home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
March 16, 2010

The challenge to use words well in ministry - Factors undermining the fraternity of priests - Ways to strengthen bonds among priests - The rationale for hope in bleak times.

In this edition:
1. Hope makes sense, even in bleak times: Looking ahead to Easter.
2. Priestly fraternity that is not insular, protectionist or exclusive.
3. Steps toward stronger bonds among priests.
4. Factors undermining priestly fraternity.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Pope Benedict XVI on lay co-responsibility;
b) Arizona bishops' concern about proposed, state immigration bills;
c) human rights and the economic recession: working for change on the ground.
6. Homily insights: New book by synod secretary-general.
7. The homilist's challenge to use words well.

1. Hope Makes Sense, Even in Bleak Times: Last Supper, First Eucharist

"How do we dare to go on trusting that God will give us a future even when we cannot imagine" it because things are going so badly for us, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe asked young people when he spoke Feb. 27 to a congress in London of the Catholic Youth Ministry Federation for England and Wales. Radcliffe is former head of the worldwide Dominican order.

Father Radcliffe recalled a day in Rwanda around the beginning of that nation's violent, vicious, 1994 civil war. It was a "terrible day," a day of threats, a day whose end he doubted he would live to see. The worst that day was what he witnessed in a hospital filled with children mutilated by land mines.

"I had no words," Father Radcliffe said. "And then I remembered that Jesus had left us something to be done in memory of him. We could remember that night before he died, which was the darkest moment in human history. One of his friends had sold him, and his beloved Peter was about to betray him. And most of the rest would run away."

Yet, "when everything seemed lost and there was no future, [Jesus] did this extraordinary thing. When he was having supper with his friends, he took bread and gave it to them saying, 'This is my body, given for you.' When the only future seemed to be the cross, then he made this mad, generous, loving gesture."

And that, Father Radcliffe said, "is the basis of our hope. Every time that we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are taken back to that dark moment and that unexpected gift of the future. The Last Supper seemed the end, the 'last' supper, but it was just the beginning, the first Eucharist."

The present moment "is the only moment that exists," Father Radcliffe told the young people. "Now is when the future starts."

Of course, he acknowledged, "we may wonder where on earth we are headed. Each of us will live through moments of crisis when the future seems unsure." However, he said, during "every Eucharist we remember the moment when there seemed to be no future except the cross, when it seemed over -- and then Jesus made this extraordinary act of generosity and hope."

As a result, "we need never be afraid," Father Radcliffe concluded - even though "the future may look bleak." Thus, he said to his audience, "my hope is that you will be bearers of hope." For, "it is possible to "share our hope with each other."

2. Priestly Fraternity That Is Not Insular, Protectionist or Exclusive

Priests frequently are encouraged to strengthen their sense of brotherhood - their fraternity. In spending time together, priests can support each other, share insights and foster each other's well-being in the ways brothers are able to do. In the past, however, some observers have asked whether fostering priestly fraternity inevitably will lead to a resurgence of clericalism.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta seemed well aware of this concern when he spoke March 7 in Baltimore, Md., on the relationship between a bishop and the priests he serves. But the archbishop appeared convinced that priestly fraternity need not give way to priestly bonds that are insular, protectionist or exclusive.

"The fraternity of the presbyterate experiences difficulties when it becomes insular and forgets its purpose of service to the other members of the church," Archbishop Gregory commented. He said that priestly fraternity never was intended "to be an exclusive club whose sole purpose is simply to maintain the prerogatives and privileges of the club."

In addition, true priestly fraternity is not a protectionist relationship that forgets or denies "the other relationships that belong to the heart of God's family," said Archbishop Gregory. Thus, "a spiritually sound fraternal relationship among priests is never an 'us against the rest of the church,' but always an 'us in the service of the church.'"

And there is room within priestly fraternity for fraternal correction, in a way that a protectionist notion of priestly fraternity might not be inclined to allow for, the archbishop indicated. Relating this concern to the crisis the church experienced over the sexual abuse of minors, Archbishop Gregory said:

"One of the saddest commentaries of the entire sexual-abuse scandal that has so devastated the Catholic Church during the past decade has been the revelation that the poor judgment and lack of proper oversight exercised by some bishops resulted in the violation of the young, but also in far too many cases some members of a presbyterate knew or suspected that one of their brothers was engaged in inappropriate or at least questionable behavior, and they did nothing to confront or address that situation with the individual or with someone in authority. Some priests may have excused their failure to act with the earliest question of the fraternal bond, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'"

For Archbishop Gregory, "fraternity" refers in its best sense to "an association of men who have transitioned together through important events of maturation, growth and commitment to shared ideals and goals. The elder members of the fraternity are -- or should be -- sources of wisdom and good example. The younger members regenerate -- or should -- the enthusiasm that priests share for the ministry of the church, bringing with them the bright-eyed energy and zeal that their elders may have forgotten."

In his Baltimore speech, the archbishop examined the bishop's role as a father, friend and brother to priests. In his discussion of fraternity, he said: "The bishop must be a brother among brothers. This sense of fraternal love is critical between priests and bishops, and for the health and holiness of the local church."

Of course, "brothers do not always agree," he observed. Thus, "a bishop is a brother to his priests, and like any fraternal relationship, at times it can be a test for both." Archbishop Gregory said:

-- "Because a bishop is a brother, he can be challenged and tested as any brother can be, and we usually are with some regularity.

-- "Because a bishop is a brother, he can be assertive and competitive in prodding a brother priest, as we must frequently do.

-- "Because a bishop is a brother, he can be expected to be a source of support and a trusted confidante, as we must always be."

Archbishop Gregory added, "A bishop is a brother to his priests when he realizes that they belong to the same family, and share a common Father, and are loved by the same Mother."

The relationship of a bishop with his priests and the relationships among priests "have a profound significance for the entire church and in each diocese," Archbishop Gregory indicated. "In point of fact," he said, "when the relationships between bishops and priests, and among their own brother priests, are healthy, happy and well-grounded, the entire church is the beneficiary."

3. Forming Bonds Among Priests Through Prayer and Meals Together

Priestly fraternity helps priests to view themselves "as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord, not isolated, independent contractors slaving away" on their own, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in a January 2010 letter to priests of the archdiocese. He wrote, "No priest exists or thrives spiritually and pastorally in isolation from other priests."

What concerned Cardinal Mahony was what he termed "a creeping isolation" among priests. Not only do priests living within the same deanery often not know each other well, "but the same can be true for priests living in the same rectory and serving in the very same parish," said the cardinal.

An "effective fraternity" among priests was distinguished from their "affective fraternity" in Cardinal Mahony's letter. Effective fraternity "does not demand much from us," he wrote. For, "all we need do is work together in our parish planning and show up for those priestly ministries to which we are assigned." Cardinal Mahony said that effective fraternity does not deepen the "bonds between us in and through Jesus Christ."

He stated, "Effective fraternity without affective fraternity is lifeless."

Affective fraternity among priests living in the same residence calls for two essential actions, according to Cardinal Mahony: a) some time of prayer together and, b) sharing meals together. "Without those two pillars of priestly fraternity, we tend to drift apart and into a mysterious isolation, even in the same house," he wrote.

Priests were encouraged to view priestly fraternity "as an essential part of our mission here in this archdiocese." Cardinal Mahony said that "being available for each other for prayer and for meals is not an option here - it is the living out of our shared priestly ministry in this local church."

Pastors and administrators were urged by Cardinal Mahony "to make certain that there are times during the week when you and the priests living in your parish - both associate pastors and in-residence priests - gather for some form of shared prayer," while also assuring "that there are regular meals provided by the parish on some days of each week."

Cardinal Mahony proposed that a meal be provided in a priests' residence "at least three evenings of every week," and that "all of the priests show up and share together in those meals." He urged priests living alone "to link up with a neighboring parish or parishes to share meals and prayer time during the week," and that retired priests be included in these activities.

