On June 19, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI launched the Year of the Priest. The solemn inauguration took place in the Basilica of St. Peter with a celebration of vespers on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Prior to the recitation of the vesper, the Holy Father led the crowd to venerate in silence the relics of St. John Vianney.
As I joined the celebration, two things came to my mind. In the first instance I was overwhelmed to realize that I was sitting there, being part of the crowds. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could participate in such a historical moment. Secondly, my thought flew to the very person of St. John Mary Vianney also known as the Curé d'Ars (meaning the Parish Priest of Ars). It is from those thoughts that I would like to begin this short reflection.
I enrolled at the Pontifica Università Urbaniana last year (2009) to take up a licentiate in Dogmatic Theology. In simpler words, Dogmatic Theology is part of theology which treats on the theoretical truths of faith concerning God and His works. Pontifica Università Urbaniana is an academic institution belonging to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. It provides for research and teaching within the framework of the Holy See’s educational system regulated by the Congregation for Catholic Education. The Urbaniana has about 1,400 students coming from over 100 countries and approximately 200 lectures.
It was not long for me to realize that my study-leave in Rome would mean more than just a “break” from the parish works. The University requires each student to frequent a minimum of 72 lectures for the whole two years course. Just like any university, there would be examinations, assignments, seminars and thesis. I was struggling to adjust myself with the new environment. Moreover, the three months intensive Italian course didn’t seem to work at all. Often, after the class, I came out perplexing what on earth had I learned. At times, I wished so much that I were studying in an English medium university.
However, the difficulties not only laid on the struggle with the Italian language but in finding time for the revision. Back to my room in Collegio Urbano, I had to find all the means to make up for the classroom studies. Finding the study materials was not a problem but most of them would be in Italian. Soon afterwards, I found myself being occupied translating the Italian materials into English, literally word-by-word.
At the same time, living among the seminarians, I was obliged to work for the community in Collegio Urbano. We would take turn in the centrolino (the control room) to receive telephone calls, to monitor the close-circuit cameras and to control the access at the main gate. At other time, we would be serving the meals, tiding up the dining hall and washing the dishes for about 200 students in the Collegio. On top of that, there were so many rules and regulations to observe.
I started to feeling homesick. I recalled the good times in the parish where wonderful and generous friends were all around. I thought of the supportive Parish Councillors members and the joy of working together with the various ministries in the Church. I longed for the time when I was free to move around. Most of all, I remembered those wonderful and supportive parishioners I left behind. There, in Collegio Urbano, there were friends and yet nobody seemed to be friend. It’s strange and probably scandalizing but it’s true. At times, there were also prejudices and discrimination. I recalled sitting on the dining table with a group of French speaking Africans, wondering whether I was exist because they seemed not to “notice” my presence at all. At another occasion, I was trying to converse with a Vietnamese priest. He did not speak English and both of us were struggling to communicate in Italian. We ended up using “sign language”.
It was not an isolated occasion but a typical situation we were facing every day. To begin with, we were all strangers. We came from different background of culture and mentality. Naturally, we needed longer time to adjust to one another. Hence, we remained very much on the superficial level. We were unable to reach down to a heart-to-heart level of conversation. It was for this reason that most of the time loneliness turned to be real. It was also for this reason that small issues within the community could be easily blown up. Often, these tensions found its way out very unhealthily in the form of grudging against the authority. Worst still, there would be tendencies to take things too personally. Thus, even before the first year of the academic calendar ended three members of the community had already pulled out. Two priests and a deacon packed their things home. We were all devastated but that was nothing compare to what had happened in another Collegio. A student priest was found dead in his room. The body was discovered only after the next door friend sensed a foul smell. Police came to investigate and, after the post mortem, it was concluded that the poor priest died of a heart attack. The case was closed.
The incident, however, disclosed many unspoken facts concerning community life and the relationship between students and authorities in the Collegio or rather Collegi. Sadly to say, many of us started to relate a parallel of that incident with that of the Mother Church and Local Churches relationships. The “new” instructions of the liturgical celebration, for example, were seen as an unnecessary imposition and more like an insensitivity of the Mother Church to the local customs. The abuses in many convents (especially in Africa and India) also were linked to the lukewarm attitude of the authorities. Above all, the long-time issues on the problems and scandals of priests re-emerged. All these, came into my mind as I was imbued with the thoughts on St. John Mary Vianney during the inauguration of the “Year of the Priest”.
