldness returns, once again, laden with its meaning. An example is offered by Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest. Taking the book into one’s hands allows not only for a serious examination of conscience, but also heartens the soul knowing that the conclusion it reaches is the reality of priestly life: “Everything is grace.” It is interesting to note that the country priest does not have a name. Throughout the whole novel we come to know the names of those who are the fruit of his pastoral action: the people he usually spends time with and the priests he meets, the neighboring parishes and towns; in short, we know everything except the priest’s name. He has no name because he is identical in every corner of the earth. This curate is the face of every priest. I have no desire to eliminate his personality. On the contrary, he is well described in his character, in the way he thinks and acts, in his daily reflections, in the joy of a motorcycle ride and in the spasms of chronic pain that will eventually lead to his death … he is no stranger. Furthermore, not having given him a name is to have elevated him to the level of an icon of how a priest lives. He is truly bold. He becomes a sign of one who brings hope to a woman who for years has lived in sadness and resentment toward God because of the death of her young son; even in the sternness of his speech, he opens the heart to accept the love of God who gave all of himself in the gift of Jesus on the cross. All this was possible because the curate of Ambricourt finds in Jesus the companion of the journey in the happenings of his parish and the friend with whom he could confide in moments of extreme loneliness. It is with Christ, in fact, that he speaks in writing his Diary; he is the true confidant, and the only one capable of entering into the folds of his life to console him at every step. Moreover, it emerges clearly in his eyes, especially when faced with situations of indifference, atheism or abandonment of the priesthood, that he has chosen to make of his life an imitation of Christ. If a priest were able to penetrate to the depths of the mystery of which he has direct experience, he would be able to understand with greater awareness the boldness of God. This would become a further motivation for him to put his whole self in the service of God, uttering that “fiat” which remains as the most reliable form of obedience open to being transformed by grace.

In the same vein von Balthasar’s remarks should be reread: “A good priest is always a miracle of grace. More often it happens that the churches have to suffer under those who have not fulfilled their vocation. There are too many who, whether from the [episcopal] throne or from the pulpit, delude themselves that they are the light: such men should be avoided. They speak of God while thinking of themselves, and God does not appear … Let us not forget the sacramental grace of the priestly office. It helps one to break out of one’s self, to spoil one’s self, but it cannot substitute this spoiling. For one who is consecrated not to embrace this spoiling is to provoke a negative effect … Perhaps only necessity teaches priests to return to prayer. Meanwhile, we pray for them.” 1

1 H. U. von Balthasar, “The Priest Whom I Seek”, 184-187.