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.