Prayer and Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest

  • In September 2005 the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry sponsored a gathering to reflect on the Prayer and Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest.
  • The meeting took place over two days, at the Chevalier Centre, Kensington NSW, with twenty-four participants from Australia and New Zealand.
  • These included a cardinal, other bishops, priests (both religious and diocesan) and lay people. Those taking part have been giving retreats to diocesan clergy, or are diocesan directors of clergy life and ministry or spiritual directors from diocesan seminaries. Participants also included the women members of the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry. I facilitated the gathering, in my role as the Commission's Executive Officer.

Genesis of the gathering

The meeting followed a gathering held in 2003, on the specific question of diocesan retreats. (A report of this earlier gathering will be in the next issue of Australasian Catholic Record). That gathering encouraged the Commission to extend and broaden the conversation.

The aims of the 2005 meeting were to reflect together on the issue of prayer in the life of the diocesan priest, and the whole question of his spirituality (or spiritual life). It was decided by the National Commission to extend an invitation to all diocesan directors of clergy life and ministry, to the spiritual directors from all diocesan seminaries, and to the women members of the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry.

Format of the gathering

The meeting went from the evening meal, Monday 19 September to the evening meal, Wednesday 21 September. Each day there was ample time allocated for the celebration of the Eucharist, and for Morning, Evening and Night Prayer.

We decided to draw on the wisdom and experience of those present, without needing to bring in other speakers. One or more participants agreed to make some introductory remarks at each of the working sessions, with the issues then discussed in "stable table" groups.

* * * * *

The Lectionary, our Constant Companion

Fr Chris Hope (Hobart) and Fr John O'Connor (Auckland NZ) responded to the following brief: Each day we grapple with the Word of God as we prepare to break open the Word at Mass. What part does this play in our spiritual life? Their presentations included the following points:

  • The Word is a given to us. We don't choose it. We are subservient to the Word of God.
  • The Lectionary is "the Bible in dialogue form", with comments on a spirituality of dialogue (interaction) and a spirituality of repetition (deepening).
  • Praise for the writings of Brendan Byrne SJ, and Flor McCarthy SDB (from the latter: "read widely, observe carefully, listen well, take time to reflect, take notes, look for images, use stories wherever possible").
  • We're surrounded with words ~ Jesus is the first Word.
  • Our relationship is with Jesus (not just with the words of Jesus)
  • "The Word is living I don't have to bring it to life - I just must make sure I don't kill it".
  • The importance of visual imagery - "The Scriptures are not so much written, as drawn!"
  • "When desperate for a homily, do I go to a commentary or do I go into the church?"

Praying the Psalms

Bishop Joseph Oudeman OFMCap (Brisbane) opened the conversation around the following questions: How did Jesus pray this psalm? What does it mean to me as I pray it? What part do the psalms, and whole Prayer of the Church, play in our spiritual life?

  • The psalms are meant to be prayed together
  • They are the daily prayer of the Old Testament and of the New Israel
  • Prayer of the sick person, prayer of the angry person - even if, now, it's not "me", I'm giving voice to someone else who is sick or angry at this moment
  • We must be ecclesial as well as personal; spirituality is about lived relationships

Celebrating the Eucharist within the Parish Community

Fr John McKinnon (Ballarat) and Fr Mark Freeman (Hobart) responded to the following: We do this on Sundays, weekdays, and for special and ritual occasions. What part does the Eucharist play in our spiritual life?

  • The Sunday Mass used to be part of our ‘tribal identity' as Catholics
  • Is the Mass only and always the primary and indispensable source? (for some in Corinth, it was actually destructive)
  • The Eucharist must give practical impulse to working for justice and those in need
  • Criteria of authenticity - what difference have all those Masses made to us and to others?
  • Has "ritual' replaced "symbol"?
  • "A priest can be ‘Massed out' at times".
  • The Eucharist is the experience of engaging with Christ - Augustine's saying: "We become what we consume"

* * * * *

Participants were also invited to nominate and select "Interest Groups" for further discussion. The following four topics were nominated, with a brief (and inadequate) summary of the conversation that took place in each group.

(i) Seminary Formation

  • The liturgy must be the basis of the spirituality of the seminarian and priest.
  • The parish exists to celebrate liturgy, and people are formed by the liturgy.
  • Seminarians must be in love with the Scriptures.
  • The importance of learning prayer, learning to pray.

(ii) Personal Relationships ~ Spirituality

  • Personal development must be enshrined as part of priestly formation.
  • Real deep honesty in a relationship helps people to maintain boundaries.
  • "Celibacy is OK as long as you're in love with your parish, your people and God".
  • Where does a priest find friendships - they must include friendships outside the parish.

(iii) Spiritual Companioning

  • National Commission should address this need for spiritual directors.
  • Bishops should reflect on this more, and the issue given greater priority.
  • Need to cultivate it in the seminary - spiritual direction, companioning ("foster a culture of companioning").
  • Priests should see themselves as spiritual companions of a community (not just as "leaders").
  • There is a reluctance to go to someone they know well; possibility of seeking out someone in a neighbouring diocese
(iv) Paschal Mystery ~ Priesthood
  • The primary role of priests is to point out the good.
  • What do our words mean?
  • "When vulnerability meets power, the result is alienation. When vulnerability meets vulnerability, the result is intimacy"

* * * * *

On the final morning a session was dedicated to the topic: Listening to the women who are with us: What have you heard us say so far? How does our spirituality look, to you? How do you want us to be holy?

