In the Service of Christ and His People - Formation

"We are moving into an era when we will need each other's support more, not less"

Part I – Of Grace and Mercy and of New Beginnings
Throughout the centuries, priests, deacons and bishops have played a very large part in making known the person of Christ and his gospel. Ordained to speak and act in his name, they have brought to people the hope, forgiveness and reassurance that comes from Christ himself.

Often, their lives, whether on distant missions or at home in their parishes, have been heroic. We look with admiration at those who have kept close to their people, sharing their conditions and walking alongside them.

We respect these fellow priests and bishops whose generosity, loyalty and faithfulness have been a sign of God's reign already at hand. We are proud to belong to their number, and humble at the thought of having been chosen.

If at times we feel as Moses and Jeremiah felt, that the job is too much for us, or, like Amos, that we are unsuited for the task, or, like Isaiah, that we simply are not worthy, or, like Peter and Paul and many others, we can't understand why he wanted us, our joy is the greater for realising that it was in our weakness that we were called, and that our own struggles can enhance our priestly compassion and understanding for those we have been sent to serve.

We realise that the greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility, and so we have also experienced shame when God's people have been let down, hurt or scandalised by some of us.

Yet, whichever way we look at it, we feel spurred on. Both our privileged opportunities to help people in ways that will matter to them forever, and our consciousness of the hurt that has sometimes been done, inspire us to give of our best and to be "given up" for the people we shepherd.

Our people's expectations and the hopes they place in us, as well as the sacrifices they too make for their faith, have helped to nurture our vocations, and given us joy in our calling.

As we pause to look back and also forward, we are grateful that it is never too late for fresh beginnings because the only point at which any of us hears and heeds God's call is the present moment, and God's merciful invitation is to "come as you are".

Even the anxiety we might feel about opportunities lost or about being ready to meet Christ when he comes again subsides in the realisation that it is he who makes things right, and that "all shall indeed be well, and all manner of things made well". 1 We, too, have experienced the intimate companionship Jesus shared with his first disciples, and the fulfilment of his promise always to be with us.

It is with confidence in the grace and mercy God has shown us that we now look at how we might better reflect grace and mercy in the exercise of our ordained ministries.

Part II – The Challenges of our Own Times
Our own times are difficult ones, and they call for imaginative leadership. They are also times of great hope. We rejoice at how Christ's faithful are responding to the Second Vatican Council's teaching that all the baptised are called to holiness of life and that all share responsibility for the Church's mission. There is evidence that the new Pentecost called for by Pope John XXIII is taking place. Even if we live at the time of sowing, others will rejoice at the time of reaping.

As in any era, one of the great challenges is to make the best use of what human progress puts at our disposal - both for our pastoral effectiveness and the proper care of ourselves. In our time, this includes ways of developing our personal gifts and aptitudes, professional supervision, methods of pastoral planning, accountability and appraisal. By now these methods are taken for granted by our people in their secular occupations, who sometimes wonder why they are not being used for the benefit of the Church's work and the well-being of its ministers. Some priests, and bishops, already make use of professional supervision, and methods of self and peer appraisal.

Of course, none of these methods substitute for personal conversion and the radical demands of following Christ. But they can be used to enhance the work we do for Christ. In this sense, they become aspects of our discipleship and vocation. Out of love for him we want to make good use of whatever can be put at the service of his gospel. Isn't this also one of the ways the parable of the talents applies to ourselves?

Our pastoral effectiveness and our personal well-being need to go hand in hand, and the human sciences can assist both; (cf Second Vatican Council, G.S., n.62). 2

We view positively any methods that can help us

  • to know that the rest of the Church is interested in us personally and in how we are getting on in our ministry;
  • to be more aware of what constitutes effective ministry and appropriate self- care;
  • to critique our dispositions, attitudes and work in the light of the vision that drew us in the first place and of the task entrusted to us;
  • to clarify our priorities, strengths, needs, and how we use our time;
  • to become more accountable to ourselves, to the Church, and to God;
  • to grow both personally and professionally.
  • to believe in the grace of our sacrament through which we are called, empowered and sent by the Holy Spirit.

None of this is reducible to mere "professionalism". Our agenda is always pastoral, theological and spiritual, even when as "children of the light" we learn something from "the children of this world". 3 It is a matter of giving the best to our vocation.

Many of the people we serve have been able to continue to fulfill their responsibilities only by learning new skills. Some of them could find it hard to understand if their spiritual leaders seemed to drift along on the knowledge that was available when we studied many years earlier; or when they see little urgency among us for the "new evangelization" the Pope has called for; 4 or when they detect avoidance of opportunities for continuing formation.

Even if these are not our own perceptions, they can be the perceptions of some in our parishes. There are subtle ways in which we can live "above" the situation of many of our parishioners, not only because our "jobs" are secure, but also because there doesn't appear to be any pressure on us to improve or extend our abilities.

