Archbishop Nichols at the National Conference of Priests (talk I) - part 2

 I wonder if, in this, we have something to learn from the widespread practice among other Christians of starting each day with study of a bible text. There a tone is established, and all study set in its primary context. The second characteristic is that in our continuing vocational development there will always be clear opportunities for deepening the 'communitarian form' of our life and work. On-going formation will serve to strengthen the presbyterate. This, I think, is well understood. The third key characteristic is that this on-going formation will help us to understand our ministry, and to act, in service of the communion of the Church. This means, I think, that the ecclesiology of communion will always be central to the themes and manner of study, and indeed of the practice and organisation of the courses. This last point is relevant in many ways. Think of the way in which we, quite properly, learn from the good management, planning and organisational development practices from other areas of human activity. There is much for us to learn. Yet the setting, the fundamental relationships within which we live in the Church, mean that those insights and techniques have to be tempered and reshaped in order to be of service to our ecclesiology. These three qualities should characterise our on-going vocational development. They give rise to some further practical pointers. For me, the best kind of formation requires a reasonable period away from the daily setting - not just a quick mid-week break. It requires a setting, context or environment which is genuinely and deliberately 'religious'. The location and physical setting is important. So too is the encouragement of a 'community spirit' a lived spirit of 'communio' for the duration of the course. This is supported by a suitable timetable, allowing time for proper rest, for sufficient prayer and for that wonderful personal chatter and exchange which is often the best feature of on-going formation. I think that we should be seeking to organise ourselves so that such significant periods away can be provided, with a longer 'sabbaticals' available every seven or ten years. I know some dioceses are doing this. Then, I would hope, we can begin to make better use of some of the excellent facilities we have, not least those attached to the seminaries abroad. What might be the content, the focus of study, of the time spent in on-going vocational development? For four years I was Director of the Upholland Northern Institute. There, we provided IST courses for the priests of the dioceses of Shrewsbury, Liverpool, Lancaster, Leeds, Hallam, Middlesbrough and Hexham and Newcastle. We had only moderate success, for all sorts of reasons. The work is not easy. The spark, generally, was not there. There was little desire. For the staff it was an uphill struggle. For the priests it was a chore. Quite often a call would come through from a parish asking for their priest. "Oh, I'm afraid he's not here." "But he said he was going on a course." "May well be, but not this kind of course." As a staff we spent a great deal of time discussing the themes of the courses we were to provide. We talked endlessly about the distinction between 'needs' and 'wants'. As usual there was no shortage of suggestions about what priests needed. I'm sure that is still the case today. But is that the same as what they want? The 'providers' of on-going formation, and that includes not only such residential centres, but also diocesan officers and bishops, do spend time trying to assess demand and test the market. They use evaluation sheets at the end of every course and much else besides. Yet in the end it is a buyer's market. The customer has to be won over. The customer can have almost whatever he wants. But the crucial question is consistently: does the customer actually really want anything? After all it is not particularly easy for a priest to come to an assessment of his own needs for on-going formation. Clearly some form of feedback helps. But you will know as well as I do that the two most effective forms of feedback are that which is received from peers and from oneself. In the language of management, feedback from supervisors and from customers is generally much less effective. Feedback from self, or careful reflection on my own performance, together with feedback from my peers is always the most significant contributor to change. But how much, within the presbyterate, do we recognise or use those sources of feedback, and then act on what we learn from them? Attentiveness to our own way of life as a priest is, then, the most important starting point for effective participation in on-going formation. And attentiveness to our self-identity and vocation as priests is the most important motivating factor, too. A point made by Sheila Garcia in the book recently published by DLT for Angela Perkins and Verena Wright of the National Board of Catholic Women is relevant. The book is called 'Healing Priesthood' and Sheila Garcia, from Washington, points to the findings off a survey which surfaces 90% agreement between priests and people that the sacramental role of the priest is primary. She says: "The priests' sacramental role is the basis for his role as spiritual leader. We cannot expect perfection from those who lead us in worship but we can expect an honest effort to imitate the one who is worshipped. We expect a certain holiness that marks a priest as spiritual leader." (p.109). This suggests, then, that liturgy and liturgical celebration should be a vital theme for on-going formation. That is so. But it is also very difficult to effect. Liturgy is so close to the very heart of every priest. It's what we do and who we are. We all consider ourselves to be experts. I have yet to meet a priest who admits to celebrating Mass poorly. But I could always find people in a congregation who might not agree. So, we need a certain humility to engage in on-going formation, especially in liturgy. As fellow priests we hesitate to be sources of feedback to one another. We tend not to point out to each other areas for improvement. We are uncomfortable with such feedback. Yet it is crucial for the spiritual lives of our people. Sometimes the resilience of their faith is quite remarkable. But that resilience is not found so easily in younger Catholics who, in the spirit of the age, are more customer orientated, quicker to criticise and less tolerant. The quality of our liturgical celebration is crucial to the health of our Church. Yet when is the last time that any of us put ourselves under the microscope in that regard? There is a fascinating reflection to be found of these matters in the book by Vincent Twomey called 'The End of Irish Catholicism?' recently published by Veritas. He puts before us this aim taken from St. Paul: "Your communal worship must be such that when the unbeliever enters the secrets of his heart will be disclosed and that person will bow down before God and worship him declaring 'God is truly among you.'" (page 78; cf 1 Cor. 14.25) In this light he reminds us that liturgy is about great events taking place through small gestures, gestures which are easily corrupted. And he asks us whether many of the things which we introduce into our liturgy - and he mentioned sanctuaries transformed into gardens, elaborate offertory processions, children's Masses of a purely didactic character replete with posters, dramas etc - are there primarily to give colour and to entertain, and hold parental