In this special Year for Priests, we have an occasion to reflect on the core grace that animates a parish priest’s ministry: paschal wisdom. This grace fortifies the priestly vocation as it faces the challenges that are inevitable in any busy ministry today.
There are several challenges that we should consider here. The following common mistakes can exist in various degrees in a particular priest’s vocation or in the diocesan structures. There can be a tendency to celebrate extra-ministerial achievements as more worthy and important than the daily routine of pastoral life and work in the parish. It is possible to allow scandals, the decreasing number of priests and the ever-increasing demands on priests to go without prayerful reflection. It also is a mistake to see the presbyterate as a nonreligious community with only loose references to fraternity. Another possible mistake is for priests to avoid speaking fraternally among themselves about religious matters and faith concerns. Finally, many different forces can lead a priest to adopt agreeable and pleasant components from the religious and lay vocations to form a compromised lifestyle marked by secular materialism and pious overture.
The opposites of these mistakes provide a very positive reflection of who a parish priest is. For the parish priest, pastoral work is an important means of his self-expression vocationally, and it routinely calls him to face changes openly with a spirit of prayerful discernment. His life is concretely religious as a member of the presbyterate, where he can freely find support based in a shared faith. Finally, the fruitful satisfaction of the parish priest’s ministry is distinct from that of the laity or religious orders. His is tied to the future salvation of souls. His goals are not entirely related to the here and now, but, more important, to heaven itself. We have the example of St. John Vianney, who was fastidious in his celebration of confession and holy Mass because of their role in our salvation.
These characteristics, in many cases, must be intentionally established, affirmed and nurtured. There are many secular forces working to dilute and fracture these life-giving attributes. Now the question becomes, how do you sustain these aspects of a priest’s vocation?
It is God’s grace that nurtures and sustains the priest, specifically through paschal wisdom. Paschal wisdom is the grace that the priest enjoys in a deepening faith that he is personally saved through the Easter event of Jesus. The believer’s very identity is changed in this profound movement of God’s mercy, forgiving sin and reorienting the individual person toward the Kingdom of God.
The parish priest’s experience as a man redeemed by the paschal mystery fortifies him personally, vocationally and pastorally. The Easter event here is found to be the central motivation of the priest’s heart and ministry.
The pastoral work of the priest is greatly enriched by his own experience of salvation. The personal experience of being loved and saved propels the priest to a realization that his satisfaction lies in service. He lives a graced life free of the world’s clamor for personal gain and achievement. His growth as a man and a priest comes through the ongoing personal conversion in response to the Cross of Jesus. Conversion of this depth is a lifelong journey in response to Calvary: “Late have I loved you.”
This conversion provides the priest the grace of paschal wisdom, the abiding appreciation of who he is as God’s beloved one. The ground for the priest’s identity is firm in the personal and penetrating belief that Christ died and rose for him as a sinner. It is a redeemed man who is called to effectively celebrate the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation. The priestly heart says: “What you have done, Lord, you have done for me.”
For the priest, God is not an abstraction. God is appreciated as an objective part of the priest’s daily life and vocation – the priest is loved and is not alone. With the growth of paschal wisdom, the vocation of the priest is now tied to the Lord’s Ascension: “Go forth, I am with you always” (Mt 28:16-20).
With a maturing paschal wisdom, the priest is led to one of the great joys and satisfactions of his life – pastoral charity. As the Lord commanded the disciples to “go forth,” the priest’s heart is turned to the love of the Lord’s people. As the man who is a priest has been loved, he is now able to love. Thus, by living paschal wisdom, the priest finds pastoral charity as the center of his response and dignity before God.
Father Michael Hinkley is a parish priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford. This column is an adaptation of a talk given during a clergy day for the Diocese of Bridgeport.