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home : bishop : columns

10/27/2016 9:00:00 AM
Thank God for our priests

The focus this week in The Evangelist on vocations invites us to thank God for the blessing of the vocations of the ordained -- in particular, priests -- and to thank them for following freely God's invitation.

Although every vocation is a clear call from God to love and serve in a uniquely personal way, the meaning of ordained priesthood lies beyond an individual call and beyond the personality of the priest.

The ministry of the priest is a gift that enriches both the priest and the Church, but it is never just an achievement or the fulfillment of a personal goal. It is the call of God from within the Church that forms a bond, patterned in the Trinitarian essence of love.

With Jesus, in whose one priesthood the ordained priest is bonded and participates forever, the priest is married to the body of Christ, which is the Church, also forever. Although there are many roles and functions a priest may assume and discharge in the course of his earthly ministry, he never steps out of being a priest, whatever his personal condition may be.

Priesthood is at its core and must be a free and personal choice. Like any other act of love, the call and response must be free, for love can never be forced or imposed. A man prepares for the priesthood through many years of prayer and formation, which typically include a process of discernment, personal formation, theological studies and pastoral experiences.

However, it is not so much what is put into the man that shapes his growth toward the priesthood, but what comes out of him from his heart and his commitment to God's call, mediated through the ecclesial community. Both the call and response are a way of loving.

Not long ago, the announcement of a man's decision to become a priest was greeted with tremendous pride and joy by most of his friends and family members. Priesthood was considered even by society itself to be an honorable calling, a profession whose very existence was regarded as a positive sign and source of strength for the entire community.

Until relatively recent times, priests were among the most educated members of our society and looked up to not only as moral leaders, but as experts in life: If "Father said so," it must be right.

Times have changed. Men who are ordained today -- especially across a Diocese like Albany, which spans some 10,000 square miles - must serve parish communities of great variety in size, history and character, where needs and expectations can seem very different, requiring great pastoral sensitivity and professional skills from our priests.

There are still many who approach priests as counselors and guides, and not only in spiritual matters. They may seek counsel on major emotional, economic, medical, occupational and other matters. The priest has sometimes been called "the poor person's psychiatrist!"

This may often seem to contrast with demands of seemingly less urgency that every priest must attend to, with no less respect for the felt need of the supplicant who simply wants a medal, a rosary or even a vehicle blessed.

One of the most pressing burdens facing priests today, however, is administration. Most of our parishes today face considerable operational challenges that require many management and financial skills only rarely found in one individual. Autocratic styles of leadership are no longer adequate (if they ever were) to our current situation. Priests must know how to be good collaborators and consultative managers if they are to serve their people well.

The active engagement of laypersons with administrative skills is no longer optional. Clusters of parishes should not hesitate to work together, with support and assistance from diocesan leadership, in order to share resources, both pastoral and administrative, so that priests can meet their primary ordained responsibilities.

This does not mean the role of a priest is relegated to the sacristy or the outfitting of liturgical appointments. On the contrary, the sacramental life of the Church means more than ritual correctness. It is a deeply interpersonal relationship among members of the body of Christ, among whom the priest is called to be a very strong pastoral figure: the visible, palpable presence of Christ, the Good Shepherd, in our midst.

It is not by chance that a priest is often addressed as "Father." He is much more than a clerical functionary hired for a specific job. Ordination is not the same thing as employment. It is a lifelong commitment to a bond with the people of God, the Lord's family, which embosses the most intimate identity of the priest with an indelible stamp of character.

This mystery of faith comes to be appreciated only as it is lived and celebrated. Ask any priest what his priesthood means to him: He will likely recount many times in his ministry when he has known the power of God's grace as flowing from something utterly beyond his own talents, skills or education.

A priest never ceases being a priest. In the Diocese of Albany, we are so fortunate to have the untiring and invaluable presence of our senior priests, who, though technically "retired," serve parish communities in an almost purely pastoral and sacramental way -- which is, after all, the essence of their ordained priesthood.

Because of their collaboration with deacons and laypersons -- our faithful, loving and amazingly resourceful parish life directors, in particular -- they enable our parishes, many of which are in rural areas, to remain viable and even thrive in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Priests who may be experiencing physical and mental challenges with the aging process continue to form a network of prayer as they offer many spiritual sacrifices that are known only to them and God.

It is unfortunate that, at this writing, our Diocese does not have a community of contemplative religious among us. I hope that will change soon. But we are never completely without that contemplative spirit, which the prayers of our retired priests and religious afford us.

Ultimately, priesthood is the total plunging of a life into the cross of Christ -- not just in an individual way, as all Christian disciples are called to do, but in an ecclesial way that creates a permanent, relational reality of the priest with Jesus Christ before the Christian community, which is the body of Christ.

In the words of John the Baptist, "He must increase; I must decrease." The glory of priesthood is not in any honorific title that the gift of ordination confers, but in the freedom to love in a way that is totally unconditional in a world that, while doubting its possibility, yet hungers for it.

So, we say "thank you" to God for calling these men to share in the priesthood of His Son, Jesus, and we thank you, our priests, for saying freely, "Yes!"

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

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