Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


NFPC Speakers Emphasize Reconciliation, Prayer

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2004

At the annual meeting of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, NFPC president Father Robert Silva called upon priests to renew and revitalize the church through an intentional ministry of reconciliation.

In an address April 20, Father Silva, a parish priest from Stockton, Calif., reflected on the shock of the clergy that their priest brothers involved in sexual abuse could harm children and that those in authority in the church did not take more aggressive action in addressing the criminal behavior.

Frequently called upon to speak on behalf of American priests in national interviews over the last two years, he spoke of the struggles priests have experienced as “the tremendous amount of news coverage, the calls of victims groups, the loud cries of reform groups, the critiques of the church, the challenges to the priesthood in general . . . all came down upon our heads and shoulders.”

Now as the media scrutiny and public criticism of the church has quieted down, priests must avoid returning to business as usual, he said.

“Public disgrace, tiredness and self-doubt, our limited imagination and our often inadequate talent cannot deter us from the ministry of reconciliation and restoration,” he said. “The dying integral to this process is a necessary part of living the human struggle, yet the paradox of Risen Life sustains us, reconciles us, gives us hope and brings life to those with whom we minister. This is the stuff of love. It leads beyond anger, bitterness, anxiety, depression and unhappiness. Reconciliation with God and with one another brings joy.”

Some 250 people from 120 U.S. dioceses, most of them priests serving as chairs of local diocesan priests’ councils, convened April 19-22 at the Sheraton Colony Square Hotel. Keynote speakers were Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, former master of the Dominican order, who is based at Blackfriars, Oxford, England, and Father Anthony Gittins, SVD, and Father Stephen Bevans, CSSp, from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

The NFPC represents 124 priests’ councils, totaling approximately 26,000 Roman Catholic priests. Among issues that the NFPC addresses are priest shortages, clerical sexual abuse issues, collaboration with lay ministry, women’s leadership, and the spirituality and identity of priests. As the number of American priests is declining 7 percent per decade and the U.S. Catholic population is increasing 7 percent per decade, it reports providing crucial help in listening to the concerns of the country’s 30,000 diocesan priests and representing them to bishops; supporting research initiatives on key aspects of priestly life; providing pastoral leadership training; and speaking out for justice for those who have been sexually abused as well as for due process for those accused.

Father Silva offered practical suggestions to foster reconciliation including “good, sensitive preaching,” living the priestly life in a way that evokes confidence and trust, developing support groups, establishing hotlines, and putting educational programs in place. He also said priests must not forget to offer reconciliation to clergy who have been removed from ministry, as they are to be treated justly with a proper respect for their rights under civil and canonical law.

Priests also face increasingly large pastoral challenges in working as reconcilers among racially and ethnically diverse groups in the church, Father Silva said, but he added that the diversity of priests themselves is a gift. He spoke of a Foreign Policy magazine article that asserts Hispanic immigrants threaten America’s identity, values and way of life, and the research of Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain into the emergence of a new white nationalist movement in the United States.

The ministry of priests from many different backgrounds living in communion and reconciling relationships with one another is a necessity to bring about reconciliation among an increasingly diverse American citizenship, Father Silva said. “The communion of priests becomes the image, the icon, and the reality of church that the people with whom they minister are to become. A people of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds learns itself as church from a presbyterate of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds who knows itself as church.”

Each challenge “means a lot of dying. It means a lot of living,” he said. “Most of all it means a lot of loving. God’s grace is enough for us.”

Also encouraging priests in their mission was Father Radcliffe, an itinerant preacher and writer, who served as master of the order from 1992-2001 and prior of Oxford from 1982-88.

He spoke of the New Testament Book of Hebrews in which it states that the priest to be holy is not separated from the people of God but rather united with them, as was Christ, as opposed to the Old Testament where holiness meant separation from impurity.

“The whole people of God is a holy and priestly people, because it embodies Christ’s embrace of us all in our messy lives, with all their weakness and failures . . . It also offers us ordained ministers a vision of our priesthood which is utterly free of clericalist elitism, and which is founded upon our intimacy and identification with people in their struggles and failures.”

He told the story of a man he anointed and buried who had been ostracized and suffered greatly before dying of AIDS, and how upon his dying request he had him buried from Westminster Cathedral.

“At the funeral, the coffin was there at the center of the cathedral, and around were gathered his friends, many of them also with AIDS. Here at the symbolic center of Catholic life in Britain was the body of someone who represented so much exclusion, as having AIDS, being gay and dead. In this moment we can see the epiphany of God’s radiant holiness,” said Father Radcliffe. “However great the shortage of priests, the diocese must try to free some of us for other forms of outreach, so that those who would never come near a church can be touched and welcomed. And when one’s ministry is to a parish, then the parish community must be in some sense missionary, turned outwards.”

He told them that leadership as priests involves being vulnerable and authentic, taking the first step, as Pope John Paul II has done, in outreach to Muslims, Orthodox and Jews. It may mean asking for forgiveness, taking a risk or speaking the truth, or reaching out to the marginalized.

“This implies a certain social dislocation for the ordained priest. We do not have a clear place in the social hierarchy. We are slippery figures who should be equally at home with dukes or dustmen . . . All that we do as ordained priests should express and embody the holiness of God’s being in Christ, transforming the outsider into an insider, death into life, and sorrow into joy.”

Don’t fret, he said, if parishioners don’t seem to fully value their parish communities and if the communities are not successful in the business sense. He spoke of Jesus, who gathered a community at the Last Supper, which included Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him.

“Every Christian community . . . is a faulted and fractured symbol of the community that we long for, the kingdom. If a parish were too successful, then we might make the mistake of thinking that the kingdom had come and that the parish priest was the Messiah,” he said. “Jesus failed to gather them into community on that last night, so we should not be surprised if we do no better than he did. What Jesus did was to offer the sacrament of community, the sign of the kingdom that was to come as a gift in its own time.”

No matter what their demands, he called upon priests to make time for Sabbath rest and to avoid feeling they must always be busy to be good priests. He said that the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin went from being a competent, standard bishop to “the joyful, courageous witness to the kingdom that he became” after beginning to spend an hour in prayer every morning no matter how busy his schedule was.

“We must have the courage just to rest sometimes and to be. If we do not, then we shall become wrecks who have nothing to give,” Father Radcliffe continued. “We must plan to have time, daily, weekly or monthly, when we rest with the Lord . . . We each need to make a way of life that really offers us life, alive with the foretaste of eternal life. Otherwise we will be overwhelmed with the sorrow of this age, or succumb to its culture of trivialization.”

Father John Adamski, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, appreciated Father Radcliffe’s message. Saying he’s tired of hearing about “crisis, crisis, crisis,” Father Adamski liked his message of encouragement to priests to focus on their Gospel identity and mission.

“I’m a firm believer the spirituality of the diocesan priest, of those serving in parishes, really is more closely identified with that of the laity we live among, the people we serve,” Father Adamski said. He agreed that “by being a workaholic” a priest is “not going to image the kingdom.”