I wasn’t really sure how St. John Mary Vianney looked like now but I recalled a vivid image of a skinny and a long haired man who would definitely need “extra make-up” if he were to appear in the front-page page of a magazine. In any case, he knows what struggle is. As a seminarian, he was struggling to cope with his studies. As a priest, he struggled in his pastoral ministry as seen in the opposition of many people to the orphanage for destitute girls (called “The Providence”) he founded. Later, “The Providence” was ordered to close but St. John Mary Vianney remained “faithful” to his authority and to his priestly vocation. No wonder, when the Holy Father wrote a letter to all the priests in convoking the Year of the Priest, he cited many of the words and witnesses of this saintly Curé d'Ars. The Holy Father must also have at the back of his mind St. John Mary Vianney when later on he convoked the theme, "Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests". Obviously, in facing the daily struggles, the Holy Father intended all the priests to take an example from the “simplicity” of St. John Mary Vianney.
Nevertheless, solely imitating the “simplicity” of St. John Mary Vianney’s is not the whole point of the Pope. To begin with, “simplicity” is not a guarantee for one priestly life absent of problems. Neither does it a solution to the scandals of priests. But holiness does. St. John Mary Vianney’s one and only concern was to be “faithful to his priestly vocation” through a holy life and by faithfully ministering the sacraments. Sadly to say, there are many priests who missed out these two fundamental elements. In many instances, they are either too much indulging with personal agenda that parish works are often abandoned or they are too much involving in the pastoral agenda that personal spiritual life is abandoned.
The Holy Father noted this situation of which “the Church [herself] suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part some of her ministers”. However, His Holiness also reminded the faithful to be realistic and acknowledge the beauty of priesthood, saying that “What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realization of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides”.
This “Year of the Priest”, therefore, is a reminder for me to return to the essence of the Sacrament of Priesthood. To be faithful in the priestly vocation is, first of all, to keep closer to Jesus day by day. To be renewed in the priestly vocation is to constantly re-enact the very first time I responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. In this sense, I'm reminded to come back to the original dignity of the priestly vocation that flows from Christ. This priestly nobility is not to be reflected in the authoritative manners and conducts but in fulfilling the obligation of the vows of ordination.
At the same time, I think, this Year of the Priest is also a reminder to all Catholics that the Sacrament of Priesthood is not exclusively a clerical affair. All the sacraments in the Church, especially the Eucharist, are connected to the Sacrament of Priesthood. In fact, all Catholics share in the common priesthood of Christ. As the Holy Father stated, “Priests and laity together make up the one priestly people and in virtue of their ministry priests live in the midst of the lay faithful, that they may lead everyone to the unity of charity, loving one another with mutual affection; and outdoing one another in sharing honor”. The sanctification and renewal of clergy therefore is but everyone’s responsibility.
It has been six months now since the inauguration of the Year of the Priest. I have completed the first year study and now stay in a new place called Collegio San Pietro Apostolo. It is located right on the top of Jeniculum Hill not so far from Pontifica Università Urbaniana (about 10 minutes by bus). Here, we have smaller community (only 164) but to me “struggles” continue for real. However in all these, I find consolations in the theme the Holy Father had chosen for this Priestly Year—“Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priest”. As the Holy Father mentioned in his letter, this theme entails a necessity for priests to have a “deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of Cross”.
Reflecting the message of the Holy Father, I personally feel that this Year of the Priest is a time to going through another phase of priestly formation, aims to renew and strengthen my priestly commitment. Struggling to be faithful like Christ, my eyes should not cease to focus on the very word Christ who spoke to the Apostles in the Upper Room: “In the world you have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world”.These same words were cited by the Holy Father and these same words would be my key theme as I journey through this Year of the Priest...
(N.B. This article was previously appeared in Catholic Sabah Newsletter, Vol. 21, January 2010)