Your priests are exhausted – like everyone else I suspect. It is a form of spiritual tiredness that comes when fathers are not able to be with their families as they wish. Certainly, it is tiring to care for a family, but then again, there is a gift of life that flows from being with your family as you care for them. Those fathers (and mothers) who labour in foreign countries to send back remittance monies to support their families know one thing for sure: phone calls and Facetime are just not enough. The priests of Calgary confronted this during the pandemic year because they are not “pious bureaucrats but pastors” (Pope Benedict’s phrase) – and they miss their family-flock. Yet they also know whose priests they are: Jesus Christ’s – and the Eucharistic Lord has never abandoned them.
It was my surpassing honour to be invited by these very priests to lead them in a retreat in these – pray God! – waning days of the Pandemic. I wrote them a note:
Do you remember the beginning of this annus horribilis? Celebrating the Easter mysteries with a few people in Church. Scrambling to find ways to render virtual that which is essentially incarnational – the Eucharist. Worrying about pastoral care and meeting payroll. Who can forget the Holy Father’s solitary Urbi et Orbi prayer for the end of the pandemic? His words still challenge: “We find ourselves afraid and lost in this time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It’s a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others,” And so it goes on month after month. Even the most introvert of us priests have been stretched thin by the dual experience of isolation from our people and still bearing the burden of their stress. As in all times of challenge, the best and the worst of people emerged: politics and medicine divided our communities. And what about each of us? In this Retreat we will support each other as every morning we reflect on the challenge of the Holy Father’s solitary Urbi et Orbi prayer for the end of the pandemic: “We find ourselves afraid and lost in this time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It’s a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
What can one new parish priest say to such a crew of faithful ministers? Hopefully, only what Jesus wants him say. I think it is always just a variation of Christ looking a priest in the eye saying, “You are my priest, and I love you.”
Looking a priest in the eye? Leading a retreat in pandemic times has a very strange quality: it is ‘virtual’. Conscious of a hundred pairs of priestly eyes, I could only see a checkerboard pattern of faces. But from the start as I sat and listened as they greeted each other joyfully I know that what was before me was not “virtual” at all – it was a quilt of servants of the sacraments woven by the Spirit. A quilt sustained by the prayers of God’s People in Calgary
What did the Spirit lead us to reflect on? Simply, that which is the very essence of a priest’s life: the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, we have not been able to celebrate the sacred mysteries with many others but we priests have still been able to meet our Eucharistic Lord daily. We long to respond to the longing of our people for Communion – but we also are called to respond to the intimate longing that the Lord has for each of His priests.
Did you know that there are certain prayers in the Ritual of the Mass that a priest says quietly – or to use an old phrase “secretly”? For example, as he purifies the vessels from which he has just partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ the priest whispers, “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity”. Every Friday morning those who pray the Divine Office recite Psalm 51 and say, “then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom”. What is the wisdom of these intimate or “secret” prayers? This was the theme we explored in the Lord. And the Lord was gracious as He always is.
Retreats are not ever times of running away from reality – no that would be Netflix and YouTube. In a retreat one runs into the heart of reality – God’s heart. It is not a time for pious words or flowery ideas – but for the Word that meets our reality. That is what the Eucharist is: our offering of the reality of our lives to God and God giving us the Real Presence of His Son. The questions were real and raw: how do live with chaos as the rhythm of life is turned upside down? What will priesthood look like after this immersion in a separated virtual society? It seems like priests are both under a microscope and yet marginalized like the Church – where are we being led?
To the Eucharist – always to this source of our very being. And we found in the secret prayers of the answer of Jesus, “Do not be afraid, it is I”.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers