AD2000 asked Fr Paul Glynn SM, who has just finished several years as spiritual director to Sydney's Good Shepherd seminary, for some reflections on what is needed in the life of a seminarian and a priest today. Father Glynn is the author of several well-received books reviewed in AD2000.
I was giving talks at the beautiful retreat centre called "God's Farm" which is situated in light bushland about 40 minutes from Margaret River, WA. I had just come in from admiring the sky-blue splendid Fairy Wrens and the bewitching WA wildflowers, some of the latter growing, amazingly, out of sheer sand.
A phone call came, jarring the silence and clouding my sunny mood. Bishop Julian Porteous, Rector of the Good Shepherd Diocesan Seminary, Sydney, said they were losing their Spiritual Director. Would I take on the task for the next two years?
I told him I had no training whatsoever for such high-octane flying. He said, "Look, the bottom line is l want you to help the seminarians pray, and you can do that, I know." It is hard to refuse a direct request from a bishop, so I said a none-too-confident Yes.
I remember a meeting we missionary priests had in Japan in the 1970s. We had been stunned by the number of priests worldwide who were leaving the priesthood. Why is it? Will I be tempted to go, too? With absolutely no intention of judging the leavers, we asked what could be for us the danger signs of a vocation loosening its grip on one's soul?
We only came up with one conclusion: If you want to survive as a priest, above all in our materially rich era, when ordinary citizens can live as comfortably and even as luxuriously as only kings and the very wealthy could live a century ago, you must imitate the Jesus of the Gospels, and commit yourself to quality-time daily prayer.
If I come to say that my parishioners' demands make me too busy to take regular time out for prayer, I am right. I am too busy. The Japanese ideograph for "busy" is a spiritual karate chop, a combination of the ideographs for "heart" and "destroy."
I had several months to prepare for my new role in the seminary. Among other things I asked a number of lay people: What do you see as really important in a seminarian's training for the priesthood ? What do you most hope to see when he is a priest working in your parish?
I can sum up their unhesitating answers in two sentences. "Our priests don't have to be the top intellectuals on the block, nor wizards at organising, raising money, etc. What we want above all is a holy priest, at home with God, who can help us to pray and become closer to God."
I was struck by the consistency and simplicity of their replies. They were giving the same bottom line that Bishop Porteous gave.
I received essentially the same response from several priest friends I questioned. One of them added something, and insisted it is part of a healthy prayer life. He remembered vividly their seminary spiritual director saying this: "Some days a priest in a parish can get so run off his feet by a host of parishioners' legitimate needs that there is hardly any time for praying alone. In that case, make the last thing to go, your spiritual reading, some time reading a book that speaks to your heart, and not just to your head, about the love of God. That keeps your prayer from going stale and flat."
There is no doubt about it. If a priest is trying to imitate his Master, "often going to deserted places to pray," and taking his advice to "go into your room and shut the door to pray ... because your Father is there and knows what you need," his daily Mass does become the "summit and source" of his Christian life that Vatican II said it should be. The Mass comes alive and gives a priest energy and joy in his tasks.
In one Holy Thursday message to priests, John Paul II gave them a simple and powerful piece of advice. He wrote that as they proclaim in Mass, "This is my Body given up (to death) for you, This is my Blood poured out for you", let them offer their very own body and blood in that proclamation.
That is the way to the positive and peaceful acceptance of each day, with its physical and at times mental tiredness and frustrations, its sometimes impossible expectations and demands made by parishioners, its dark moments that are part of everyone's life, and everything else that comes.
The Mass then is really a "sacrifice," which word comes from two Latin words meaning "make holy." With that daily offering of himself, a priest becomes truly content to be a "servant" to his parishioners, just as the Master was content to be our servant, even washing the disciples' feet.
If there is one thing that Vatican II stressed for lay folk, it is the "priesthood" of all the People of God, of all the baptised. This is no new teaching, but it had been forgotten by many. You find it expressly stated in Exodus 19:6, Isaiah 61:6,1 Peter 2:5-10, and in three places in the final book of the Bible, Revelation 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6.
So a message for lay people also flows from Pope John Paul's message to ordained priests. Let them, too, as they attend Mass in the pews, say in their hearts, when they hear those tremendous words at the consecration of the bread and wine: "I too join with you, Jesus, and willingly offer my body, my blood, my perspiration, my responsibilities, my energies, my sufferings, my love, hopes, my fears - all that I am and all that I have, I offer all this with you, Jesus, to the Father" so that His Kingdom may become a reality in my daily life, in my home, in my parish, and eventually in the whole cosmos.