Bishop's Open Letter to Priests for the Year for Priests
To the Priests of the Diocese of Lake Charles:
On this the Feast of St. Peter Claver, the primary patron of our diocese, I am writing first to say “thank you” for having said “yes” to God in embracing the priestly vocation. There is no doubt in my mind that each and every priest of this diocese is a blessing and a gift. At every occasion in which we participate together, every meeting we attend, and every liturgical service we celebrate, I am reminded of what a grace it is to be your bishop, along with my unworthiness and shortcomings for which I beg your patience and forgiveness. Truly, as I make my rounds in the diocese, parishioners come up to me and say how touched they were by a homily, how appreciative they are of their priest, what marvels he worked for their family when in need, or how he brought a family member back to the faith. The stories go on and on, “grace in place of grace” (John 1:16).
Another reason for writing you is that we have entered the “Year for Priests.” When our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, called for this year, he did not intend it to be a celebration of “priest appreciation.” Rather, he wanted it to be a year of deep renewal of the interior life of all priests. Without spiritual renewal, we are dead. Where would we be without prayer, without the spiritual nourishment of the sacraments and the conversation with God that allows us a glimpse into His will for us? With this in mind, I would like to share with you some thoughts.
As the Ordo indicates, the Memorial of St. Peter Claver is observed as a Solemnity in the Diocese of Lake Charles and transferred to Sunday. The Liturgy of Hours can be taken either from the Common of Pastors or the Common of Men Saints. I chose to pray the Office of Pastors. The antiphon of the First Evening Prayer leapt from the page: “I made myself all things to all.” Of course the text is taken from St. Paul (I Corinthians 9:22), who comments so masterfully on the priesthood. The entire quotation has particular significance to the life and work of St. Peter Claver.
Prior to the verse quoted above, St. Paul writes, “I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible” (I Corinthians 9:19). This, of course, is exactly what St. Peter Claver did. So dedicated a priest was he, so conformed to the image of Christ and so in tune with what St. Paul teaches, St. Peter Claver spent his life baptizing, by some accounts, approximately 300,000 slaves. In his own words, this remarkable priest described himself as a “slave to slaves.” He advocated for them, pleaded to their masters on their behalf, suffered outrageous insults, and endured ongoing misunderstanding of what he was doing to catechize and baptize them.
As I pointed out at our Solemn Vespers in the Cathedral on Sunday, St. Peter Claver dealt shrewdly with the world on behalf of the slaves. His approach to their plight was first to baptize them. To understand better the implications of this, one must appreciate history. Spain had experienced slavery from the days of antiquity. During the Moslem conquests, for almost seven centuries, the Moslems made slaves of their Christian captives, and Christians made slaves of their Moslem captives. It was common practice, if not codified in law, however, that in Christian kingdoms Christians could not be slaves to non-Christians. There was a basic abhorrence to enslaving Christians. In baptizing and in seeking the conversion to Christianity of the slaves, St. Peter Claver was truly bestowing upon them a “baptismal dignity.” Once baptized, they enjoyed not only a supernatural dignity but also a natural right. Although for the most part regrettably ignored, the dignity existed. As with no other kingdom of its day, there were Spanish laws that protected slaves and allowed them some very limited rights (Siete Partidas of King Alfonso). These laws, along with the “dignity” of baptism, gave added weight to the advocacy of St. Peter Claver on behalf of the suffering slaves. This horrifying and dreadful institution of slavery could never be viewed the same again after the efforts of those like St. Peter Claver and the condemnations of it by authorities such as Pope Paul III (1534-1549). The world was slow to listen and to learn, but that is the way of the world. “I made myself all things to all” took on expanded significance through the life and efforts of St. Peter Claver.
The events in the life of St. Peter Claver reveal a tireless priest who used every means available to him to assist the slaves who were his flock. His comments about himself reveal a humble man who is aware of his true strength. “It behooves me,” he wrote, “always to imitate the example of the ass.” He continued, “He never complains in any circumstances, for he is only an ass. So also must God’s servant be.” We often encounter such self-deprecation in the saints, who know themselves very well, their weaknesses and strengths. These are men and women of prayer. Armed with that self-knowledge, they use all the means available to them for the good of the Church and those they serve.
We find this same self-knowledge that comes from a personal relationship with God in the life of St. John Vianney, our own patron as priests. Here, too, is one saint who made himself “all things to all.” His bishop sent him to a parish that was lukewarm, and with God’s grace and help, he revitalized the parish. He did so because the parishioners, and eventually vast numbers of people throughout France and all Europe, saw a priest willing to sit hours in the confessional and hear penitents open their souls to God. I firmly believe that this fidelity to the Sacrament of Penance is what our Lord Jesus Christ intended for us to possess when He said to his apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (John 20:23). This solicitude for his parishioners overflowed into other areas. His homilies and catechetical instructions are simple and to the point. They use analogies taken from the everyday lives of the people. They are at the same time faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church - simple but not simplistic, pure but not watered down.
These two great priests - St. Peter Claver and St. John Vianney - had much in common, but one feature stands out amongst the rest. In striving to be “all things to all,” they manifested the priestly character.
You may recall in the Clergy Bulletin I offered you a selected reading list for the “Year for Priests.” I revisited one of these books for my spiritual reading, a true classic, Christ - the Ideal of the Priest by Dom Columba Marmion. In this book, as its title suggests, Abbot Columba speaks of the priestly character. We know that there are three sacraments that bestow a character - Baptism, Confirmation and Priesthood. Often I have heard this character described in terms of an impression on a coin. We are given an indelible mark, as it were. Abbot Columba, in much more patristic and theological terms, prefers to speak of this character as “a resemblance to Christ.” Citing St. Thomas Aquinas, Abbot Columba observes, “The principal effect of this sacrament [Priesthood] is its character.” He continues speaking to priests: “You have been endowed with a supernatural power, a power which enables you, as ministers of Christ, to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice and to pardon sins. This character is also a focus from which springs abundant grace which is the force and the light of your whole life.” The union between Christ and His priest is intimate. The priest represents Christ. In this sense he is alter Christus, “another Christ.”
