Annual Conference of the National Conference of Priests of Ireland
THE PRIEST: EVANGELIZER AND WITNESS
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Dromantine, Co Down
28th September 2004
When we talk about the ministry of priests, our first reflection must always be on the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the pinnacle of all the activities of the Church. The Eucharist must be at the centre of any spirituality of the ordained priest. The Eucharist must be at the centre of his pastoral ministry.
The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests of Vatican II notes that “no Christian community is built up which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist” (n.6). The principle role of the ordained priest is that of preaching the Word and presiding over the Eucharistic community.
Priestly ministry finds its definition then within a worshipping community. Our parish communities more easily consider themselves as communities of faith, communities of service and communities of caring. We need to lead them to a deeper understanding of the fact that they are fundamentally worshipping communities, where the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacraments is central.
People are happy to support a Church which witnesses to its faith through service and caring. Indeed, our communities generally will be judged by public opinion by the manner in which they appear to be – or fail to be – caring and compassionate communities. But when we speak today of a worshipping community differences appear, people’s alienation and lack of understanding appear. Many of those who tell us that they want to keep a space in their lives for God will also say that they do not feel the same need to participate in an active worshiping community.
To some extent the problem comes from a pervasive individualism in society. This makes any sense of community more difficult to achieve. There is also a specific religious individualism. Let me give one example. I feel that there is at times a tendency to interpret a mission which springs from baptism in an individualistic way, as if it were “my baptism” which empowers me as an individual, rather than seeing baptism, and this ministry which derives from baptism, as linked to the Eucharistic community. “The faithful who have already been consecrated in baptism and confirmation are fully incorporated in the Body of Christ by the reception of the Eucharist” (Decree on Life of the Priest, n. 5). Baptism commits all to mission. But that mission takes place within a Eucharistic community.
There are no private ministries in the Church. All ministries draw their origin from and are exercised within the Eucharistic community of the Church. There are no private charisms in the Church; charisms are by definition a gift of the spirit for the building up of the church, and the Church is built up around the celebration of the Eucharist.
This exclusion of private ministry applies first of all, of course, to the priest who presides over the Eucharistic community. He is not like a film producer or choreographer who manages people gathered under his direction. The Eucharistic community is not his community. Rather than directing in a functional way, there is a sense in which liturgical presiding means receiving. The priest who presides is called in the first place to be the exemplar of the community which receives the gift of the Eucharist. This means that the presider is in an exemplary way the listener, the person of prayer, the one who allows the gifts of the spirit to be welcomed by the entire community so that the community “becomes one body, one spirit in Christ”.
The Eucharistic community is not the private community of the priest also in another sense. Mission in the Church is not a task for individual navigators, but takes place within the catholicity of the Church, in communion with the life and activity of all the baptized, each with his or her own gifts. It is the spirit who forges communion, outside which the individual gifts would be ineffective. The presider is the leader, but in the sense that he is the first to listen to and the first to be open to the Spirit.
Let us come back again for a moment to the idea of alienation from the concept of a worshipping community. The statistics are there for all to read. Yes, there are indications that the religious sense of the people of Ireland is still deep. Census figures show that religious affiliation is high by European standards. We are all stunned at times by the depth of faith we encounter in our ministry. Daily Mass attendance is extraordinarily high, especially at certain moments in the liturgical year. People want their children to receive a Catholic education.
But there are other indications which show us that regular Mass attendance has dropped and in some Dublin parishes that drop is dramatic, to below 1%. Large numbers of people have decided that regular attendance at Mass is not on their ordinary agenda. They will flock to funerals and special liturgical occasions. But even on those occasions it is obvious that their understanding of the sacred mysteries is very vague and that they may often be impressed by some gesture rather than by the real essence of what is being celebrated. Despite years of catechetical formation and huge investment in human resources, our Churches are attracting fewer and fewer young people. It would be hard to underestimate the seriousness of this distancing of young people from the Church. We now have more than one generation of effectively unchurched young persons.
In addition, we face today the powerful challenge of competitive visions which will win the affection of our young people, if their level of faith commitment is weak and if it is not supported by some form of worshipping community. Competition will come from other religious experiences, some Christian, some inspired by other faiths, very often with simplified but attractive answers. Some focus on an emotional faith input without any commitment in society, whereas, in others, social commitment will be supported only by a sort of general religious sentiment.
To respond to such visions, I believe that the transmission of the faith in the years to come will have to be more and more linked with the creation of faith communities, like the basic ecclesial communities that we speak about in the context of Africa or Latin America. These communities will help people, young and old, to be formed in their faith and to live out their faith concretely in a cultural context which is less and less supportive of faith. These communities must then, however, find their nourishment through their insertion into the broader communion of the Church in the common celebration of the Eucharist. Our parishes must become communions of communities, finding their unity again in the liturgy.
