Convocation highlights unity, faithfulness of priests

The priests of Boston shared a day of brotherhood and renewed unity with their archbishop, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley June 10 as they prepared to begin the Year for Priests. Nearly 350 archdiocesan priests gathered in Burlington for the 2009 Presbyteral Convocation held under the same theme Pope Benedict has given to the upcoming year centered on the priesthood: “Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests.”

According to vicar general and moderator of the curia Father Richard Erikson the gathering was seen as a preview of the celebrations to come in the year ahead--“a year of celebrating prayer, teaching and gratitude for the precious gift of the priesthood.”

Father Bill Kelly, principal organizer of the event and director of the archdiocese’s Office of Clergy Support and Ongoing Formation, spoke to The Pilot prior to the event on the importance of a convocation to the human and spiritual support of priests.

“In the Letter to Timothy, it says ‘stir once again into flame,’ and that is what this convocation hopes to do -- to bring priests together to renew them, spend time with one another and with their bishop,” said Father Kelly.

“The Lord has called us together and the Lord sends us out to do his work,” he said.

The afternoon of prayer and reflection stressed the importance of a unified presbyterate amidst the challenges facing the Church in Boston today.

Opening the convocation was an address by the pastor of Holy Family Parish in Duxbury, Father Brian Parrish.

In his remarks, Father Parrish reflected on what it means to be a priest in Boston today. He discussed the challenges facing the Church in Boston, but also of the encouragement that they can find in their service of Christ.

“Certainly, we would all agree these are challenging and difficult times to be priests in the Archdiocese of Boston,” he said.

Father Parrish noted some of the challenges priests face such as a declining number of priests in ministry, unrealistic expectations of parishioners, the challenges of living alone in a rectory and the apprehension and “real fear” priests have about what the future holds for their health care and retirement benefits.

Certainly, he said, it has been during the darkest days over the history of the Catholic Church when the greatest saints have emerged.

“We cannot allow our fears, anxieties, worries and the occasional difficulties we experience within our presbyterate cripple us in our vocation to proclaim the Gospel about Jesus Christ,” said Parrish to his brothers. “God has called us at this moment in time to the blessed vocation, to the enormous honor to be his priests, brother priests.”

The day’s keynote address entitled, “The Powerful Spiritual Leadership of a Unified Presbyterate,” was delivered by Father Ronald Knott, director of The Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana.

He spoke on the importance of unity among priests and their bishop for the effectiveness of service to God’s people.

Father Knott said the role of the priest includes three primary duties: to be teachers of the Word, to touch the lives of their parishioners from the pulpit; to be ministers of the sacraments, who must claim their ritual books and use the rituals of the Church in a way that connects people to God; and as spiritual leaders at the forefront of their communities, who must claim their authority as a servant whose ministry is unequivocally “for the people.”

“Priests owe it to each other, to the next generation of priests and to the people they serve to become what the Church says they are: intimate sacramental brotherhoods for a common ministry,” he said.

“I know you have been through a major disaster right here in Boston,” he said. “But breakdown is sometimes just the beginning of a breakthrough.”

Concluding the day’s speaking program Cardinal O’Malley thanked the priests for the gift of their ministry and encouraged them to look to St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests known as the Cure of Ars, as a paradigm for their own ministry.

The cardinal said that the Church today faces an environment similar to the indifference, hostility and cynicism it faced in the 19th century, the time of St. John Vianney.

In today’s world priests must be inspired by the saint’s ministry, which was characterized by love and prayer, and forge renewed fraternal unity that celebrates their shared mission to serving Christ and to being shepherds for his people, he said.

“We must return to the ancient theology of a presbyterate -- an intimate sacramental brotherhood, which has been replaced by a strong notion of individual ministry,” said the cardinal.

Among such a large number of priests, too often the divisive forces talked about by Father Parrish and Father Knott lead to priests becoming private practitioners or forming tribes, causing them to lose the strength they require to fulfill the needs of the Church, said Cardinal O’Malley.

In closing, the cardinal told the men they must develop a corporate sense of priestly identity and mission and become men of communion.

“The more we become friends, and the more we become focused on Christ and on the mission of announcing the good news of building a civilization of love, the more Christ’s Church will flourish,” he said.

During a break before the convocation’s closing evening prayer and dinner, Father Dennis Burns, a senior priest in residence at St. John the Evangelist in Swampscott, said this Year of the Priest will be one of renewal, which he said begins with the convocation.

“It is very encouraging seeing the young and the old, the newly ordained, getting together for renewal in our commitment to the ministry,” he said. “It is very spiritual and human, a shot in the arm saying we’re not alone.”