Saturday, April 17, 2010

The bishop and priest as spiritual father

In his apostolic exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), the late Pope John Paul II reminds us that “priests by means of the sacrament of holy orders are tied with a personal and indissoluble bond to Christ. ... The sacrament of holy orders is conferred upon each one of them as individuals, but they are inserted into the communion of the presbyterate united with the bishop.” A priest’s primary bond, the fundamental and indispensable relationship that creates and sustains his ministry, is with Christ.

Nothing can replace this intimate, indissoluble connection between Christ and his priests. At the same time, as the Holy Father reminds us, this bond of love between Christ and his priests has a communal dimension. When a priest receives the sacrament of holy orders, he is joined with his brother priests and his bishop in a presbyterate. The bishop shares his ministry with his priests. Together they carry out the Lord’s work: by their proclamation of the word of God, by their celebration of the sacraments and by their pastoral leadership. In John 21:15-17, Jesus questions St Peter’s love for him three times before putting St Peter at the head of his flock, the church, and then invites him to tend and feed his sheep.

The spirituality of the bishop and the priest is the same as that of the Galilean fisherman who became the first pope and the head of the church. We are called to love the Lord with our whole heart and soul. Bishops and priests are called to share the love they have received in the depth of their hearts from the Father as they take up their role as spiritual fathers. I find this sense of spiritual fatherhood, love for others in Christ, in St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (2:1-12). Here the disciple or spiritual father is called to be a positive influence, lead a transparent life, base his ministry only on spiritual authority, show affection toward those he is called to serve and be known for unselfish living.

The spiritual father gives himself completely in proclaiming the Gospel. Therefore, we understand that preaching the Gospel is not merely pronouncing words but the giving of oneself in love. It is the role of the spiritual father expressed through attentive listening and anchored in one’s prayer and discernment. St John Vianney, the Cure of Ars and patron saint of all parish priests, expressed this love when he prayed for the conversion of his parish and said he would undergo any suffering that God would send to him. On another occasion, when asked about the great sinners that came to him, he said that he would only give them a small penance and then make up the difference in his own life through prayer and mortification.

In Philippians 2:1-3, St Paul describes this behaviour as selfless friendship: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” Spiritual fatherhood is rooted in a theology that is Trinitarian and Incarnational. The late Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan suggests four characteristics found in a spiritual father: Intimacy: a relationship of love and tenderness with others.

Just as the Good Shepherd knows his sheep, so the bishop and priest are called to listen attentively to those entrusted to their care and always be welcoming and forgiving, bringing the healing hands of Christ. Dedication: a decision to give his life for his sheep, giving of himself generously without reserve. And it does not matter whether or not others respond. What counts is the total gift of the spiritual father. Evangelization: reaching out to every person and every aspect of human life. We are never stopped by rejection or indifference.

Rather, we are always trying to build relationships on love. Unity: “That they may be one” (Jn 17:11). Zacchaeus changed, Matthew changed, Mary Magdalene changed and the boy possessed changed. Everyone who finds Jesus changes! Recently I led a pilgrimage retreat with 22 priests from the Archdiocese of St Louis to Ars, France, to the church where St John Vianney ministered to his people and to the thousands who came to him for spiritual guidance. I believe it’s important for me as a bishop to pray for and with my priests. It is also important for priests to gather with each other and with their bishop as a presbyterate. When a bishop and his priests are growing in holiness together, they are in the best possible position to effectively preach the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments and serve the pastoral needs of the people entrusted to their care as spiritual guides and fathers.
By Archbishop Robert J. Carlson

Source: Herald Malaysia


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