As well as competitors, we may also encounter alternatives! The competitor is somehow in the same business. The alternative aims to put us out of business. An increasing number of young people are openly attracted to a secularised vision of life. Others, without perhaps fully knowing it, take on a sort of pragmatic, practical secularist life style. We should not underestimate how much a secular vision of life can be full of caring and service. Secular events very often taken on the character of secular liturgies, secular rites, which can stir emotion and give that emotional impetus which once only religious sentiment gave. A secular vision can be very attractive because it does not necessarily make demands founded on absolutes, but can adapt to changing times and to the politically correct.
We talk to young people about all sorts of questions and we involve them in all sorts of projects, but many young people who are tempted by this option for a secular life-style find few in the Church who are prepared to engage them in an open dialogue of evangelization, which challenges them in their questioning and opens out for them a path of life which begins with an authentic encounter with Jesus.
Sunday Mass attendance, of course, is not the sole indicator of religious sentiment or attachment to the Church. But alienation or indeed distancing from participation in the Eucharistic community can very quickly lead a person to alienation from and distancing from the Church, which then appears simply as a cold, irrelevant institution, and in Ireland as an institution which in many people’s minds was and still is linked with power.
When we talk about the Church as an institution, the tendency is to look at the hierarchy and the position of the Church as a sort of ”corporate body” in Irish society. Let it be said honestly that, for many people, the encounter with authoritarianism in the Church has not just been with the Bishop or the institution, but also with the priest. Priests can be extremely authoritarian, arrogant and self minded. Indeed a certain type of authoritarian, “hard man” image of the priest was popular in clerical culture and was presented as a model for young priests. This was compounded by a historically understandable ecclesiastical culture of “doing”, where the priest was the “lead doer”, rather than the one who ministered and interpreted the Word of God, who enhanced, who led people into the mystery.
Along with being a Church of Saints and Scholars, the Church in Ireland was also very much a Church of builders and doers. Many of our great priest heroes were doers. Most of the priests of my generation entered the seminary to “do things” and many of us were slightly surprised when the first thing we were asked to “do” was philosophy!
The Church perhaps ended up doing too much – often not for the wrong reasons – and inevitably becoming over attached to its works, and structures and buildings. As Saint James reminds us, we must be above all be “doers of the word” (James, 1: 22)..
One of the challenges for the Irish Church is to move from being a doing Church to being a listening Church. We must never be obsessed with doing. There must always be an element of abandonment in our activities, of seeking first the kingdom knowing in faith that these other things will be ours as well (cf. Lk.12 31). Listening to the Word of God must lead to discernment and also the capacity to let go of what is not essential in order to allow the essential newness of the Gospel to emerge.
To my mind, the priest who shows that he is, in his own life, a listener to the word of God in a searching way will be the best evangelizer as he accompanies others in their search. Saint Paul reminds us “If anyone boasts, let him boast in the Lord. When I came to you, I did not come with any brilliance of oratory or wise argument to announce to you the mystery of God. I was resolved that the only knowledge I would have while I was with you was the knowledge of Jesus and him as the crucified Christ” (1 Cor. 2:1-2). The priest who appears to seek power for himself over other people’s lives, rather than opening them to the experience of the healing power of Jesus, will find very little echo in the hearts of young people in search of faith.
It is sobering to remember also that abuse of power is at the heart of the child sexual abuse scandals. Sexual abuse is an abuse of power over another person. It is compounded when there is an enormous difference in power, as when the abuser is a priest and the abused who is a child. When one reads the individual stories of abuse or listens to victims, one cannot but be struck by the way in which victims are threatened not to inform anyone, and the motives are always presented in terms of the power or the status of the priest abuser.
Any discussion today within the Church about dealing with child abuse and child protection has to recognise the sincere anxiety among many that the Church is still involved in a power game, that it might still be concerned primarily about the corporate interest of the Church, of a diocese or of a religious congregation.
The Bishop or the Religious Superior must consciously take those decisions for which he or she bears fundamental responsibility. That does not mean that the Bishop or Superior should ignore expert advice. Anything but! I value the advice that I receive from my Child Protection Service and let me tell you that advice is given with vigour and clarity. I could not do without it. It prevents me from deluding myself or letting personal emotion prevent me from taking hard decisions. We need independent, expert advice, documented in a transparent way. For example, in addition to the advice of my Child Protection Service, I have asked a further independent expert to review the decisions taken and to make recommendations where inadequacies may have been found.
Without transparency, the suspicion will remain that somehow Church authorities are looking for another way to escape legitimate accountability to the Church community or to the wider community. People’s confidence in the Church has been shaken. We are talking about shaken confidence concerning the Church’s ability to work with children. We have to win that confidence back. That will require a different attitude which enables people to see that we are being totally open, first of all in the way we apply our own norms and genuinely care for victims. The child protection programme in the diocese of Cork, for example, has been pioneering in its ability to place healing and direct contact with victims as the first response and as an integral element at every stage of the process.
The full dimensions of the clerical abuse scandals sadly may yet still have to appear. We have to honestly and completely face what has happened. There is no use covering over historical cases, no matter how painful that may be for us. In the meantime, we have to ensure that the best possible child protection services are in place. Good child protection measures are also priest protection measures. Good practice in child protection will ensure that people’s confidence in priests and in Church institutions will be enhanced, just at the time in which the Church needs a vigorous pastoral programme for young people.
As I have already noted, when I was installed in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin as Coadjutor Archbishop, I spoke of a humble listening Church. I was not referring to the institution or the bishops alone. I was also referring to parishes and priests. My desire to foster a humble, listening Church was not just a reaction, a proposal to be different. It is a proposal to make the Church more like Jesus himself and more in line with the discipleship that he proposed and which is best represented in the figure of Mary, through whose humility the plan of God was enabled to enter into our humanity.
Mary is the great model of the believer and of the Church. She is also the model of the listener. She received and pondered the word. We learn from her to keep the word and to ponder it in our hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19). The Church cannot be anything but a humble Church, since it must follow the path of Mary, model and exemplar of the Church, who belonged to the humble and poor remnant of Israel. This remnant, because of its fidelity to the law and the prophets, was able to perceive the message and the identity of Jesus when he came into the world in the humblest of all possible contexts.
This does not mean that the Church is less an ecclesia docens. It goes without saying that it is an essential part of our Catholic faith that the Church teaches and that it teaches and interprets with authority. The teaching Church must, however, be obedient to the word of God. All of us in our journey must place ourselves in an attitude of listening to what the word of God is saying to us, what the word of God is asking us to do, even at the cost of painful change.
To be a community of the disciples of Jesus, to be a prophetic Church, the Church must in the first place be a listening Church, an ecclesia audiens, to use a phrase of Karl Barth. The Church must first of all be a hearer, a servant of God’s word. The word calls us to faith and generates faith within us when we listen to that word. The Lord, in the words of the Psalmist, does “not ask for sacrifice and offering but an open ear”. We are made members of the Community through listening to the Word, as Jesus reminded his disciples that “my mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Lk, 8 21).
I have spoken about the fact that the mission of the priest takes place within the catholicity of the gifts given to all the baptized. There is a second catholicity which is also important, namely, the catholicity of the message itself. Our witness must always be a witness to the message of Jesus in an integral way. This also demands not confusing the message with any ideology which would reduce the originality of the Gospel to just another presence within human history, within the contemporary debate. We must witness in our lives to the originality and the continual newness of the Gospel message.
This is not to say that the message does not have to be preached within a specific context, which is the context of the culture of our day. Its content has to be sought in a real context. The message must be preached to the world, to society and to the concrete lives and hopes of persons. It must address the injustices, the lack of equity in the distribution of the goods of creation, the damage done to the integrity of creation by human greed.
The Gospel’s meaning must be mediated through an encounter with concrete life situations. The Gospel message is never disincarnate. Jesus himself, as the Vatican Council noted, “worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind, acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). The incarnate Jesus is the image of the invisible God. In our time, God chooses the weakness, the limitedness of his ministers to open others to his greatness, to his transcendent nature. The priest is called to be a witness to that invisible, transcendent God through his own action as a person and as one who interprets the word of God through the signs of his own life.
This may make many priests feel very much overawed. It is not easy to be a good priest today. The term good priest does not refer to superficial moralism, but to the great challenge of knowing the word of God and being able to break that word, to interpret it within the hopes and aspirations, the troubles and tensions of our world in an authentic way. The fundamental witness of the priest will always be the authenticity of his own life.
Priests find themselves in this task very much on their own. I am troubled to think that any diocesan priest ordained in these days will find himself, at least in the current Irish context, living for most of his life without the support of a community of priests. Priests need community, they need faith communities among themselves and communities with the faithful. Priests need community not just as human support, but in that deeper search for understanding the word and understanding their ministry. Mission and ministry are for priests inseparable from identity. Only rare saints can constantly achieve such integrated identity as they progress in their own lives, with their own crises and challenges, outside some form of particular faith community of priests.
We need new forms of collaborative mission among priests, not just because numbers may be going down, but because the priest belongs to a presbyterate, he is not a lone navigator.
So many of our Church structures are no longer adequate to contemporary mission. So many of our structures are not geared towards evangelization. Our structures must be adapted or if necessary replaced. But it is not just a question of introducing new or updated structures. It is something deeper. It is more a question of an alignment of the entire church community with the mission of making Jesus known, of leading our communities towards a truly personal encounter between each “I” and Jesus. It is not just a question of management decisions or media tactics, but of returning more and more to the fundamental structure of the Church which is sacramental.
