NOURISHING THE SPIRITUALITY OF DIOCESAN PRIESTS
The Council's statement that ‘all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity (LG 40)' applies in a special way to priests. They are called not only because they have been baptised, but also and specifically because they are priests, that is, under a new title and in new and different ways deriving from the sacrament of holy orders. - PDV 19.
A need felt by many priests today and often expressed in meetings of priests is for practical ways to nourish their spirituality as diocesan priests. In a time of transition in which it is generally agreed we now live in both society and the church, priests often feel confused, sometimes discouraged. Many feel trapped in situations of diminishing control over their lives and struggle to find meaning in life. They seek a spirituality that energises and enlightens them in their ongoing faithfulness to both the human realities they face as pastors and the institutional church they embody as priests.
Spirituality is very intimate, and there is no doubt that each priest develops a spirituality for himself. Without it, he could hardly be fulfilled or faithful in his daily activities. His life would lack meaning and motivation. A life based on faith in God, which the ministry and life of a priest surely is, withers at its roots unless a spirituality is found that nourishes and enables ongoing growth in one's responsiveness to God.
Broadly understood, spirituality is the interior life, the life of the spirit in a person. In a context of faith, it becomes the experience which believers have of a personal God and their continuing responsiveness to this mystery. For Christian believers, it is the experience of God's mystery, coming through the Word made human in Jesus and the Spirit he shares with us. For Catholics, it is this triune experience of God in Christ, mediated through the historical tradition of the Catholic or "Great" Church continuing through two thousand years of human history the mission begun by Jesus.
CONSULTATION BY THE COMMISSION
In 1995 the Commission began to explore practical ways to nourish the spirituality of priests by fostering dialogue and collaboration between diocesan priests and vowed religious men and women. To this end, a small consultation was formed.
This paper offers dioceses a brief outline of the consultation process, of questions it formulated, and of some further observations, to continue the conversation in their local situation in whatever way may be helpful.
PROCESS OF THE CONSULTATION
Three diocesan priests from different dioceses and backgrounds were invited by the Commission to a succession of three meetings with three religious from different orders, a sister, a brother and a priest:
- Fr Peter Gannon (Canberra-Goulburn) Sr Kathleen Dawe rsj
- Fr Ian McInnity (Parramatta) Br Nivard Hogan fms / Br Kevin Blythe fms
- Fr Chris Roberts (Wollongong) Fr Ed Travers msc
This group, together with the Executive Officer of the Commission, Fr John Reilly sj, met three times during 1995 and 1996. The meetings were from 10 am to 3 pm and began with a reading and a prayer.
Two kinds of questions were discussed concerning spirituality:
(1) What can priests contribute to and learn from religious men and women?
(2) What can religious contribute to and learn from diocesan priests?
Notes on each meeting were later circulated to each member of the consultation for correction or comment, and then the notes were circulated again. The final paper was drawn up after suggestions from the Commission were incorporated.
POSSIBLE USE AT THE DIOCESAN LEVEL
A similar consultation process could be continued in dioceses, keeping in mind the three principles agreed upon by the consultation, later communicated to all bishops and diocesan directors of continuing education for clergy and generally approved:
- Whatever process is used towards developing the spirituality of diocesan priests, it should be diocesan-based.
- It should emerge from below rather than be packaged from above.
- It should be a life-centred and honest communication that is shared by people of different backgrounds.
POSSIBLE USE AT THE PERSONAL LEVEL
Three key questions were formulated by the consultation and these may help to initiate personal discussion on spirituality in small groups:
- What do you understand by spirituality?
- What do you mean by a diocesan spirituality for priests or a spirituality for diocesan priests?
- Who can benefit from a collaborative effort to develop this spirituality?
The three questions were given to all diocesan directors for the continuing education of clergy at their midyear regional meetings. The answers indicate a variety of approaches to spirituality, as one would expect. These answers could be used to initiate a similar dialogue on the spirituality of priests in small groups at a diocesan level.
FURTHER OBSERVATIONS ON CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
- The members of this Joint Consultation of priests and religious agreed that their meetings had been a useful process for themselves to recognise key factors in their relationship with God.
- They felt that what they had done at the national level could be a model to continue the conversation at the local level in dioceses or parishes. They agreed that such collaborative conversation continued at a local level could greatly benefit from the presence of lay persons also.
- They also agreed that all conversations in the intimate area of one's spirituality need to respect the variety of personalities and situations and the different seasons of life in individuals who may participate.
- Whatever process may be instituted at the local level, it will be asking participation from busy people. Many priests experience constant interruption in their parishes, others thrive on the constant trauma of busyness. Some form of commitment to other members of the dialogue is necessary, and all will need to feel comfortable with one another. A good facilitator may help.
- Spirituality is very personal and a part of life's journey, to which we bring our own history and development and our own unfolding role in life. It centres on relationship with God which is inseparable from relationship with oneself and with others.
- We strongly recommend there be time in the meeting to share prayer.
- The Joint Consultation suggests that dioceses use this document freely, perhaps first by asking religious in the diocese to work through this paper with them, adapting it to local needs, and later by meetings in small groups of involved and positive people.
The members of the consultation record how personally helpful for themselves was their participation in this national consultation. They also wish to record appreciation for the affirmation received from many bishops and diocesan directors who assisted by correspondence or responses to questions. They hope that the fruits of the consultation summarised in this paper may contribute towards continuing the conversation at the diocesan level.
John Reilly sj, Executive Officer, 30 September 1998.