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Our Journey Continues

Fr. Carmelo O. Diola, SSL

Spaces of Hope

 

WHEN Pope Francis concluded the Synod of Bishops in the Family last October 24, 2015, he had this to say:

“In effect, for the Church to conclude the Synod means to return to our true ‘journeying together’ in bringing to every part of the world, to every diocese, to every community and every situation, the light of the Gospel, the embrace of the Church and the support of God’s mercy!”

This “journeying together” is a key theme in the apostolate of Pope Francis. Benedict XVI had used the term  “pastoral accompaniment”.

Pastoral accompaniment is most crucial in the on-going formation of priests. If pastoral work is basically a journey of accompanying the laity and the family, we ought also to agree that priests themselves should also be willing to be accompanied. We cannot give what we do not have. But who accompanies priests?–their fellow priests and the laity. Pastoral accompaniment is a two-way street.

What good is a well-designed and even well-funded continuing-formation program if priests do not want to be accompanied? How do we form a mindset open to pastoral accompaniment? To answer this question, we first need to identify facilitating and hindering factors in promoting a mindset open to pastoral accompaniment.

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One facilitating factor is seminary formation work which emphasizes responsible freedom. In this set-up the formator is no longer seen as a watchdog but rather a companion and the seminarian is held primarily responsible for his formation. Hence, there are regular dialogues between the seminarian and his lay and/or priest companion, in addition to dialogues with fellow seminarians and people in the parish.

Another plus factor would be parish realities that reflect the larger environment. Due to a variety of factors the lay faithful are now less passive and more vocal and active, a recognition of their inherent dignity, especially among the Millennials.

In todays world, the faithful, notwithstandng those who continue to see the priest’s words as final, no longer just accept what priests say just because they are priests. Many of the faithful want and need to be convinced. This facilitates pastoral accompaniment since companions are meant to be subjects of their destinies, not passive objects of the clergy’s decision-making process. Modern means of communication, which makes accessible so much information, add to this new reality.

A third factor is the example of two recent Popes, Benedict XVI and Francis. By stepping down from a position of power (Pope Benedict XVI) and by making himself (Pope Francis), in terms of his person and office, accessible to very ordinary people, these two Popes courageously and humbly show that the essence of power is service. Those who think that the essence of power is control would not be comfortable with pastoral accompaniment.

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One can argue that the same factors can also hinder. These factors may be perceived as threats and their values not internalized. A seminarian who undergoes accompaniment in the seminary may just go through the motions and just pretend. While an accompaniment relationship in the seminary can certainly help detect such cases, the system is not perfect and certain negative mindsets persist through time.

A second hindering factor is that upon ordination and subsequent assignment in a parish, the priest may feel the overwhelmed by the pastoral leadership position he is thrust into and develops, and merely hangs on to, a coping mechanism that provides a line of least resistance. After all, pastoral work requires certain knowledge, skills, and values. Of course, seminary work is supposed to provide him with these qualities but realities on the ground can be very disorienting and intimidating. This does not even mention our brokenness and the debilitating effects of sin in our lives as well as our blinds spots and group biases.

The priest then develops habits and ways that of proceeding not necessarily optimal for his new role. Then, once established, these patterns of behavior become sacrosanct and should not be disturbed. This, upon closer look, may actually be the best time to offer continuing formation. At this point, too, there is a given formation program, i.e. the presence and influence of older priests. Whether the latter have also slid into a comfortable pattern of life that no longer is permeable to change or is still open to contuinuing formation is something that influences the younger priest in his need for continuing formation.

A third hindering factor is the emphasis on the vocational while overlooking the professional dimension of the ordained priesthood. While the vocational dimension is basic and certainly crucial, this also demands professional advancement so to respond more perfectly to our vocation and to serve the faithful better.

That the professional dimension seems to be lacking is seen in diocesan set-ups which give little consideration to trainings and other professional advancements of priests in their assignments, particularly in parishes. I hope I am wrong in this. Hence, the system for assigning priests in parishes may take just a passing cognizance of matching personal gifts and their development with parish needs.

Is there room perhaps for a mechanism in the local church that looks at continuing professional advancement? Or should we just continue to rely on our being called and overlook that human means for self-development are also part of God’s plan?

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There are many moments when pastoral accompaniment happens in the life of the priest vis-a-vis the laity. A privileged and recurring moment is the preaching of the Gospel. As Presbyterorum Ordinis 11 puts it, “The People of God are joined together primarily by the word of the living God. And rightfully they expect this from their priests. Since no one can be saved who does not first believe, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all…”

One can argue then that effective preaching is the key success indicator in the clergy’s role as pastoral companions.

Before this idea is dismissed as being too narrow, we ask ourselves, “Is it not true that when one preaches, many interconnected realities come to the fore?” In other words, preaching is not an isolated reality but stands and falls with other realities in our lives. When one preaches, other aspects of life are involved: how we pray, how we deal with people, what we read and study, how we wrestle with the Biblical text, our priorities in life, how we spend our time, etc.

Then when one gives a homily many realities outside of oneself are likewise affected: parish life, parish programs, corporate worship, a shared vision, creating a common parish language, etc.

All these come together in that moment when we give a homily.

In other words, the homily reveals our deepest selves and our multifaceted relationships. A homily is like an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual thermometer. One can say that homilies are symptomatic of the condition of our souls.

How much time and effort we give to preparing our homilies have been masterfully mentioned in Evangelii Gaudium, sections 145-159. I need to revisit it again and again if I am to become a better pastoral companion.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in...” (Abraham Lincoln)

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