Monday, July 8, 2019

Revisiting our priesthood.

The priests of the Archdiocese of Singapore just came out of our annual retreat, where we were given the luxury of being away from our parish assignments and to gather together in a comfortable location for five days.  With parish work kept on-hold for this period, we were able to spend time in prayer and reflection, recharging ourselves, as it were, for a re-entry into the many demands and challenges that the life of a priest naturally brings.

Respites of this kind are always welcome.  With no emails to respond to, or phone calls to be made and answered, no sick-calls to tend to, retreats help us do what they are meant to do.  They help us to re-charge.  In the arena of the battlefield, a commander calls for a retreat when he sees his soldiers wearied and fatigued from the frenetic action at the battle front, and gets them to go to a place where they are able to recuperate, recharge and re-strategize.  With this done, the soldiers are then in a better frame of mind, strengthened in body and spirit, and hence become more effective in their fight at the front line. Spiritual retreats aren’t all that different in purpose and intent.

Retreats are as varied as there are Retreat Directors who run them.  Each would have his own leanings as far as spirituality is concerned, but in general, any Retreat Master would reiterate that the one conducting the retreat is ultimately the Holy Spirit.  Like Spiritual Directors, Retreat Masters are but conduits for the Holy Spirit to use them as he wills.  

Of all the 18 years since my ordination, it was only at this recent one that we were given a dedicated time to meaningfully and purposefully go back to our Ordination Rite, and re-visit it in a very focused way.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if there were priests among us who may have baulked at such a simplistic exercise.  It really wasn’t simplistic at all.  In fact, I am quite certain that all of the current scandals that are now plaguing the Catholic Church with regard to abuse of minors and the like would have really been avoided if every one of those brother priests had, with great seriousness, taken their ordination vows to heart, and lived them out with great effort.  

But isn’t this also true of all marriages?  When a spouse in a marriage begins to forget and cast aside the vows made before the Church’s minister and witnesses on the day of the wedding, the spouse becomes sloppy and negligent in living them out with full intent. For this reason, I am extremely grateful that we priests have a canonical obligation to make a week’s retreat every year to re-enter into the work and the life that ministry calls us to. Spouses in marriages, unfortunately, don’t have such a requirement to make any annual examen of the state of their marital love.  But I have come to see that it is just as necessary for them as it is for us priests to give renewed purpose in living out those very serious and life-giving vows that were made so publically before.

The one thing that both rites (marriage and ordination) have in common is love.  For us, it is the love of God expressed in and through our ministry as his priests. If love does not lie at the foundation of our call to the priesthood, and if love is not the reason for the work that we do as shepherds of souls, it will merely be something that is perfunctory and at best, something that is clinically carried out without love. Just as I often tell married couples that their love cannot be predicated on feelings, emotions and sentiments but on effort and intent, neither should the love at the heart of our priesthood be predicated on how good we feel about our vocation when we rise from our beds in the morning.  I suppose it is somewhat easier to show joy in our ministries in the few weeks that immediately follow each annual retreat.  It’s natural, as we were more rested having large and luxurious pockets of time each day to take some physical rest.  

But the grind will come, and the incessant call to tend to so many things will be a feature that returns with immediacy soon enough. It is then that the effort to be faithful to prayer and to love needs to be constant and consistent.  It’s no-different from the need for married couples to be effortful in loving each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and to honour all the days of their lives.  

On the last day of our retreat, we were each given a wooden cross with a stylized Christ laser-cut into the wood.  It is a cross with no hard and sharp edges, and is made so for the purpose of holding comfortably in the hand in prayer, and perhaps even as a prayer.  It came with a card that had a very beautiful prayer printed on it.  The words are as applicable to a priest’s vocation as it is to any marriage vocation.  I share them with you in today’s blog entry.

Holding Cross Prayer

“As I hang onto this cross, Lord,
hang onto me.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
fill me with your strength and peace.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
I remember the cost of your great love for me.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
I rejoice in the knowledge that our evil
and sin do not have the last word,
and that your love is indestructible.”

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