We owe it to ourselves and to our ordained ministries to be sensitive to the differences between what is expected of those we serve and what seems to be the case for ourselves. We might feel that comparisons are unfair. But comparisons will be made, especially if the quality of our ministry begins to come into question. Others might even notice the contrasts before we do. Some practising, good Catholics have been known to "shop around" in order to avoid Masses at which they or their children will be antagonised by ways of speaking or acting that can bring unneeded criticism on the priesthood and on Sunday Mass.

We all suffer - the Church suffers - if even just some of us seem to have settled for a routine way of carrying out our duties, and lack that spirit of enterprise, vision and courage needed for leadership today, or even seem to lack enthusiasm for our work, we will hardly attract vocations from those young people who are looking for something worthwhile and challenging.

Of course, if some appear to obstruct or passively resist authorised developments, this has the effect of disheartening and demoralising even the best parishioners.

However, worst-case scenarios are the exception. In this reflection we have tried to show an awareness of what is sometimes said by those who have felt disappointed in us, and to acknowledge that as the presbyterate in our respective dioceses we have a collegial responsibility for the pastoral effectiveness and personal well-being of one another.

But none of these unfavourable situations need arise. Opportunities for renewal and ongoing formation are available to all of us. Moreover, ongoing formation is a "duty" about which Pope John Paul II has spoken with clarity and firmness (cf Pastores Dabo Vobis, ch. 6). 5

Part III – “A Requirement of Faithfulness to our Ministry”
Pope John Paul too makes comparisons between ourselves and others, and acknowledges even the purely human reasons for ongoing formation:

This formation is demanded by his own continuing personal growth ..... towards a maturity which cannot be attained except by constant formation. It is also demanded by the priestly ministry ..... There is no profession, job or work which does not require constant updating if it is to remain current and effective.... (cf op. cit n.70).

But, for the Pope, as for ourselves, "the proper foundation and original motivation for ongoing formation (is) in the dynamism of the sacrament of Holy Orders".

The gift of the Spirit.... calls on the priest to.... co-operate responsibly and accept permanent formation as a task entrusted to him. Thus permanent formation is a requirement of the priest's own faithfulness to his ministry, to his very being. It is love for Jesus Christ and fidelity to oneself. But it is also an act of love for the people of God at whose service the priest is placed. Indeed, (it is) an act of true and proper justice ..... The priest owes it to God's people who (have) a fundamental 'right' to (that for which he was ordained) ..... Ongoing formation is necessary to ensure that the priest can properly respond to this right of the people of God.... It is an intrinsic requirement of the gift and sacramental ministry received (cf n.70).

These are strong words. Even though the ways we each meet this obligation will vary according to circumstances, this does not stop the Pope from calling it a duty for "young priests..... priests of middle age.... and elderly priests" (cf nn.76,77).

He says the responsibility for carrying out this duty lies first of all with the individual himself, but is also the responsibility of his bishop and the presbyterate, and of the laity (cf n.79).

This ongoing formation is to encompass each priest's "human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation" (n.72).

Church law names some of the rights, and obligations, of all the faithful (cc.208-223) 6 and of the laity specifically (cc.224-231).7 It also reminds bishops of their duty to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of priests and laity are honoured (cc.384-386). 8 Paramount among all these rights are those which are intended to be met in the liturgy (cc.213). 9

Part IV – Being Practical
There is great practicality in what the Pope asks of us all. Having acknowledged that the Holy Spirit leads us through our own personal experience of prayer and study, he goes on to say that these are not enough - more is needed.

He lists "in the first place" meetings of bishops with their presbyterates; then "spiritual gatherings for priests".

Speaking of "study workshops and sessions for reflection in common", he says these help to prevent getting "entrenched in one's ways".

He speaks also of "forms of common life" and "priestly associations", and emphasises the need for spiritual direction.

We endorse these practical ways of supporting one another in our common responsibility for ongoing formation.

We want gatherings of bishops and priests for prayer or study to be given highest priority whenever they are arranged. The involvement of lay pastoral assistants and parish systems need to be in place so that priests can be freed to participate in such gatherings. We are moving into an era when we will need each other's support more, not less.

We pay tribute to those priests among us who have taken initiatives towards their own ongoing formation, to the bishops who encourage this, and to the lay people whose resources make it possible.

We welcome those lay people who work alongside us in various ministries and we accept that their involvement can require of us new ways of working and relating and a new sense of partnership.

As priests and bishops, we undertake to discuss matters of pastoral concern and pastoral planning at those forums and councils in which lay people can participate, and to make the main focus of priests' gatherings the human and spiritual well-being of one another. In both these ways we can put ourselves more effectively at the service of Christ and his people.

It is out of a revitalised Church that people will experience a renewed appreciation of all vocations and the need for new vocations to ordained ministry. There is no call to doubt the worthwhileness of ordained ministry or the Lord's reason for having called any of us. The call and the grace of the present moment for all of us is to contribute to that revitalisation.

The effort we have made as priests and bishops to write this reflection with and for one another is just one sign of the support we want to give one another, "in the service of Christ and his people."