4. Factors That Undermine Priestly Fraternity

A sense of "rugged individualism" is a threat to priestly fraternity, as is the "benign neglect" of the bonds among priests, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., said in a 2003 speech when he was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said recent research had shown that "priests tend not to look to one other for support or encouragement."

The U.S. "is a country greatly blessed by mobility and instantaneous communication, and yet still filled with so many lonely people," Bishop Skylstad said in his address to the convention of the National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy. He added, "For us priests, understanding the fraternal nature of our priesthood is absolutely fundamental."

Research also was suggesting at that time that those departing from ministry were doing so because "they felt isolated and unappreciated," Bishop Skylstad noted. But he described that situation not only as a reality to be faced, but as "something we can do something about."

A lack of priestly fraternity means that "too often our presbyterates are not very united. They are not always welcoming communities of faith," said Bishop Skylstad. But he insisted that priests' roles in the church "are very dependent upon how we relate to one another in friendship, fraternity and acceptance."

In these times, divisions among priests are heightened to some extent by age differences, Bishop Skylstad said, again citing recent research at the time of his address. "Many of the youngest priests ordained today are most like the oldest priests in the understanding of the priestly character" - a factor that "has caused some tensions within our presbyterates," he pointed out.

Moreover, Bishop Skylstad said, "most of those ordained 25 years ago were ordained in their mid-20s. Today, it's not uncommon for men to be ordained who are fully 10 years older than that. Today's newly ordained come with varied backgrounds, varied life experiences. And the differences can create yet another strain on the unity of the presbyterate."

The priesthood needs "to learn how to deal constructively with this and other tensions," said Bishop Skylstad. "We must not allow ourselves to become caught up in theological divisions and fractious ideologies."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

The Laity's Co-responsibility: "I learned with pleasure that with regard to vocations and the role of consecrated and lay people, your community is proposing to promote the co-responsibility of all the members of the people of God. As I have already had the opportunity to recall, this requires a change in mind-set, particularly concerning lay people: 'They must no longer be viewed as 'collaborators' of the clergy, but truly recognized as 'co-responsible' for the church's being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.'" (From the March 7 homily of Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to the Rome parish of St. John of the Cross)

Bishops' Concern About Arizona Immigrant Legislation: "We are concerned with high-profile measures relating to immigration that we believe could be detrimental to public safety and that could divide families. In particular, it is our understanding that [two proposed, state-level legislative actions] are identical bills aimed at requiring greater enforcement of immigration laws by local police. We are concerned that the present language of these bills does not clearly state that undocumented persons who become victims of crime can come forward without fear of deportation. After all, it is in all of our best interests that people in our state - regardless of their citizenship status - should not be afraid to report crimes. Another aspect of these bills that concerns us is that Arizona would become the first state in the nation to codify its own 'illegal immigration' law by requiring persons who are here unlawfully in terms of federal law to be charged with trespassing under Arizona law. The charge for the first offense would be a high misdemeanor, for the second offense a felony. Supporters of these bills claim that the intent of this 'trespassing' law is to allow local police to hold undocumented immigrants who are suspects in crimes. However, the bill does not limit enforcement to persons suspected of criminal activity, thus leaving the possibility of criminalizing the presence of even children and young persons brought into our country by their parents. If enacted, these bills could lead to separation of family members that would not take place under federal law." (From a March 3 statement by Arizona's Catholic bishops)

Human Rights: Making Change on the Ground a Reality: "The enjoyment of human rights becomes possible when states translate principles into law and make change on the ground a reality. While the state is the first actor in the implementation of human rights, it cannot fail to collaborate with all other players in its own civil society and with the international community, interconnected and interdependent as we are in today's globalized world. In fact, the common goal is the protection and respect of human dignity that binds together the entire human family, a unity rooted on the four basic principles of the centrality of the human person, solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good." (From a statement on human rights and the economic crisis presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council March 3 by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva)

6. Homily Crafting: New Book by Synod Secretary-General

Homilists draw their inspiration from the Bible, but they do well to find inspiration in the newspaper as well, said Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary-general in Rome of the world Synod of Bishops. Keeping abreast of news developments helps homilists address people's current concerns, the archbishop believes.

Archbishop Eterovic has just published a book titled "The Word of God," which includes some homily tips based on discussions at the 2008 Synod of Bishops, which had the Bible as its theme. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published excerpts from the book March 10.

The archbishop urged homilists to allow adequate time for crafting a well-prepared and relevant homily. Pope Benedict XVI, according to Archbishop Eterovic, starts working Monday on his next Sunday homily.

An "Improving Homilies" program in the Archdiocese of Paris was cited by Archbishop Eterovic. One of that program's guidelines urges that, in general, a homily not exceed eight minutes in length. Archbishop Eterovic agreed that eight minutes is "the average amount of time" listeners are likely to concentrate on the homily.

The text for a homily may be written out, the archbishop said, but even so the homilist should speak from notes or an outline that enables him to follow his homily's logical path while also establishing eye contact with the people in the pews and engaging them in a personal manner.

At the time of the October 2008 sessions of the world Synod of Bishops, a number of participants spoke on the challenges of preaching. "Unfortunately, preaching in our day can lose its savor, become formulaic and uninspired, leaving the hearer empty," Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said in remarks to the synod.

Preaching in the Catholic Church must improve, said Bishop Kicanas. He proposed that bishops and priests, working together, study what makes a homily effective in "this distracted world." He suggested that they ask laypeople what matters to them and what they would recommend for improving homilies.

He said that preaching is meant to comfort, heal, bring hope, inspire, challenge, teach and confront. "Through grace, it changes lives," he added.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, said in a Catholic News Service interview during the 2008 synod that a good homily requires a priest to think through the theology of the biblical texts and to find a connection between the text and people's lives. "I don't know that there's a magic wand for that," he said. But prayerful reflection is one important element of this process, as is practice, which may mean bouncing ideas off other people to see what works and what doesn't.

A priest is involved with many important activities all week long, Cardinal DiNardo observed. Nonetheless, a priest needs to understand that even with all these activities, "he probably won't reach as many people as he does in his Sunday homily."

In its concluding message, the 2008 Synod of Bishops said that "in preaching, a dual movement is achieved." First, it said, "one goes back to the roots of the sacred texts, the events, the first words of the history of salvation, to understand them in their meaning and in their message." Second, however, "one returns to the present, to the today lived by" people in the pews.

The synod said that the homily remains, for many today, "the central moment of encounter with the word of God."

7. The Homilist's Challenge to Use Words Well

"We all are communicators, especially somebody who has a vocation to minister in the church," retired Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati said after receiving the Daniel J. Kane Religious Communications Award in February from the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio.

Communicators should not exclude any of the communications media in their efforts, the archbishop suggested. He thinks communicators should "use the gifts that are available." However, "the fact that you've got a medium doesn't mean that the message is going to get through. I view these media as opportunities rather than guarantees," he said.

Archbishop Pilarczyk has spoken over the years about the challenges facing communicators in the church, including homilists. People today are awash in a sea of words, he commented in a 1999 speech. There are "radios everywhere, faxes and e-mail, beepers and portable telephones. There's practically no place to go where you can't be talked at," he said.

As a result, the homilist on any given Sunday morning these days "probably faces stiffer competition than anybody since St. Paul when he wanted to address the rioting silversmiths of Ephesus," the archbishop surmised.

Archbishop Pilarczyk assessed the power of words in a 1997 speech in New Orleans to priests of the region. "Words are cheap, and words are precious, and for both reasons we have to use them carefully in our teaching," he said.

Preparation is necessary if words are to be employed well, he said. A reason preparation is so important is that "there is so much competition for attention to words." He explained:

"The people who sit before us on Sunday morning have been hearing words all week, and if our words are not carefully chosen and put together in such a way as to render clearly and persuasively what we have to say, they will simply not listen to us. Preparation is also important because we are speaking for the Lord, and we are responsible for speaking in his name as effectively as we can."

Those who teach and preach in the church do not do so only through words. But words are "the main medium of our teaching ministry, they are our basic tools," Archbishop Pilarczyk said, adding, "Every good craftsman knows that he has to respect his tools and use them carefully."