Archbishop Nichols at the National Conference of Priests (talk I) - part 1

 The following talk by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham to the National Conference of Priests in Leeds was released today. On-going formation As a youngster, I was often asked questions that caused me considerable disquiet. Among them was the question: "What are you going to be when you grow up?" It was a difficult question because it seemed so important, so definite: what are you going to be. And I had no idea of the answer. I had some vague thoughts, or even hopes: a long distance lorry driver; a musician; a professional geographer. But I had no idea or sense of purpose. I suppose the same question today is put less dramatically, more prosaically, more in the mode of the functionalism of our times. The question today is, probably, "What are you going to do when you leave school, when you graduate?" I recall, too, that in the question of my youth, there was always an all-or-nothing quality to it. It was a 'life choice' and, in considering it, we were always advised to think of the long term consequences. I remember my father telling me to lookcarefully at pension provision. I don't think I did! In contrast today there is every expectation that a working life will easily encompass more than one style of work, more than one professional context, even more than one set of key skills. Now to some extent that is true for us - it's certainly been true for me. Yet the earlier form of the question has been more true. As a response to that question, 'What are you going to be?' priesthood is always much more about being than doing. A priestly vocation is not a modern day career choice. The life of a priest, while encompassing a whole range of tasks, roles, skills, has at its heart a sense of identity, identity-in-relationships. It is this that is basic to our lives. And it is this, as I hope to explore, which is central to the formation of a priest, both prior to ordination and in the course of his life. In exploring questions of priestly formation, I am going to begin with the 'post-ordination' issues. It's not the order I've been asked to take. But, as I said in the mid-term report, for us it is the more challenging of the two headings. It's always easier to talk about other people, in another place. And much of the discussion about seminaries seems just that. Often the challenges we face today, and the shortcomings we experience, are referred back, very quickly, to the seminary. "It didn't prepare me for today's tasks." "They should do more about school governorship in the seminary; more about youth work, about ecumenism, about inter-faith relations, about globalisation, about social analysis, about understanding gender difference." We could all add to that long list with which to fill the years of formation in the seminary. But the approach I would like to take is to start with us today, here and now. How deeply do we ponder our own on-going formation? How seriously do we take it? How much time do we give? I think when we have some positive answers to these questions then we might have some basis on which to address the task of formation in the pre-ordination years. My own experience suggests that those involved in pre-ordination formation take their tasks very seriously indeed. I think we, in our post-ordination period, have a lot of catching up to do. May I put in here a small aside. Much of what I say is couched in 'we' language. The 'we' I mean is we ordained priests. I'm very aware that some people present have vocations from God other than that of being ordained priests. At times my 'we' will expand to include all. But, for the most part, I speak of 'we, the members of the ministerial priesthood'. In October 1990 a Synod of Bishops was held on 'The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day'. I was a 'hanger-on' at that Synod and remember well some of the dynamic. It got off to a good start with plenty of vigorous speeches laying down requirements for priestly formation. But before long it became clear that issues of formation alone were not going to give shape or substance to the discussion. Rather what was needed - and not evidently present - was a shared understanding of the identity of the priest. The net result was that fully half of the final outcome of that Synod - the Papal Exhortation 'Pastores Dabo Vobis' - is to do with the identity and life of the priest. After all it is that identity and life which his formation must serve. It is that identity and life which gives shape to that formation if it is to be radically pertinent and not just functionally pragmatic. In passing it is worth mentioning two other documents from the Congregation for the Clergy: 'The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community' (1999) and 'The Priest: Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community' (2002). Central to Pastores Dabo Vobis, and to our identity as priests, is, of course, the notion, the fact, the experience, of vocation. 'Vocation' and 'identity'. Two words with which we're very familiar. Two substantial words. Two words the weight of which we can easily feel - and feel to be oppressive. Let me offer some thoughts. Identity first: priestly identity. I remember reading Irvine's 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' and one passage stuck. It was Michelangelo's description of how he approached a block of carefully mined marble, at the beginning of a sculpture. He contemplated the block until he could see the figure he was to fashion encased, imprisoned in the stone. His sculpting was then the work of releasing what was encased in the block. So he could work with a frantic energy, setting free what was already within. Our identity as priests is like that. It's a mistake to think that our priestly identity is something we put on, like a collar. It isn't. Rather it's something already written within us. It is who we are 'from my mother's womb'. It's not, then, an imposition, a role, an unreasonable expectation - though it can feel like that. Neither is it something, like a collar, that we can put aside for a while. No Priestly identity is who we