CULTURE IS ENOUGH TO SAVE DISTRESSED PRIESTS? MAYBE NOT, IF THE SENSE OF PATERNITY OF BISHOPS IS LACK AND A REDISCOVERY OF ONE'S PRIESTLY IDENTITY
Most of the time I find myself meeting priests, the most common sufferings they feel they share are given by the abandonment and loneliness they experience on the part of their shepherds, not to mention some who experience outright ridicule. This non-affective mode of relationship between bishop and priest should make us reflect a lot, because in front of a priest incapable of pastoral love towards the faithful, sometimes, hides a bishop incapable of love towards his own priest.
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Ivano Liguori, Ofm. Capp..
When I was a young cleric of the two-year philosophy course, I had the grace of knowing and being a pupil of a holy Jesuit the Father Joseph Pirola, one of the few Jesuits I have known in my life and of whom it can be said with evangelical frankness that there is no falsehood, as well as Christ said about the Blessed Apostle Nathanael [cf.. GV 1, 47-51].
The good father he held the course of phenomenology of religion and metaphysics every Thursday at our student residence. Already on Wednesday evening he settled at our convent in Cremona and normally presided over the celebration of the evening mass and then lent himself to listen to the confessions of us young student friars.
I remember, during one of those celebrations, perhaps in the liturgical memory of Saint Albert the Great or some other Doctor of the Church, that his homily deeply touched the hearts and minds of us young clerics with these words:
«You guys know why Sant'Alberto, St. Thomas and the others whom we recognize today as Doctors of the Church are saints? Do not think that they are saints only for their academic culture, because they have studied so much. These people are holy because above all with their faith they sought Jesus and desired to be with him. From this desire then arose the theological study enlightened by the Holy Spirit which made them what they are"
and then concluded:
“You are not studying for culture alone, you are studying to continue a journey of faith that will lead you to be with Jesus and to know him intimately".
These words still today for me they represent the compass of my priestly ministry, so that I remember that theological culture can easily become vanity or empty erudition if it is not accompanied by the service rendered to the truth and the charity of Christ. But after all, what did we become priests for??
The Blessed Evangelist Mark he is clear in this regard when he mentions the institution of the Twelve, he says: “He chose them to be with him» [See. MC 3,13-19]. Jesus calls us to be with him, he asks his priests for an exclusive bond of life, not a patronage or merely intellectual relationship between teacher and student, between rabbi and disciple.
We are knowing times when a doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University or the Lateran is no longer denied to anyone. Indeed, these goals are aimed at the sole purpose of curriculum in view of the career ladder. It is not so rare those who already from the seminar are identified as episcopal and that during their academic training in Rome they usually frequent the right environments such as the Almo Collegio Capranica and other magical circles where they can get to know some good devil to bring them so as to promote the fall of a few mitres that they receive unworthily and with suffering on their heads with all the humility of the case.
We are faced with that phenomenon of pretini trendy which I wrote about some time ago [you see who] whose well-known climbing skills reach out to infinity and beyond, only to fall disastrously at any moment and conclude their success with a disorientation that is the antechamber of the crisis. With all honesty, while recognizing in some minds undoubted qualities, often one experiences a certain fragility of faith combined with that difficulty in being with the Lord which is the only essential prerogative for every disciple but above all for every theologian.
And all this is said without judgment but relying solely on a priestly style widely documented and exhibited away social by those who increasingly stand out as real professionals of the sacred. If we then focus on their publications, which delight a certain Catholic publishing house, we can see that the troubled editorial gestation serves no purpose other than to make a fine display on the shelves of the most renowned Roman bookshops in Via della Conciliazione and Borgo Pio, positioning themselves as certain avant-garde works of Catholic progressive thought. But how much of these works is an expression of intimate knowledge of the Risen Lord and of that effort to remain with the Master? We must say it frankly that even religious and theological culture "must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, of contemplation, of seeking and listening to the will of God" [See. R. Sarah, The power of silence. Against the dictatorship of noise, Siena, 2017, ed. Cantagalli, p. 35].
It is no exaggeration to consider certain intellectual works the work of formal and substantial heretics if not outright avowed atheists. Often reading these books we notice a similarity of thought and intent already present in some exponents of sociology, of anthropology and secular psychology that speak of the religious world from their privileged observatory and claim to suggest to the Church the path to pursue for a religious renewal from a faith considered obsolete and which must be rejuvenated by compromising with the world and its logics.
Among the many scholars of today the need is felt to have in the Church and in the ranks of the clergy men who have a strong faith, who converse with God and who desire to learn that the wisdom of the cross which cannot be learned from books alone.