Over the years, I have heard some balk at this language. They stop short of using it because they protest, “Doesn’t this place the priest on a pedestal?” I say, no. St. Peter Claver and St. John Vianney certainly did not place themselves on pedestals, yet they understood very well that they were to be “all things to all,” which in the language of St. Paul meant being another Christ. Is this not what St. Paul means, when he writes, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20)? These priestly saints embrace the identity of Christ so fully and intimately that they become Christ to others in their own personal way but at the same time totally and completely. “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”
In the context of this priestly character which we have been given and which we have accepted, the discussions on the topic of priestly identity in the 1970’s and 1980’s appear to me very dated. I recall with great amusement the “workshop” on priestly identity where we were handed construction paper and crayons and asked to draw our conception of priesthood. I wish it were that easy. Our identity is and should be Christ. The challenge is to realize the dignity to which we have been called and live it. Much as we fret over our parishioners who do not live their baptismal promises, we must not fall into the same category by minimizing the character that we should live.
Allow me to speak even more frankly. I am not unaware of the difficulties that priests face in conforming to Christ. They encounter obstacles “from without” and “from within.” The former are all too obvious, the latter less so. No training, however much it pretends to be complete, can prepare a priest to be a personnel manager, or an accountant, or a mediator in conflicts. Yet, when he becomes a pastor, he will face these challenges.
I recall my first pastorate. It was a marvelous country parish filled with devout people. My first week there, I was handed the financial records to be filled out for monthly reports to the diocese. Because my predecessor had been ill for some time, the reports were backlogged. I knew nothing of accounting. Some would say, “Then find a good lay person to help you.” I did. The problem was that he was the only accountant in the parish, a good and generous man, but he had his own work to do. He led me through the routine, showed me how it was done, and in a few months, I was on my own. It was indeed a learning experience. My next two parishes were very large with ample staff. I never had to keep accounting records again. However, my experience made it possible for me to understand the jargon of accounting at finance council meetings.
As I said, the obstacles “from within” are even more challenging. Pope John Paul II speaks of them in Pastores Dabo Vobis (#74). The chief among them is “loneliness.” The topic is far too complex to address exhaustively in a letter such as this, but I wish to share an observation with you. There comes a time in the life of a priest, when, due to age or disappointments or lack of development, he becomes consumed with what I call the “what-if’s” of life. What if I had done this or that? What if the bishop had assigned me here or there? What if I had taken an opportunity offered me? The priest is tempted. Yes, the devil does exist, and yes, he does tempt. The priest can be consumed with thoughts of failure, even in spite of the fact that he is considered successful by everyone else. He can think he is overworked, when in fact he is not. He is consumed by his fatigue, when in fact it is not energy he lacks but will. The priest can begin to alienate himself from everyone because ultimately he is alienated “from within.” If he is a man of prayer, then he is not untested, but he is able to out maneuver the enemy. The struggle can last years, but with prayer, the support of loving friends, consultation with an experienced spiritual director, and fidelity to his commitments, the priest sees the light at the end of tunnel - excuse the tired metaphor - and that light is Christ. Actually Christ has remained “without” and “within” the priest as he has struggled to conform to the image of Christ given him at ordination. It is again the thought of St. Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). One can only realize this truth if one knows Christ as his one and only constant companion. After all, if the priestly character invites us to an imitation of Christ, then in resembling Christ do not our sufferings become an occasion of grace? Are we ever completely alone? Are we not called to live the Paschal Mystery? For the priest who makes it through this testing, his priesthood is enriched by the experience of God’s grace. He is able, as Christ is with us, to sympathize with the weak (Hebrews 4:15). The victory belongs to Christ, and because of his identification with Christ, the priest shares in that victory. Thanks be to God!
In conclusion, the pastoral task that we face as priests is daunting. This summer two parishes that conducted a census submitted to me their results for study. In one community with almost 800 households visited, there were living 62 non-baptized persons, mostly children. Another parish, albeit small, reported to me that for the first year in memory there are no children to constitute a First Communion class. In this same area of catechesis, the Office of Religious Education conducted a Blue Ribbon Study on the status of catechetical instruction in the diocese. Of the three deaneries studied, two experienced a combined loss over an eight-year period of almost 2,000 students. Only one deanery showed a slight increase in the number of students in catechism. Any perceptive pastor should be disturbed by what he sees—indifference.
Ministry to the un-churched is truly a challenge. How many “nice” people did I know as a pastor who had no grievance with the Church, who were ready to call themselves Catholic, and who were always respectful and open to me as a priest, yet seldom attended Mass and lived indifferently to the message of Christ? After years of trying, some few returned to practice. I admit that I search my conscience to understand what more I could have done. The fact is I could have done more. I think of the words of St. Paul: “I made myself all things to all.” I think of St. Peter Claver and the slaves. I think of St. John Vianney and his penitents. I reflect on the priestly character that I share with you.
As we enter the “Year for Priests,” may we not be discouraged. May we seek the spiritual renewal required. I am truly confident that God hears our prayers and answers them. May we be conformed more closely to Christ, the High Priest. Mary, Mother of Priests, pray for us!
Knowing that Christ is both “within” and “without,” I remain with you in devotion to priestly service
Yours in Christ, the High Priest,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles