When Pope Benedict XVI announced that a Year of the Priesthood would be celebrated from June 17 2009 it seemed opportune; as we approach the end of the year there seems little doubt that the Holy Father’s decision was nothing less than providential. Few of us could have anticipated what a turbulent year it would be for the priesthood. I think now is a good time to highlight the fruits this year has produced.
There can be no doubt that the visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux greatly enhanced this time of grace. Despite the initial cynicism of the secular press, huge numbers of people travelled to pray before the relics, and those of us who heard confessions in Westminster Cathedral can testify that a great percentage took the opportunity to avail themselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation. It is often we priests who benefit greatly and are edified by what we hear in that most precious of sacraments. To quote Fr John Farrell OP, prior provincial of the Dominicans in this country: “In Confession you hear what only the Almighty should hear. Like God, as they stumble out their sins and omissions, you hear the goodness that they are not aware of, and are humbled. Like God, you find them, as they do not find themselves, lovable, touchingly lovable.”
A personal time of great profundity came when I was able to visit Lisieux on my post-Christmas break and spend a holy hour in front of the actual body of St Thérèse. The chapel of the Carmel there has been closed for a whole year while massive restoration work was done, including a very welcoming pilgrims’ centre. The chance of being able to spend an hour beside her body with virtually nobody else there, because it was out of season, was a highlight of the year for me.
The loving relationship between people and priest in our countries of England and Wales is legendary and, we might like to think, unique. I think the history of the martyrs and the fact that we are a minority, though a very strong minority these days, has made us work very closely with our people and have never taken their presence in the pews for granted. For the most part there is a mutual respect and courtesy which has been strongly reinforced due to the Holy Father’s initiative. That master of the apposite phrase put it like this: “If you are very sensitive to other people as being unique images and likenesses of God, if you have that kind of reverence for them, there follows a gentleness in dealing with them, and a courtesy – two essential qualities for a priest” (Cardinal George Basil Hume).
Every diocese will have made efforts to ensure this Year of the Priesthood was fruitful. It may be helpful to share with you what has happened in the diocese of Westminster. Archbishop Vincent Nichols set out his first priority for us priests when he wrote soon after his installation that he wanted us to emphasise our spiritual life: “There is one thing in particular that I would like to bring to your attention, personally. It is the importance of each of us priests making a retreat, regularly and thoroughly… After all, the very heart of our priesthood is the relationship each of us has with the Lord… This is an important part of my pastoral care for you.”
To that end he arranged for four imaginative diocesan retreats to be set up with a priest and an auxiliary bishop responsible for the details in each place: Ars and Merville in France, Valladolid in Spain and Northumbria in our own country. Nailing his own colours to the mast, the Archbishop made a special trip to attend part of the retreat given by Bishop John Crowley, a gesture very much appreciated by the brethren who were present.
As I write this I have come from a diocesan day for the priests of the Archdiocese of Westminster which has taken on an added dimension. Our bishops in England and Wales had asked us to use the four Fridays of May to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament and pray the special Prayer of Sorrow and Rededication following the child abuse crisis. There was a feeling that this was something we clergy should lead on since it was from our ranks that this has occurred. So we as priests from our diocese during that day at London Colney made a communal act of genuine sorrow for what a tiny minority of our colleagues had done, very conscious that even one such act was one too much.
Another indicator of fruitfulness was the invariable experience of the increase in the numbers of folk attending the Easter ceremonies. Ecclesial sociologists will, in due time, analyse why this was the case; we can only guess. I am convinced that the innate intelligence and common sense of the lay faithful, the sensus fidelium, once again manifested itself. At a time when one might have expected that people would abandon the Church to some degree the exact opposite has happened. It would not surprise me in the slightest if even greater numbers of people asked to be admitted into full Communion with the Church and that there will be an increase in the number of those wishing to be considered for the priesthood. Among the many lovely contributions I received for the anthology Priesthood: a Life Open to Christ was a memorable one from Cardinal Seán Brady, whose priest friend never tires of saying to him that the “priest is a wanted man”. I do not think that priests have often doubted that, but one further fruit of this year is that people have had a chance to make their feelings explicit. The special year has given parishioners an opportunity and framework to articulate warm encouragement of their pastors, and I think there has been a lift in the morale of the clergy; the sheer volume of prayer that has been directed towards us will surely be spiritually beneficial.
Some years ago I came across these words from an ordination homily given by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York: “If the priest strives to be a wounded healer, a compassionate and enabling shepherd, a learned teacher and preacher, and a man whose heart and life are attuned to God through prayer, then he can be assured that his life and ministry will be a beautiful reflection of God’s goodness and love.” Those sentiments provide a fine foundation for the fruits of this Year of the Priesthood to continue. Pope Benedict himself said last week that the priest should show “unconditional love, be full of joy and open to all; be attentive to those around him, gentle to children, to the weak and to the simple; and show the infinite mercy of God with encouraging words of hope”.
Canon Daniel Cronin is the parish priest of St Thomas More, Knebworth, Hertfordshire, and is the compiler of Priesthood; a Life Open to Christ