are, at the deepest level. It is both self-discovery and self-fulfilment. Yet being a priest is not something we can produce or proclaim for ourselves. It is a gift. It is the work of God. Priesthood is, in that classically Catholic term, the work both of nature, who I am, and of grace, the intervening presence of the Holy Spirit. The second word 'vocation' tells us how this identity comes about: always and only in dialogue. Vocation is call and response. Vocation is the eventually unmistakable summons of God and the response of love - at times heroically given (and we've all done that) and at times grudgingly so. We all, each of us, experience this priestly vocation and ensuing identity differently. But however it comes, and stays, it is at the heart of priesthood. Our living of that priesthood depends on our response to that call and our fidelity to our deepest self. Our priesthood develops accordingly, or it gradually crumbles away. And, from time to time, our priesthood is resurrected precisely from these two sources. The call to be a priest is not given once and for all. It is proclaimed to me by God, whispered perhaps, every day and every moment of every day. It is God's eternal call to me, never withdrawn no matter how well or poorly I respond within the tangle of my daily life. An on-going call; an on-going vocation; an on-going, ever changing identity; an on-going formation. Pastores Dabo Vobis has many profound ways of addressing these two words. It's worth reading again. But I want to pick out just three key themes. 'Priestly identity, like every Christian identity, has its source in the Blessed Trinity which is revealed and communicated to us in Christ, establishing in him and through the Spirit, the Church as the seed and beginning of the Kingdom' (Para. 12) In that quote we have all our points of reference. Our priesthood is centred on Christ, taking on a Trinitarian shape, lived n the Church, directed to the Kingdom. Quite a mouthful. Yes, the call comes from the Father. That call to life from the Father echoes in so much of what we do: attempting to bring life, healing, new hope. Yes, the identity of the priest is of being drawn into 'conformity with Christ, the Head and Shepherd' as the document repeatedly states. Yes, its setting is 'to live and work by the power of the Holy Spirit' in all the relationships which make up the Church. Yes, the purpose of the call, as of every Christian vocation, is to take a particular part in the mission of Christ in the Church, to be the sign and sacrament of salvation in the world. This is the identity that lies in the heart of every priest, that I could neither reach nor formulate as a youngster. This is the identity that is released, set free by the grace of ordination. It's an identity which creates a particular bond with Christ - as does every Christian vocation, each in its own way - and which can be sustained only within a living relationship with Christ. Now the three particular points from Pastores Dabo Vobis. In paragraph 15 there is this: "In the Church and on behalf of the Church, priests are a sacramental representation of Jesus Christ, the Head and Shepherd, authoritatively proclaiming his Word, repeating his acts of forgiveness and his offer of salvation, particularly in Baptism, Penance and Eucharist, showing his loving concern to the point of a total gift of self for the flock, which they gather into unity and lead to the Father through Christ and in the Spirit." This paragraph reminds us of the action which flows from priestly identity: to be, in the name of Christ, ministers of Word and Sacrament and to have the care of souls. These are our bread and butter: to preach, to celebrate sacraments and to practice pastoral care, pastoral love of the people. And to do all three in the person of Christ, the Head and Shepherd. Paul McPartlan has a good way of addressing that difficult identity of the priest as 'Head'. It's in the current Priests and People. In a Trinitarian reflection he points out that the life of the Trinity has its centre-point and source in the Father. He continues his reflection with this focus on the Church: "It follows that the communion which truly reflects the life of the Trinity will be a loving unity in rich diversity with a definite centre or focal point and also with full mutuality and interdependence among all, and particularly between the one at the centre and the many. That is the basic blueprint for the configuration of the Church's life and has a multitude of applications. Every Christian community rightly has its central figure, for example the priest in the parish, the bishop in the diocese and the pope among bishops, but there must also be "mutuality and the valuing of diversity." (p.318) This is what we experience. This is what we may properly strive for. Perhaps here we have a hint of the appropriateness of the title 'Father', rather than the alternative 'reverend' which we often are not. Furthermore, this sacramental role, of speaking and acting in the name of Christ, the one sent by the Father as the Head of the Church, is not something we can avoid, share or delegate. Rather every word and action of a priest is received by the faithful within this framework of belief. Hence our wrong-doings are the more deeply scandalous, our shortcomings, irritability disproportionately hurtful and our kindnesses unexpectedly creative. This is so by the nature of our identity in Christ, because of the call we have been given by the will of the Father, lived under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in as much as we permit. A second passage from Pastores Dabo Vobis: "By its very nature the ordained ministry can be carried out only to the extent that the priest is united to Christ through sacramental participation in the priestly order and thus to the extent that he is in hierarchical communion with his own bishop. The ordained ministry has a radical 'communitarian form' and can only be carried out as 'a collective work'." (Paragraph 17) The first resonance of this is a phrase which we often hear: the brotherhood of the priesthood. The document also pinpoints communion with the bishop and with