Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 9, 2004
A life with many expectations
Job description for priests is a demanding one
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Each year the bishops of Western Canada gather for a post-Christmas retreat at Westminister Abbey in Mission, B.C., "to fan into a flame the gift of God that (we) possess through the laying on of hands"(2 Timothy 1:6).
This year we took as our theme the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul, The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.
It's more than a little disconcerting to read that: "The building up of the flock of Christ in truth and holiness demands of the bishop certain characteristics which include an exemplary life, the ability to enter into authentic and constructive relationships with others, an aptitude for encouraging and developing cooperation, an innate goodness and patience, an understanding of and compassion for those suffering in body and spirit, a spirit of tolerance and forgiveness. What is needed is in fact an ability to emulate as well as possible the supreme model, which is Jesus the Good Shepherd."
These words reminded me of a meeting that I once had with the members of a parish pastoral council who informed me of the type of pastor that they thought ought to be assigned to their parish.
They presented me with a printed copy of their expectations.
A priest who has a fully developed spiritual life. One who cares deeply about his vocation, is willing to be available and present to the needs of our people, who is willing to use others' gifts and talents, one who is especially sensitive to women, and the involvement of women, our youth minister and our various committees.
A person of broad scope and vision, who is knowledgeable in systematic, pastoral and aesthetical theology. One who displays competence in addictions intervention, age-appropriate education, the process of the Rites of Christian Initiation and hospice care.
A person who is emotionally stable, able to deal with criticism in a constructive manner and who has strong appreciation of and respect for other Christian denominations without in any way compromising those beliefs and practices that are uniquely Catholic.
After a moment or two of silent reflection on their list I said: "I only know two people that can fulfill this job description: myself and Jesus, and I'm not too sure about Jesus." These days I have much more confidence in Jesus than myself.
It is much easier to identify with Peter the Apostle, and exclaim: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." However, the Master in his mercy continues to say: "Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching people."
Spiritual realism demands that all of us live out our vocation to holiness in a context of difficulties within and without, amidst our own weakness and those of others, in daily contingencies and personal and institutional problems.
This entails prayerfully pondering the mystery of Christ and his Church in its openness to the world and our own vocation.
In his touching dialogue with Jesus after the Resurrection, before entrusting him with the mandate to care for the flock, the Master asks him the embarrassing question: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"
It is easy to understand the humble tone of his reply: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." And it is on the basis of this love, which knows all too well its own frailty, a love professed with both trust and hesitation, that Peter receives the commission: "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep."
The commission opens up a world of wonder and blessing. It's hard to describe what it's like to sit in a confessional and be the instrument of reconciliation in the midst of someone's pain and alienation; or what it's like to witness the marriage of young love and help to seal that sacrament of marriage with the blessing of the Church; or what it's like to baptize an infant and dream the possibilities that life holds.
There are also the graces of spiritual direction, the power of preaching, and the utter satisfaction and humble joy that takes hold when I witness someone's life turn around as a result of God working through me.
This commission, however, doesn't solve all of the problems. St. Gregory the Great put it this way: "After having laid upon my heart the burden of the pastoral office, my spirit has become incapable of frequent recollection, because it remains divided among many things. I am obliged to judge the cases of Churches and monasteries; often I am called to involve myself in the lives and actions of individuals . . . and so with my mind pulled and torn, forced to think of so many things when can it recollect itself and concentrate totally on preaching?"
A retreat is a time to confront our innate restlessness, recognizing the truth expressed by St. Augustine, "Oh God, our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
It is also a time to ponder anew the free gift of God's love and to ask oneself again the hard questions: Is the kingdom of God really the "one pearl" and the "treasure in the field" for which everything else is to be sacrificed? What has really mattered in the past year? To what have I given my life? With whom have I cast my lot? Whom have I loved - really loved?
I'm not sure much else matters, so I resolve to follow Paul's advice to Timothy: "Refute falsehood, correct error, give encouragement - but do all with patience and with care to instruct . . . put up with suffering; do the work of preaching the Gospel; fulfill the service asked of you" (2 Timothy 4:2, 5).
It's hard to describe what it's like to sit in a confessional and be the instrument of reconciliation.
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