This reading of the situation of the clergy is not mine, Cardinal Robert Sarah already expresses this concept in his latest book when he says that: “We already have far too many eminent religious specialists and doctors. What the Church lacks today are men of God, men of faith and priests who are worshipers in spirit and in truth" [See. R. Sarah, Catechism of the spiritual life, Siena, 2022, ed. Cantagalli, p. 12]. Affirming this certainly does not mean being against culture but placing it in the right perspective.
Today it status of worshiper of God is a rare commodity among priests, since the early years of the seminary. It implies that spiritual need to let oneself be read within by the Lord as we see done in the relationship with the Samaritan woman [See. GV 4,1-30], whose relationship with the various husbands is not ascribable to a condition of marital or sexual disorder but to a relationship of fidelity with God which has failed in favor of convenience and which unfortunately also constitutes the cause of that thirst which cannot be satisfied if not returning to the true God. there, dear readers, when we priests satisfy our thirst at other fountains that do not derive from God and lead to him, we often fall into the risk of being lost and being easy prey to a crisis of meaning and identity.
Why do I say this? Because I came across an interesting article by Ida Bozzi in the Sunday insert Reading from The Corriere della Sera entitled "A magazine explores the world in the time of lost priests". In this article we read the point of view of the director of the "Rivista del Clero Italiano" the theologian Giuliano Zanchi who addresses the issue of the condition of confusion and disorientation of priests in the current ecclesial situation.
I am particularly sensitive to this topic because more than once in my ministry as confessor I have experienced the unease of fellow priests and the intimate disorientation that is debated within them. The discomfort today is tangible and is accompanied by the inevitable human frailties that lead to the secularization and hybridization of the Catholic priesthood in what has increasingly become a free profession, where the priest becomes the neighborhood social worker or the president of an NGO [see an example who e who].
If we pay attention to the cases of priests in crisis or who abandon the priesthood, we often find ourselves faced with subjects of proven culture who should in some way be preserved from this type of drift. but yet, this does not always happen and we realize that culture alone is often not enough, if this culture is not subordinated and directed to familiarity with Christ. If the book does not lead me to the tabernacle and the tabernacle to the book, I will have wasted my time.
Giuliano Zanchi, presbyter and theologian, in his analysis, reports that today the clergy suffer a certain social disregard of their own status and a demolition of one's authority. I am perplexed when one speaks only of authority and not of authority why present the model of priestly authority of Jesus to the clergy on the basis of the pericope of MC 1,21-28 it might seem a bit too right-wing today, then we need to be cautious and, like good academics, differentiate between authoritativeness and authority.
Like this, the article continues, in the face of a common sense of the sacred which has certainly not disappeared but which has certainly degraded, we witness a transition of the boat of the Church to other shores, towards different theological and ecclesial directions with respect to those traditional and institutional forms that we are used to knowing.
The solution proposed by the director of the Journal of the Italian Clergy – which I feel like sharing up to a certain point – consists in investing in culture, privileged tool with which the clergy can respond to the theological challenges that new times require and an antidote to the rampant confusion among priests. This cultural proposal is also presented by bringing illustrious models such as the theologians Tomáš Halík and Pierangelo Sequeri.
I will be frank, talking about culture in a general sense is of little use if then the boundaries and the spheres of intervention and the aims are not clearly delimited. What culture do we need? That culture suggested by human wisdom or that taught by the Holy Spirit? [See. Color 2, 1-16] There is no doubt that the clergy today need a good formation, to realize it, it is enough to see the liturgical and canonical havoc that is carried out almost daily to the detriment of the sacraments of the Church [you see who, who, qui, who, who, who, who, who]. That's why I ask, good culture always and automatically corresponds to good training? I would have some doubts. Theological training courses for future priests have multiplied with the integration of infinite academic exams but never as in these times does the quality of the training of the clergy appear embarrassing.
As a somewhat naive priest and vintage I am convinced that culture alone is not enough to give formation and knowledge of God, on the contrary, we often run the risk of falling into personal complacency and convincing ourselves that we are the sole holder of the truth and of a correct vision of the world (your own!).
The priest is formed not only with mere academic culture but remaining in the constant company of the Master who teaches from the chair of the cross, it is strenuous mystical learning, which consists of hours in front of the tabernacle, of skinned knees and martyrdom. So it was for the Apostles and so it will be for the future.
The article then goes on to give a pun to a certain kind of rigid priestly style, towards that bigoted devotion combined with that intransigent and obscurantist apologetic tendency which according to Giuliano Zanchi is "very strong today". In short, just to understand, if the priest teaches the faithful to recite the rosary and to meditate on its mysteries with the same purity of intention of Saint Bernadette in Lourdes or the little shepherds in Fatima, he must perhaps be considered a bigot? Or when he wants to keep the bar straight with a certain paternal firmness on apologetic positions in defense of the faith, of doctrine or morality in the face of the opening-touring challenges of modernity to which some fringes of the Church wink, he must be considered a strict obscurantist? I'd like to know the answer, but above all I would like to know the reference models that are not the usual Maggi, Bianchi, Mancuso and Melloni or those who, although pastors in the care of souls, are practically unobtainable because they are too busy holding conferences and consuming the predellas of the theological faculty.
Culture is therefore the one and only possible panacea for the evils of bewildered priests? Not always. If by culture we mean the one that dialogues and fraternises with today's man without demanding daring and tiring objectives, without asking for conversion, surely not. We ask ourselves then - borrowing a thought from Benedict XVI -, whether dialogue combined with cultural fraternization can truly replace mission, with the real risk of obscuring the truth and corrupting the faith. Because this is the focal point on which we must insist, it is the faith of priests that must be protected so that the Truths they transmit in the name of the Church direct the dialogue with the world and not vice versa. Men of God who, through an enlightened and lived faith, know how to make God credible in this world. Above all men of God, and only later learned scholars of a theological discipline.
The Blessed Apostle Paul equipped with the sole the wisdom of the cross at the Areopagus of Athens, temple of culture and dialogue of the ancient world, he did not hesitate to affirm the truth of the Resurrection at the cost of being pitied and derided by those who held the keys to Greek culture. The renunciation of the Truth today seems extremely realistic and perhaps opportune, even in the face of a possible peacemaking dialogue with modern culture or with other religious faiths, but it can be lethal for the faith that risks losing its binding character and its seriousness [See. Benedict XVI, What is Christianity, Milan, 2023, ed. Mondadori, pp. 9-11].
For this reason in front of the bewildered priests it is important to re-propose a spiritual therapy of return to Christ, to that spirit of prayer and devotion that the Seraphic Father Francesco recommended to the wise doctor Antonio of Padua in one of his letters:
«To Brother Antonio, my bishop, Friar Francesco wishes health. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the friars, as long as in this occupation, does not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion, as it is written in the Rule» [See. Franciscan sources NN. 251-252].
Therefore together with culture it is necessary to start afresh from prayer and devotion, elements that favor the adoration of God in Spirit and Truth and which in my humble opinion form the antibodies for a healthy and wise culture. Real life puts an evidence before us: when a priest enters a crisis or is disoriented, the reasons are almost always to be found in the fact that he feels alone and that he has lost the points of reference that he once had clear. The crisis in men of God is never primarily cultural but of meaning and identity. Fundamental, in these cases, it is knowing how to count on the paternal heart of one's own bishop or ordinary whose first duty is to accompany and protect one's own priest. In Presbyters of the Order of Paul VI, the Pontiff explains that a priest is intimately and inseparably linked to his bishop and to his particular Church in communion with the universal Church. This bond is not only of a juridical nature but above all spiritual and human. The bishop is the one who possesses the fullness of the priesthood of Christ, and as such it expresses Christ in his very being and working. They, like Christ, he is called to express his concern for the Twelve and the disciples, never letting them miss his presence in times of trial and loss. Most of the time I find myself meeting priests, the most common sufferings they feel they share are given by the abandonment and loneliness they experience on the part of their shepherds, not to mention some who experience outright ridicule. This non-affective mode of relationship between bishop and priest should make us reflect a lot, because in front of a priest incapable of pastoral love towards the faithful, sometimes, hides a bishop incapable of love towards his own priest. But love was not the sign that should have distinguished the life of the Apostles and disciples of Christ? [See. GV 13,1-15; 13, 34-35].
We all know loyal bishops in punctually organizing retreats and the ongoing formation of their clergy, even with enviable cultural profiles but who are terribly distant from those over whom they should exercise that paternal custody from which the term derives episkopos which in ancient times referred to a divine patronage of custody.
Bishops who do not find the time to devote to their elderly priests, ill or in difficulty and who draw information from other sources: “They told me that…”, instead of exposing yourself personally with a phone call and say: "I'm worried about you, how are you? I can do something? I want to come to you for lunch". If the priest goes into crisis, oh what i donde, it's because it experiences all of these and so much more, not just because it is culturally deficient.