the lay faithful. But one thing is clear: no priest can live his vocation well, nor fulfil his calling, as a solo artist. This bond between us - as priests - is essential. It is a dimension of our identity for which each has responsibility for the other. It can become crucial in times of crisis; it can be a source of joy and encouragement at others. It is a responsibility of each to the other that translates into hospitality, attentiveness, mutual concern. It is always in need of imaginative rejuvenation. It is a crucial part of our identity and vocation. And my third passage: "In his relations with all people, the priest must be a man of mission and dialogue. Deeply rooted in the truth and charity of Christ, and impelled by a desire and imperative to proclaim Christ's salvation to all, the priest is called to witness in all his relationships to fraternity, service and a common quest for the truth as well as a concern for the promotion of justice and peace." (Paragraph 18) The horizons opened up by the priest's vocation and identity are widely set. His understands himself, his particular identity and purpose, correctly only in this wide context and in all the relationships it entails. Alongside others, he seeks the truth. Alongside others, he serves justice and builds peace. Together with others he seeks to proclaim the Gospel, construct the Church as a signpost and sacrament of the Kingdom. The priest is, essentially, as man of the communion of the Church: communion of life in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, communion of life with every baptised person, communion of effort in building up the Body of Christ, communion in and for mission, which is the ultimate purpose of it all. To this 'communio' the priest brings his identity and calling, which no one else replicates. But he brings it in dialogue, in cooperation, or, as we like to say, in collaborative ministry. But enough from Pastores Dabo Vobis! Enough that we hold on to these three points: the priest's identity formed in his sacramental bond with Christ, Head and Shepherd; the priest within the presbyterate; the priest always in the service of communion. These lie at the heart of our ongoing formation. They are its essential focus. In an appreciation of them we must find the motivation, the desire for our own on-going formation. Without a living appreciation of these dimensions of ourselves, programmes of ongoing formation - and they are countless - lie undersubscribed or cancelled. Perhaps those providing the formation opportunities have lost at times this essential and fundamental focus. Perhaps we, the punters, have lost it. Either way - or both ways - we need to recover it. There are many pressures on the priest - and bishops, too. Most of them do not exactly push us in the direction of our 'ongoing formation'. Most of these pressures, but not all, do not directly concern our fundamental identity and vocation. I recall an old parish priest from South Liverpool. He had his own way of dealing with some of those pressures. When he died, a wardrobe was found in the presbytery, full of 25 years worth of brown envelopes - all unopened! But the point I want to make is this. Despite all the pressures we experience, or better still, within them, the one thing that is essential for us is to keep fresh our sense of vocation and identity. That is the crucial task, the one source from which we will draw strength to bear the burdens of the day. It is a truth that I acknowledge more and more each passing year: the vocation by which I am a priest comes to me afresh each day. I have to hear and respond to Christ each day. As Isaiah says, "Each day I awake with a disciple's ear." Listening is the mode in which to set out. Each day my deepest identity needs to be set afresh - strengthened in that one-to-one relationship with Christ to whom I will lend my voice, my heart, my hands (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia). In as much as I fail to tap into that call each day, fail to find afresh the response of love, fail to sense again that this is who I most deeply am, then I will be doing no more than going through the motions. This is what happens: preaching becomes a chore and becomes pre-emptory; celebration becomes dulled and that of an automation; visiting ceases; rings on the bell or on the phone are an intrusion into my private time; collaborative ministry seems like the latest fad and a nuisance because it creates more meetings; and on-going formation, if it is not avoided altogether, is judged in pragmatic terms only: the acquiring of some useful skills or ready-made solutions to practical problems. But let me not continue down this route. We all know it well, without exception. We know how distant we can become from that original enthusiasm. We know how the role of the priest - or archbishop - can take centre-stage, pushing into the background the God-given, Christ centred personal vocation which, in God's providence, has led me to this day, this set of tasks, this painful dilemma, this joyous celebration. In a nutshell what am I trying to say? Try this: the on-going formation of the priest is misunderstood as a task or knowledge centred professional development. Such professional development has its place, of course, for there are so many tasks which we should carry out with professional competence. To fail to do so is, increasingly, inexcusable. Rather, the on-going formation of the priest is always centred on vocational development: the refreshing, deepening, filling out of the call given to each of us to be bound to Christ in this sacrament; to work together as a presbyterate; to live and act always in the service of communion. In practice what does this mean? It means that every opportunity of on-going formation needs to have these qualities or characteristics: Firstly, on-going formation needs to be, deliberately, conducive to a deepening of our relationship with the Lord. Whatever the subject matter, whatever the setting, on-going formation needs to recognise and affirm the centrality to our lives of the 'vocation-dialogue' with the One who calls.

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