attention. Or are they there genuinely to promote a true 'sursum corda'? There is much to do in genuine, principled liturgical renewal and in preaching, too. Intelligent speaking about the teaching of the Church, rooted and sustained in the Living Word, intelligent appreciation of the present circumstances of our lives, keen comment on the complexity of moral issues, sensitive spiritual guidance in the context of all three: these are themes enough for on-going formation. And to add a further, more personal thought on what we might be tackling. An appreciation of all the factors that shape our shared life today is, I believe, a key part for every priest as preachers, celebrant and as the giver of pastoral care. Why are we as we are now? An appreciation of our contemporary culture; an appreciation of our history, our particular local history; an educated sensitivity to cultural and religious diversity: these are crucial to our lives and ministry as priests. These are wide topics and we need wise guides. But they are available and are important in helping us, as a Church, to find the in-roads for the task of evangelisation. What are such points of entry? Maybe I could make just two comments. The first is fairly obvious. For many people life is lived much more than ever before on an individual basis. As Vincent Twomey says in his book, modern trends are not so much liberal as libertarian. He describes what we all know, a radical individualism, displayed in practically every advert, which proposes an almost unlimited freedom of choice. This is quite different from the broader political liberalism which, based on a common moral consensus, helped to mould modern pluralist democracies. But one of the consequences of this individualism is that many sense a real need for a wider community, a wider context, in which to live their lives. That context has to provide the necessary balance to the individualism of our age, which left to itself is isolating and a dreadful burden. So the appeal of the Gospel to enter into a 'communio' of life, made visible in the parish, or at least in its networks of contacts, friendships, shared endeavours and its liturgy, is increasingly a point of entry for the Gospel with the people of today. But it needs care and sensitivity. We must respect and give space to the element of truth at the heart of our preoccupation with the individual. After all our faith is not a following of a book, or a text, or even a law. It is the following of a person, a journey of discipleship which has personal distinctiveness as well as communal strength and wisdom. An appreciation of those tensions and the part they play in accompanying each of the disciples of the Lord, are just some of the things for which we must be constantly preparing ourselves. Secondly, and within this same framework, I believe there is a growing readiness for real discourse, real conversation about the things of faith. Perhaps this is expressed most commonly in the call for adult formation in faith. But it could be more sharply focussed, more distinctively expressed, than that broad term suggests. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book 'Valuing Difference' puts the issue sharply: 'Too often in today's world, groups speak to themselves, not to one another....The proliferation of channels of communication - the e-mail, chat-groups, the Internet, and the thousands of cable and satellite television channels - mean that we no longer broadcast. We narrowcast. Today we can target those who agree with us and screen out the voices of dissent.... Television news especially, with its short attention span, is no substitute for rational debate and serious engagement with contrary views. ...Television, with this emphasis on the visual, creates a culture of sight rather than sound - the image that speaks louder than the word. Images evoke emotion. They do not, of themselves, generate understanding.' This, then, can be taken as part of the cultural background for the demand for much greater adult learning and formation in faith. The need for us now is to be able to find a voice for faith in the multiple and sometimes quite separated contexts of modern living. There are now so many separate spheres of contact and communication. People do live in separate worlds and the preoccupations of one touch others less and less. The thinking and public pronouncements of one, such as the world of the clergy, reach through less and less to other distinctive worlds. The only, and proper, alternative for the proclamation of the Gospel is that each disciple is confident and able to express in each of these spheres the life-giving Word of God. Or let me put this another way. In 'Fides et Ratio', Pope John Paul is quite blunt: 'To believe is nothing other than to think with assent. Believers are also thinkers: in believing they think and in thinking they believe...If faith does not think, it is nothing at all.' (para 79) That is a clear expression of one of our tasks: to help, to encourage, to enable the people in our care to be such believers. And to model it ourselves. That can begin, and be sustained, in our on-going formation. But let me return to the Upholland Northern Institute. I enjoyed the years I spent there. Hundreds of priests came for week-long residential courses. Occasionally there would be a real buzz, a real sense of success. And I often tried to reflect on that. That led me to these conclusions about on-going formation, or at least about its hoped for outcomes. The outcomes of good on-going formation, on-going vocational development, are, I think, the following: the priest returns home more at ease with himself as a priest, more in touch again with the personal vocation the priest returns home more in tune with the wider church and the wider world, more alert to some of its characteristics and challenges the priest returns home refreshed in that one necessary aspect of life: his daily relationship with the Lord who never fails to offer his invitation to priesthood and is always ready to receive and sustain our daily response This, then, is what we are striving for in our on-going formation. Whatever the particular subject matter, whatever the make-up of the group living and working together for its duration, if those out-comes are achieved, then a good job has been done and the participants will be back for more. Vocational development is real for us all. Our lives are lived in that space between what we are today and what God intends us to be, what God wants us to become. That is the place of the drama of our lives - the drama of our salvation. And for us who are ministers of the Church the drama of our personal salvation echoes powerfully into our ministry and into the lives of our people. We constantly need times and opportunities to look again at how we are understanding and approaching that drama, how we live our particular Gospel calling, how we put into practice the ministry entrusted to us, in all the changing circumstances of our lives. Augustine said of the Eucharist on the altar. "See the sacrament of who you are and what you are to become." That's the setting in which you and I need on-going vocational development. Without it we stagnate. But we must be its first instigators, the ones who seek it out. Not only does our own well-being depend on our doing so, the well-being of the Church is greatly served, too. Tomorrow I wish to address questions of seminary formation. I hope these remarks have been of some assistance as you begin your own reflections on these important topics.

Share this story