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Thirty-eight years ago as I began my first assignment at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton Upper Falls, I balanced my nervousness and naivete with enthusiasm and energy. I was a new “curate,” but the warm welcome from the people propelled me forward into a priesthood that has been filled with incredible highs and difficult lows. Truly, it is the consistent support from the people and my fellow priests that has supported my ministry and made it a great blessing in my life. Through all the varied assignments and challenging experiences over those years, nothing could have prepared me, or any priest, for the trauma that has touched the Church over the past several years. The “crisis” has forever changed how people view the priest. Often subtle, the difference seems to pervade a lot of our interaction. It is sad, of course, because the majority of priests love their priesthood, respect parishioners and are trying to do the best they can to fulfill the call to ministry they answered so many years ago. Gratefully, I am happy to note that the “positive” responses far out-weigh the “negative” ones, but priests silently and gently carry that baggage. We don’t want to be on top of the pedestal -- it’s so rewarding to do ministry with you; but we don’t want to be under it either. As the years pass by, I know that a new hope, new openness and new opportunities for growth between priests and people will be a welcomed grace.
The Holy Father has answered that need. His Holiness has announced a Year for Priests, which began on June 19, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. He chose the date to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure d’Ars. The pope inaugurated the year with a vesper service at St. Peter’s Basilica; at which time he received the relic of this wonderful parish priest. During the course of the Year, Pope Benedict will proclaim St. John Vianney as the patron saint of all the priests of the world and he hopes the year will offer many opportunities for prayer, learning, celebration and encouragement both for priests and the rest of the Church alike. The year will close on June 19, 2010, with Pope Benedict presiding at a “World Meeting of Priests” in St Peter’s Square. Pope Benedict has stressed the essential value of the priest in our Church. He has warned against the “dilution” of priestly ministry. “Without priests,” he noted, “there would be no Eucharist, no mission or the Church.” He cautioned, “that ‘new structures’ or pastoral organizations are not planned for a time in which it will be possible to ‘do without’ ordained ministry.”
The Year for Priest is a chance for renewal for priests and the people of the Church and to center on the central mission of the Church: Jesus Christ. It must be a year that is both positive and forward-looking. The Congregation for the Clergy affirmed the pope’s initiative as a time “in which the Church says to her priests above all, but also to all the faithful and to wider society by means of the mass media, that she is proud of her priests, loves them, honours them, admires them and that she recognizes with gratitude their pastoral work and the witness of their life. Truthfully priests are important not only for what they do but also for who they are.”
In the spirit of the Holy Father’s intentions, Cardinal Sean has established a Year for Priests Committee, chaired by Bishop Robert Hennessey. It is his hope that the coming year will be a time of sincere appreciation of the priestly identity, increased encouragement of vocations and support for the mission of priests within the Church and society. On all levels of the archdiocese, the cardinal is encouraging priests and all people to provide opportunities for the appreciation and enrichment of the priestly ministry.
The archdiocese opened the year on Friday, June 19, the Feast of the Sacred Heart with a prayer service at Sacred Heart Church in East Boston. All the priests of the archdiocese were invited to gather together in prayer and fellowship. The holy hour included a Consecration of Priests to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In September, there will be a Priest Appreciation Dinner. This moment not only honours all priests but also celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Cardinal Seán as a bishop. In November, each of the five regions of the archdiocese will hold an evening prayer service for deceased priests, inviting everyone in the area to gather and remember the priests who have had a positive impact on their lives. Other events envisioned include special lectures, retreats and times to gather in priestly fraternity. The year offers the archdiocese a time to move the future planning process of the archdiocese forward. Laity and priests can discuss the evolving role of the priest, new approaches for effective ministry and improved ways to work together for our common mission. The Committee encourages pastors with their pastoral councils to initiate opportunities for prayer, learning and celebration.
Thirty-eight years seems a long time to be in ministry; yet there are so many priests much older than I with a full life of experience and many priests much younger than I, just starting out -- like the six men ordained this past month. Welcome to priesthood. It is a wonderful life, filled with hope, joy and blessing. I love my priesthood and I respect the men who have given their lives for the mission of Jesus Christ. The priesthood, like the Church, continues to evolve guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Year for Priests offers us a chance for renewal of the priesthood. As this Year begins, may every person in every parish pray for priests and pray for vocations.
Father Robert L. Connors is pastor of St. Marguerite d’Youville/St. Francis Parish in Dracut and vice-chair of the archdiocese’s Year for Priests Committee.