Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Celebrating the year of priests

Priests must reach out to the people

In recent years the church has become obsessed with launching all sorts of campaigns and fanciful slogans during mass. This may be aimed at creating awareness of what is happening around us, but why must it be done during mass? Will these campaigns and slogans per se bring us closer to God?

The latest was the year of the priests that was officially launched in the Penang Diocese on 17 July 2009 by the bishop Antony Selvanayagam in front of a huge crowd of pilgrims gathered there for the annual feast of St.Anne in Bukit Mertajam. Subsequently it was launched again at the parish level during mass on 9 August 2009.

The church has rightly given great importance to the priests as the pillars of our faith. This comes particularly at a time when vocations to the priesthood are dwindling. It is deeply disturbing that many seminaries are being closed due to the drastic decline in vocations. Will consecrating a whole year to priests overcome this tragic predicament of the church in Malaysia and the world today?

I for one am skeptical of launching all sorts of campaigns and fanciful slogans which unfortunately is becoming a fashion in our churches today. However launching of the year of priests created awareness of the existence of a great man is the patron saint of priests. He was Fr.Jean-Marie Vianney, a dedicated parish priest who served in the rural areas of France in the nineteenth century. Many of us knew very little about this great saint until the launching of the year of priests.

Because of his academic inadequacies Jean-Marie Vianney, upon his ordination in 1815, was sent to a remote village where the people lived in religious ignorance in the aftermath of the French Revolution. They spent much of their time in the fields working or dancing and drinking in taverns and rarely attend church. Fr.John Vianney was entrusted with the arduous task of converting these people back to the church that had to be rebuilt as they were all ruined during the revolution.

Accustomed to the most severe austerities, Fr.John Vianney lived a life of simplicity filled with works of charity and love. He was loved by the people for his imperturbable patience, common sense, remarkable insight, and supernatural knowledge. His sermons were simple in language, full of imagery drawn from daily life and country scenes and drew huge crowds from within and outside his country. He soon came to be recognized as a priest of the masses who put the welfare of his people above his.

He was particularly known for his mortifying confessions and thousands from all over the world came to meet him in the confessional where even the staunchest of sinners were converted at his mere word. During the last ten years of his life, he spent sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional. His bishop had to forbid him from attending the annual retreats of the diocesan clergy because of the laege number of poor ‘souls’ awaiting him. Fr.John Vianney gave priority to the people in need over meetings, retreats and his own conveniences, which are rarely seen these days, not only among priests but among us in all professions.

St.Jean-Marie Vianney was appropriately chosen as the patron saint of parish priests in 1929. Although the situation in today’s world may be far more complex from what used to at his time but the living image of him should remain as an inspiration for our own priests today. Things may have changed drastically but the essence of Christ’s teachings still remains relevant and will continue to do so for generations to come.

Let this year of the priests be a reminder to our priests that they should emulate the example of their patron saint in reaching out to the people under their care. They too, like St.John Vanney, should strive to become the priests of the masses by being the symbol of love, charity and humility.

As we pray for our priests at mass every week during this special year dedicated to the priests, let us ask God to endow us with priests who would reflect the image of their patron saint in their lives and services to their parishioners. Let us pray our priests, like St John Vainney, will be more approachable even to the most despised in the parish. Let us ask God to inspire and strengthen our priests to forgive and convert even the most ardent sinner by their examples and their power of penitence.

Dr.Chris Anthony

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Bring Christ not politics into church ministries

Give opportunity for all to serve

Bernie de Rozario in her letter “Pray for our priests daily as they remain focused on God” (Herald July 19) expressed her frustrations of what is going in her parish. She seems to very disturbed that some parishioners ‘monopolize’ the priests so much so that others have no access to him. In fact the problems she highlighted are not unique to her parish but one that is common in many others as well.

In most organizations the leader is often surrounded by group of loyalists who will do anything for the leader. They would take great pains to please the leader often for their own benefits. They have a lot of influence on the leader and the way he behaves and deals with others under his care. Over time the leader if not careful becomes blinded by these loyalists and that is where the whole trouble starts.

The situation in most of our parishes is no different where the priest is ‘monopolized’ by a few to the extent an inexperienced priest succumbs to their influence. Both the priest and the laity are equally responsible for the problems that exist in most parishes that finally lead to a tremendous strain in the clergy-laity relationship.

Many of our younger priests lack conviction in their vocation and therefore are not focused in serving God through His people and get distracted along the way. In a recent homily, the bishop of Penang, Rt Rev Anthony Selvanayagam, lamented at the poor caliber of those entering the seminary these days. How can we expect the seminary to churn out good, committed and holy priests when in the first place they lack the basic human values to start with, he asked?

Often the young priests lack the maturity and wisdom that comes only with experience, to handle the various complex problems posed by the people who seek their guidance. As a result they are easily carried away by the mesmerizing words and actions of those who get into their inner circle and their judgments become biased, at times even unfair. Handling humans is formidable task that need many years of painstaking experience to accomplish successfully. Every person is unique and the more people we have the greater and more complicated the task becomes.

A lesson that I have learnt through my experiences in life is "Not all who rush to the fore are good and not all who stay away are bad either". To be a good leader one must acquire the wisdom to see through the sweet words and actions of those who surround him and the so- called rebellious behavior of those who stay away.

The lay people are also largely to blame for the many problems that plague our parishes today. The uncompromising and selfish attitude of some in wanting to seek power and glory for themselves and their family puts even the most experienced the priest in a very difficult situation. They think they love God by becoming front-line worshipers but do little to show they love their neighbor as they are always at loggerheads with them. They are not very different from our national politicians of whom we all are very critical.

The vast majority of the laity do not want to get involved in the politics of the church and as the silent majority they prefer go on with their daily chores in peace accepting, often grudgingly, whatever decisions made by those in power. It is unfortunate the invaluable talents among this huge group of parishioners remain largely untapped due to the unhealthy politicking that goes on at the top around the parish priest.

To overcome these problems it would be wise for the leadership of the various organizations to be elected and their terms in office limited, so that more parishioners are given the chance to contribute their knowledge, talents and skills for the overall physical and spiritual development of the parish. The priest must reach out to majority who stay away and not allow him to be influenced by the few surrounding him.

There is a large pool of gifted and talented people in all fields within our community, why just allow a handful to monopolize and dominate the running of the parish and the parish priest, causing a great deal of unhappiness among the majority?

Dr.Chris Anthony