Carmel Fitzgerald (Bendigo, member of the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry)

  • The shortage of priests helps us focus on the essential.
  • You have a vision and sense of global church.
  • Many priests are hurting.
  • You make efforts to plant seeds; people work hard on their homilies.
  • You are men of prayer; visiting the sick; sense of justice and fairness; men who "know the village"; you have outside interests; you share the Good News.

Pauline Peters (Brisbane, member of the National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry)

  • Spending time with the Lectionary: do you prepare your homilies with others?
  • The importance of the prayer of silence.
  • Be listeners - to the Word of God; to people; to culture.
  • Be intentional about prayer - pray before, during and after; make time to pray.
  • Look after yourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, and continue your education.
  • Have you considered spiritual direction by cheap, Sunday-night phone calls, or by email?

Eileen Glass (Canberra, who has given some diocesan clergy retreats)

  • I have heard honesty, openness, transparency.
  • I have heard you ask the question: "what is it that captures our heart?"
  • I have heard your desire to be in reality, not just in the ideal
  • What I haven't heard you say:
  • How do you nourish your spirituality apart from your people? Can you be priests apart from your people?
  • Do you really know and believe that you are beloved of God?
  • What I would like to say:
  • "We are more heavenly and more earthly than we dare to think".
  • Be contemplatives in action.
  • Be lovers of communion.

* * * * *

A final forum ("What have we learnt? Where to from here?") ranged very widely. Here are some of the comments made.

  • Do we need to listen a lot more on the question of "how do you want us to be holy?"
  • This has been helpful in preparing seminarians for their pastoral placements
  • "The gathering has given me more fire to keep on reading about priesthood, praying about priesthood, etc. I have also been helped by those of the ‘common priesthood of the faithful' who have shared with us".
  • We need to expand this conversation into our own dioceses.
  • The value of hearing the personal testimonies. Some priests at home are not prepared to share, or don't have the language, to share their lives.
  • We need to keep talking and listening also to those on the margins.
  • The importance of priests praying with people, as well as for them.
  • Priests need to be contemplatives in action; God loves us; prayer time needed, where we sit by ourselves - let God be God.
  • The need for a positive value of the word "professional" in discussing diocesan priests - appraisal, etc. Affirmation comes from the people; appraisal helped his spiritual life and leads to collaborative ministry.
  • "How much I value being in this company".
  • "There has been a comforting, nourishing side of the gathering; but also a disturbing side to it ...."
  • I was stuck by the thought of a whole community whole community on retreat (i.e. not just a clergy retreat).
  • Collaboration is hard work (though essential).
  • "It is hard not to be shocked by our own weakness".
  • It has been a great encouragement, reflecting on how we might incarnate prayer, lectionary, Eucharist, personal intimacy with Jesus, within a community.
  • We can also take comfort in the fact that we just don't know what to do any more. All we can do is fall at Jesus' feet.

* * * * *

Participants were invited to fill in an evaluation sheet at the end of the conference. Here are some of their comments.

Some good things about this meeting have been ...

  • The oneness of the group, the shared concerns, the vitality of the group, working for a common good; the marvellous spiritual depth and longings of participants
  • Very Affirming; very good personal and relaxed sharing
  • Meeting other priests who were ready to share real problems and joys in living as active priests in our secularised 21 Century. The teaching by selected speakers very good.
  • The experience and wisdom of the participants, the presence and feedback of the three women, the preliminary inputs introduced the issues, the small discussion groups
  • The richness of the interventions at all stages and the enormous amount of thought for reflection, the spirit of warm friendship experienced

The gathering might have been more valuable if...

  • A little more intellectual input. A combination of more lay people and younger priests
  • Perhaps another day. There could have been more time to process the comments of the women.
  • The Wednesday morning open discussion was a bit curtailed. Longer time would have been good. The gathering closed down too early.

Any suggestions about how this conversation could be carried forward and broadened?

  • I look forward to being part of future gatherings
  • Maintain the 2 yearly cycle, maintain the composition of the group
  • Directors take the experience back to their dioceses
  • Collate the reflections for diocesan directors and bishops. Diocesan directors to translate the experience into some practical programs back in the diocese
  • I hope a report can be written, and made available to the bishops and to the priests

Within dioceses can the same process be used with groupings of priests?

  • Listen to laity sharing how they want to be holy.
  • A future gathering with more lay people sharing how they want the priests to be holy
  • The focus needs to be changed from the priest to the world

Any other comments?

  • There is always a "certainty" in these gatherings that the Holy Spirit is present
  • It was like a three-day retreat.
  • It was a privilege to be present.
  • Good to hear different perspectives from the women.
  • My gratitude again. I see such conversations as very positive especially if contrasted with the prospect of their absence.
  • I appreciated the invitation, sharing and wisdom of the priests. It was valuable to have the reactions of the women
  • The issue of ongoing formation continues
  • I enjoyed the experience and would like a repeat.
  • I enjoyed catching up with all who attended. I found the input of nominated people excellent.

Peter Brock,Executive Officer

  • Created: 24 August 2008
  • Modified: 25 April 2009