We need a new model of Bishop, who does not appear as simply the CEO of the diocese, but who day-in and day-out preaches the Gospel and works shoulder to shoulder with priest and others in the front line of evangelization. A friend of mine says that the basic requirement for any relationship between a Bishop and his priests is that the Bishop should like priests!
We need a new clerical culture. I feel very frustrated when I attend meetings of the Episcopal Conference or call meetings with my own Auxiliary Bishops which turn out to be just business meetings, even though the business is Church business and indeed necessary Church business. I feel frustrated when at meetings with priests we spend hours introvertly looking at our own problems, without being inspired by the urgency of mission. I regard a meeting as having been successful if we all come away renewed in our commitment to evangelization, each of us anxious to fulfill our own special mission.
We have to rediscover the significance of our ministry. We have to discover passion for ministry. We have to remove those structures or those subcultures which have frustrated priests anxious to live out their mission with passion. Priests need to be enhanced in their ministry and in their own personal lives. They need to be treated as mature persons. Much of the machinations and secrecy around clerical appointments is entirely unnecessary and should be replaced by honesty and openness on all sides.
In two days time we hope in Dublin to launch a new project entitled: “Parishes working together for mission”. I have been impressed by many initiatives which individual diocese have undertaken in this area. Kildare and Leighlin and Ossory, for example, have some excellent projects and basic texts. We hope to work together to find new partnership among ministries, so as to foster mission and evangelization in a new way. It is not going to be easy. It will involve pain and change from old ways. It will involve risk. But risk is of the essence of faith. Risk is of the essence of Ministry. When the Apostles were called, they responded instantly. Later they found themselves constantly quarrelling and discussing with Jesus. But there is something about the original call, tHen and today, which is always radical. In Saint John’s Gospel, (1: 35) the early disciples ask Jesus “Where do you live”, which means “Who are you”. Jesus replies “Come and see”. It is only when we answer the call to come, that we can then see who Jesus is. It is not a question of “Have a look and if you like it you can be my disciple and we can negotiate the terms”. The call to mission is always radical.
Some priests would like to think that I have some master plan for this new diocesan project, worked out in every detail. No, be it in Dublin and in every diocese or religious congregation, we have to find new ways together, bishops, priests, religious and lay persons. We have to launch out into the deep, even if it gets us at times out of our depth and even into deep water. I have no idea how the structure and distribution of priests will look like in Dublin in ten years time. I have no idea what I will be appointing priests to in ten years time. Parishes will not be as they are today. I do not know what new collaborative mission between clergy and laity will eventually look like. The criterion for evaluating our plans however is clear to me. It will be their effectiveness in establishing a Church which is community in mission, community in evangelization.
The term “Parishes working together for mission” was chosen because it stresses that mission is the aim of the project and that mission is the task of all members of a faith community. It is not just a task for priests, but for parishes as active, faith communities which must become more effective in making the message and the love of Jesus known.
A great challenge for priests in facing a new sense of evangelization is that of addressing mediocrity, the mediocrity that we ourselves allow to take over our lives, rather than letting the radical newness of the Gospel shake us out of complacency. The first evangelizers have the greatest need to be daily the first to be evangelized through our encounter with Jesus in word and sacrament.
We have to renew our own sense of mission and of excellence in the way we carry out our mission. As priests we need to develop a culture of best practice, which is inspired by the roots our own identity as priests. The National Conference of Priests could well play an important role in this setting of standards of excellence and in evolving structures for supervision and verification of the effectiveness of mission.
We have to urgently set out on new pastoral projects and projects of evangelization for the coming years. These new structures will be different from those of management. Faith formation is an essential dimension of any such programme, fostering cooperation between family, school and parish. The challenge of faith formation requires much more than polishing up here and there the media image of the Church.
These programmes and structures will be essentially ecclesial. They will come out of the experience of living the Gospel, that experience which changed the life of the early disciples and inspired them in that most extraordinary missionary endeavor which began the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth and to every succeeding generation. We must provide a new vision for the situation of today and tomorrow. We should give up on trying to answering the questions of yesterday’s agenda, even if regrettably the answers to yesterday’s agenda were never satisfactorily found. We are in a new situation. We must make a new beginning.
The structures which will evolve will depend above all on our own ability to live the Gospel, which is always the same, in a new way, and to allow that Gospel to lead us on. They will depend on how we make our communities, which encounter the mystery of God’s gratuitous love revealed to us in Jesus Christ, communities which then stand as witnesses to what the love of Jesus means as a message of hope. Priests are evangelizers when they also become witnesses to the love of Jesus, which is built up among us in the sacraments and in the Eucharist.