Friday, November 03, 2006

The Parish Priest and His Mystique

In the society of man made ever more sophisticated and complex by globalization, the parish priest in the countryside is left to fend for himself to hang on to the image of a priest that is both consonant to his vocation and relevant to the modern day world. He may possess the necessary qualities and powers of a leader, but the fast shifting values of the globe has a way of gradually affecting the confidence he has on his priesthood. And yet, I am still convinced that the role of the parish priest in society today is irreplaceable. For one he has so much to contribute to modern man especially in the realm of sensible living, offering to him the lasting meaning to life and the divine resonance that could calm his human heart ever restless for eternity.

Some weeks ago I received an official letter from an office of a foreign embassy in Manila requesting the diocesan Curia to hand over the same letter to a small far away and forgotten parish in Eastern Samar. The letter contains a very important message, consulting, that is, the simple parish priest regarding the veracity and the authenticity of the document that bear the birth data of a resident in the parish. A simple parish priest, one who does not have the sophistication of the man of the world, now being consulted by a first world country. No big deal really, but it does show the respect society has not only for the parish, the rightful owner of the parish books, but also for the parish priest, the official keeper of these records.

When Benedict XVI proclaimed that a priest is a man of the spirit, a “pneumatic man,” a man awakened and driven by the Holy Spirit, he means that every priest has spiritual powers. He is charismatic. Charism is a spiritual power that is granted not for the benefit of the receiver. It is granted to some chosen few with the purpose that it be used for the good of the Church. Hence, the charism that the priest receives through ordination is not for his own keep, but is granted to build up the community of the faithful in the name and, at times, in the person, of Christ the leader (Christi capitis). That is no ordinary charism. It is the charism of Christ Himself, the expression of His life and mission, as it is described so well by St. Luke in his Gospel, using the words of Isaiah the prophet: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (Lk 4: 18-19).

To state that the parish priest has the charism of Christ and shares His life and mission, may sound blown up, presumptuous. But it is not. The Magisterium of the Church is firm on this teaching and its reality. In the document “Pastores Dabo Vobis”, the late John Paul II stated: “The priest shares in Christ’s consecration and mission in a specific and authoritative way, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, by virtue of which he is configured in his being to Jesus Christ, head and shepherd, and shares in the mission of ‘preaching the good news to the poor’ in the name and person of Christ himself’ (n. 18). In a more familiar way, the document declared: “Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, the very basis of our life” (n.18).

The quoted document is almost like saying that the simple priest of the Church is Christ Himself reincarnated. But that is who the priest really is. At least that is how the Magisterium described him when it said: “The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest” (n. 12).

In my ministry as bishop of the Diocese of Borongan, I have many times been shamed by my lack of belief on this teaching of the Church regarding the reality of the charism which every priest possesses. I placed more weight on the natural endowment of the priest than the spiritual power that he receives from the Holy Spirit. A case at issue happened recently. This occurred when some individuals from a barangay parish in the southern part of my diocese came one day to my office with reports, complaining that their parish priest does not know how to preach, that he goes on and on rambling in his homily with no topic being covered, that he is wasting their time. The reported parish priest is a very good minister of God, humble, plain, simple, dedicated to the work in the parish. And so I was taken aback at the report. But the complaint was there and I had to do something about it. And so I called the priest, asked him about the issue at hand and listened to his accounts. I then instructed him to always prepare his homilies, have them written, and read them from the ambo during the Holy Mass on Sundays. The priest, obedient that he was, obliged. He wrote his homilies religiously and read them to the congregation as instructed. It went on for a month or two and I thought everything went on all right with my order. I soon forgot about the whole thing when one day the parishioners of the said pastor came in flock to me, pleading that I would remand my instruction regarding the written and read homilies of their pastor on Sunday Mass celebration. They said his prepared and written homilies lacked the life that is needed to support them in their day to day life as Christians; that his homilies before the instruction had been much better, inspiring that is, and full of life; that they had touched the very core of their being, live words of a pastor who knows his people. Yes, I soon realized that homily is life: that his life was his homily and his homily was his life. I have to take back my instruction, to my chagrin.

The parish that the pastor occupies is not just a human institution, a man-made organizational structure created by the Church for the systematic and efficient shepherding of the parishioners. The parish is first and foremost the creation of the Holy Spirit. Its composition, organizational set-up, offices, the visions and missions, the program of activities, may look like an ordinary human organizational system but at closer scrutiny it contains powerful spiritual elements needed for a community to be built up as the new People of God in the locality. These are the People who are called by the Word of God, sanctified by the sacraments, brought together as one around the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and served by the parish priest.

That is why the Church normally does not entrust the parish to anybody except to a priest whose ordination made him a pneumatic person, a man possessed with the charism of a spiritual leader. In exceptional cases, as in the scarcity of priests, when some parish activities are entrusted to persons who are not priests, the bishop must appoint a priest who directs the pastoral care with the power of the pastor. The parish is truly conceived by the Church as the center of spirituality and Christian living in a given locality.

The parish priest by the fact that he is ordained is himself imbued with the spirituality needed for the task of taking care of the souls in the area. Through ordination he is configured to Christ as the teacher, pastor and moulder of saints. Canon 1008 of the CIC in broad lines paints the priest in this manner: “By divine institution some among Christ’s faithful, are, through the sacrament of Orders, marked with an indelible character and are thus constituted sacred ministers; thereby they are consecrated and deputed so that, each according to his own grade, they fulfill, in the person of Christ the Head, the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling, and so they nourish the people of God.”

That the bishop appoints the priest to be a pastor of a certain parish implies that the priest possesses the qualities needed for pasturing the flock. The Church is particular on this. Hence, the provision in the Code specifies that the parish priest must “be outstanding in sound doctrine and uprightness of character, endowed with zeal for souls and other virtues, and possessed of those qualities which by universal or particular Law are required for the care of the parish in question” (cf. Can. 521, § 2).

Consequently, the parish priest is not just an institutional leader. He is a truly charismatic leader, one who possesses powers and competences for the proper exercise of the threefold functions of sanctifying, teaching and governing the baptized individuals in a fixed locality, welding them together and forming them into a community of believers called the parish. That is the mystique of the parish priest.