The solitude of the clergy today it is increasingly becoming the first pathological emergency to heal which joins the second more markedly spiritual pathological emergency which is given by the lack of familiarity with Christ. I wonder, what can be done in the face of these emergencies? The suggestion may be enough to broaden one's culture? Irony of fate, the priests who most often go into crisis are the most qualified and culturally most prepared, that seem to be self-sufficient. Where does the identity of these brother priests reside?? Certainly not in culture alone, but in a mystical relationship with Christ that has failed. The characteristic of the priesthood, explains Benedict XVI, it consists in nothing but being priest in the sense defined by Jesus Christ on the cross. This means that the priestly crisis is not essentially a cultural crisis but the inability to stay - in the sense of taking up residence - together with the Lord on the cross.
This speech leads us to mercilessly acknowledge that we are witnessing, much more today than in the past, to a crisis concerning the priestly identity which is no longer rooted and understood in those who choose to respond to the vocation. So let us first of all try to understand that the priest does not live by his own light and that his being a priest is true only in relation to the unique and eternal priesthood of Christ who calls man to be united with him in the ministry of mediator.
In this dynamic of mystical and sacramental union to the one and eternal priesthood of Christ man is called to a progressive stripping of himself - not only from goods but above all from his own ego - which recalls that necessary search for perfection which was proposed to the Rich Young Man and which the Apostles undertook in following the Master, abandoning everything [See. MC 10,17-22; 28-31]. For priests this stripping represents the only valid foundation that informs the "necessity of celibacy, as well as liturgical prayer, of meditation on the Word of God and the renunciation of material goods" [See. R. Sarah with Benedict XVI, From the bottom of our hearts, Siena, 2020, ed. Cantagalli, p.26]. The more we know how to undress and decentralize ourselves, the more Christ, his Word, his prayer and essentiality of life will clothe our priestly and human identity.
These essential elements they help us understand what the crisis of priestly identity consists of and where it is necessary to intervene for a recovery. A bewildered priest is one who no longer considers his ministry as an exclusive work of Christ but above all a personal work. This replacement of the characteristic of the priesthood it is very sneaky and reveals itself in the craving for activism and narcissism. At a time when the priest assumes he is indispensable, indulging the desire to appear always and in all circumstances, shunning that salutary concealment which allows Christ to act in him, one falls into that diabolical temptation which eliminates the work of God favoring the work of man as we see happening in those who wanted to make a name for themselves during the construction of the Tower of Babel [See. GN 11,4].
Likewise managerial activism, it becomes the new Liturgy of the Hours that needs to be celebrated, eschewing the static nature of contemplation at the Master's feet ― now considered a waste of time ― in favor of commitment in various areas, even in those who do not properly belong to the priestly ministry. Today it is not uncommon to see priests playing politicians, Of influence, Of TikToker, of social workers, of psychologists, of television pundits, Of manager of commercial or welfare enterprises, of teachers and so on to follow. With the presumption that doing well and for the good is equivalent to being a good priest equally, ending up eliminating the specifics of the priestly vocation as Christ conceived and understood it for the Church.
In the eagerness to make a name for yourself and exercise power by doing, the priest becomes depersonalized, his day is no longer marked by prayer, it becomes more and more difficult to fulfill all the hours of the breviary, and Holy Mass is just a parenthesis to be celebrated quickly, preferring the II Canon of the missal and in no more than fifteen minutes. Stopping in the confessional is increasingly rare because an undefined theology of mercy has led to the understanding - both in the laity and in the clergy - that the reality of sin no longer exists and if it exists there is official forgiveness without the need for repentance and conversion of life.
Visiting the sick and communion on the first Friday of the month they are increasingly rare, as well as the pastoral care of the suffering which is left to a few specialists in the sector as well as that of families and engaged couples.
Other examples could be given but these are already more than enough to draw an updated profile of what the priest experiences today. We want to invest in culture? A commendable position but primarily we seek to strengthen its priestly identity. We call the priest to fervent and constant prayer, to the valorisation and rehabilitation of that fraternity with one's bishop and with one's confreres, let us help him not to come down from the cross of Christ. Above all, let us instill in the hearts of young clerics the duty of charity combined with that mutual love which leads to forgiveness and which does not rival and does not struggle in the egocentric narcissism of the cold careerist of the sacred.
Loving priests is a great and demanding task, a responsibility of the whole Church that it is no longer possible to procrastinate without weakening the sanctification of the people of God and betraying that institution of the sacred ministry that the Lord wanted on Holy Thursday.
Laconi, 24 February 2023
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