The Spirituality of Diocesan Priests

Friday, March 02, 2007


It was one of those busy week days in the office that the chime of twelve became a welcome respite from work when a weak knock at the door called my attention. At my instance the door opened and there appeared one of my young priests who looked haggard and lifeless. In words that could hardly be heard he said: “I am burnt out, Bishop. Priesthood has no more sense to my life; prayer is a drab; I feel empty.”

A sad story that can rend any bishop’s heart. For it usually happens to his priests who are full of energy, full of idealism, active in the apostolate, dedicated to prayer life. And there they are, just five or six years from the ministry, already burnt out. What has gone wrong?

One of the reasons surely is the spiritual life of the diocesan clergy. To have a tight grip of one’s spirituality in the parish is not that easy. Every day he has to make do of it. The demands of the ministry simply leaves him no regular time to his prayers and meditation. Soon he will be dried up, will start longing with a drag sigh to the lost ideals that he had once acquired in the seminary. Is there a way to sustain him in his spirituality or recapture it when it is ebbing?

I believe there is. After all the source of his spirituality is on hand. For, the spirituality of the diocesan clergy and his effectiveness in the ministry is to be found from the very exercise of his priestly ministry. The priest becomes what he administers; he grows in spirituality according to the way he fulfills his priestly ministry; he becomes holy because he deals with holy things. This concept was already given an initial yet authoritative account by the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, when it boldly stated: “A ministerial spirituality requires the priest to exercise authentic, i.e. truthful ministry. He attunes his heart and demeanor to the meaning of his ministerial actions. He will not be content simply to speak the Word of God. He will live according to the Word he preaches. He will not be satisfied with merely a valid administration of the sacraments. He will administer the sacraments with care, with faith and pastoral love. He will not simply command. He will seek to be an example of one who heeds the Word of God and thus be a light to others” (IV, n. 537).

This is so because the sacramental character that has been etched deeply in the person of the priest is for real. It touches the ordained individual at the very core of his being. Ordination is no mere designation to an office, nor mere bestowal of rights and obligations, nor simple definition of the roles and functions of the priest, of his job descriptions. It is an ontological and spiritual configuration of a quality that sets the ordained forever as priest of God in aeternum, transforming him into a spiritual and moral leader, a dispenser of holy things. . As the late John Paul II, addressing to the priests in his Letter “Novo Incipiente Nostro, delicately puts it: “Your priesthood imparts to you a pastoral charism, a special likeness to Christ, the Good Shepherd. This quality belongs to you in a very special way. All the laity, the great community of the People of God, our brothers and sisters, are expected to work for the salvation of others, as the Second Vatican Council stated so clearly. You priests, however, are expected to have a concern and a commitment greater than and different from that of any lay person. And this is because you share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ in a way that differs essentially and not only in degree from the manner in which they share” (Par. 5).

And so, the spirituality of the diocesan clergy can be found in act of doing the pastoral ministry as priest. And this cannot be realized more than in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist whose liturgy urges the community and more so, the priest presider, to enter into that space and moment when God himself is acting and that all are drawn into that action of God. There is that highest moment in the liturgy of the Eucharist when the difference between the action of Christ and priest’s own actions are mysteriously merged into one reality, the fulfillment of what St. Paul meant by “being united to the Lord” and thus becoming “one spirit with him” (cf. 1Cor 6:17). God’s action is what is essential; man’s action is cooperation.

In the Holy Mass the priest should be caught up in that great act of God transforming him into His embrace. For any priest it should be a high moment when he takes the bread and the cup in his own hands, relating at the same time the narrative part of the Institution wherein he commences in the third person – “He took bread… He blessed it… he broke it… he gave it…” - and then, suddenly, carried on by the flow of the liturgy he shifts the pronouns from the third person to the first when he pronounces the words of consecration. The priest no longer says: “This is His (Christ’s) body; this is His Blood”; he rather utters: “This is my body” … This is my blood…” The third person has become the first person, identifying the priest with the very person of Christ Himself. And the priest states those words as a matter of fact. For he knows that he takes, blesses, and breaks bread in persona Christi. In that one sacred act, following the great “Oratio” of the liturgy of the Eucharist, he brings into it the core of his being: he is an ordained priest, whose character of ordination made him one with the person of Christ the Head. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is made possible because he is a priest with the sacramental power to transform it. That should set any priest to pause and think. As one Filipino archbishop described it, “when he breaks bread and passes on the cup, he should be humbled in the realization that what is so easy to accomplish through his transforming words, he finds it difficult to transform his own life and bad habits in his day-to-day chore.”
It is on this regard, that the Holy Father Benedict XVI once commented: “True liturgical education cannot consist in learning and experimenting with external activities. Instead one must be led toward the essential “action” that makes the liturgy what it is, toward the transforming power of God, who wants, through what happens in the liturgy, to transform us and the world” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000 Ignatius Press, p. 175).

It is also along this vein that the late Holy Father John Paul II waxed eloquent in exhorting the priests to give due reverence to the Holy Eucharist. In his letter to the priests entitled “Dominicae Cenae, he said: “In reality, the ministerial and hierarchal priesthood, the priesthood of the Bishops and the priests, and, at their side, the ministry of the deacons – ministries which normally begin with the proclamation of the Gospel – are in closest relationship with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the principal and central raison d’entre of the Sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist, and together with it” (n.2). In his enclyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the same Pope carried on the same line of thought. He said: “If the Eucharist is the center and summit of the Church’s life, it is likewise the center and summit of priestly ministry. For this reason, with a heart filled with gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ, I repeat that the Eucharist “is the principal and central raison d’etre of the sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of institution of the Eucharist” (n. 31)

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