Many of our parishioners approached the priests of the parish before we left for our convocation at the end of August and wished us well. I was very touched by the care and encouragement many of you shared with me personally, as were Monsignor and Fr. Dan. Since our return, we have all been asked by different parishioners how things went at our “retreat” or ”meeting”. Because we use the word “retreat” in a different way, and because it definitely wasn’t a business meeting as such, the word the priests used among ourselves was “Convocation”, or “Gathering”.
For those who are interested and who have asked, I’m happy to share a summary of what happened at the Convocation, while at the same observing a sense of respect and care for the sharing of individual priests that was to form part of the powerful experience we all enjoyed.
We arrived at the Convocation late on Monday afternoon, and after settling in we made our way into our first gathering. I wondered what it must look like to outsiders also staying at the venue to see about four hundred men all showing up at the same time. As we gathered there was a lot of noise, greetings, back-slapping, laughter, and so on. The atmosphere was really wonderful. Remember, I shared a couple of weeks ago that it’s been close to 20 years since we last gathered like this. For some of us, it’s been that long since we’ve seen each other outside of priest’s funerals, perhaps. I also realize, with a sense of inner shock, that for any priest of the Archdiocese ordained in the last fifteen years, this was their first ever experience of all the priests of the Archdiocese gathering.
On our first evening together, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, addressed us. He shared some reflections in which he sought to name some of the realities of our current experience as priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. As part of his reflections, he was encouraging us to see concretely what our ministry looked like in these times.
Some of us might think that a priest is a priest, and that we’re all the same, but that’s not an accurate assumption. Firstly, all priests - before they are priests - are people, and are no different to anyone else, to any other child of God… unique, loved, special in the eyes of God, and each with our own definite personalities and ways of manifesting our humanity in an increasingly complex world. We are no different to anyone else in this regard, so imagine taking all that diversity of personality and human experience, and trying to give it expression in ministerial priesthood… it’s definitely going to look very different from place to place and from person to person.
Rolheiser started by reminding us that not everything can be fixed or cured, but that everything deserves to be named properly. He referenced Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to “read the signs of the times.” Then he went on to name five aspects of our current experience as priests in ministry today.
- Struggling within a highly polarized and divided society, divided church, and various expressions of priesthood and of what it means to be church (ecclesiology)
- Struggling with the sexual abuse crisis.
- Struggling with the impact of globalization – and the explicit and inchoate “fears” it has produced.
- Struggling with celibacy and commitment to community in a pan-sexual and highly individualized culture.
- Being a priest in a time when it has never been more difficult to be a priest, yet a time when it is also the best time to be a priest.
Following his reflection, all 400+ of us broke into conversations around tables, and the energy levels were high, despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that for many of us in the room it was past our usual bedtime! That was a sign that we all had resonated with Rolheiser’s reflections, as well as a welcoming of the opportunity to talk with one another about these issues. They affect us all, and being together to discuss how we are all affected by them was quite the experience.
In next week’s column, I’ll continue to share something of the conversations we had together.