Continuing on from last week, sharing some reflections on the experience of the Convocation of priests at the end of August, one of the first things we did together in our small group conversations was to share our vocation stories. There was a lot of powerful sharing that took place and it allowed us all to immediately come to appreciate the depth and breadth of the experience around our little table. For example, along with myself there was an 80-year-old retired priest, a man who was a pastor for two years, another who was ordained for three years, a man who was ordained for a long time but who had been on loan from the Archdiocese and who had recently returned after 16 years of ministry elsewhere. There was a man preparing to retire next year and another whose path brought him on a boat from Vietnam many years ago. In our particular group, there was a breadth of human experience that was replicated to varying degrees at all the other tables in the room.
When we began, the next day, to confront some of the challenges we have been facing, our prior night’s “vocation introductions” served us well, and we immediately began to share frankly and deeply on things such as leadership in our church (its strength and its poverty), how for many men their early naivete about their vocation had been replaced with a cynicism and a woundedness that was regrettable. There was a powerful affirmation of the deep support and care we felt from the people we serve, but it was sadly often contrasted with our disappointment with support from church leadership.
Later conversations continued this theme, and again the faith and the trust of parishioners for their priests was said to be remarkable. However, it was expressed strongly that the relationship between priests and their bishops had been completely eroded. A consequence of the sex-abuse crisis was the destruction of the spiritual relationship between priest and bishop, as it was replaced with legal realities.
When we were sharing on the question of what keeps us going, and what inspires us in our ministry, a comment was made that “God’s people are an unequalled source of grace” in the life of priests. This is so true and resonates deeply within many priests. The wonderful truth is that we priests often find ourselves ministered to by those among whom we seek to minister. Some of the younger men made a point of saying that they were very inspired by the lives and example of the elder and retired priests in the Archdiocese. I can certainly vouch for that myself.
Our final evening saw us enter into conversation around the theme of celibacy and relationships in our lives. I confess that I was delightfully surprised with the openness and trust so many shared in these conversations. We priests often find ourselves not knowing what is is that God is asking of us, or of struggling to trust, over and over again, that God faithfully leads us into goodness and kindness (Ps 23). The reality is that in this journey, in this living into the vocation that is entrusted to our care, intimacy can often be difficult for priests. Our world expresses intimacy in wildly different ways, and our values can seem crazy. When we live these realities well, life is good. But when we struggle, we can find ourselves compensating in a variety of different ways. I know for myself that working long hours is one habit of mine that I sometimes use to push through difficult times.
Overall, the (not quite) three days we were together as priests of the Archdiocese was truly a wonderful experience. Coming away, many priests expressed the hope that perhaps we might not wait another twenty years before gathering together again. The idea of perhaps gathering every five years or so would be good. There was certainly a palpable sense of renewal among the priests as we prepared to return to our respective parishes. There was an energy and an excitement that was quite contagious as we left the venue and made our way to the freeways that would take us all home. We scattered as quickly as we gathered, eager to return to the people amongst whom we make our home and live our lives of ministry.
To conclude, the fruit of the deliberations of all the priests was gathered and collated, so at some point in the future I imagine there will be a follow-up. As that unfolds, I’ll keep you all posted. Once again, thanks to all who asked us how things went, and who prayed for us during that time, as well as all who continuously hold us in prayer. Know that every day you are all in our prayers too.