“We Need Priests Who are Firmly Grounded in Pastoral Work”, Says SACBC President During the Feast of St John Vianney

Archbishop Stephen Brislin – SACBC President

I’m not much of an art critic, but like everybody else there are certain pieces of art that I like and certain pieces that I don’t. And one piece of art that I really don’t like is the picture of St. John Vianney that hangs in the seminary in Pretoria. I really don’t like that picture because it makes him look quite weak, sort of wimpish, in my opinion. But I suppose it captures him in a way; he was a weak student. He also ran away from his parish at least four times, I think…

He was ordained as a type of an exception and only because of the intervention of some who saw in him this great pastoral zeal and pastoral ability. An excuse was made for him that, even if he was not succeeding very well in his studies, he was worthy of being ordained because of his pastoral ability.

He was a pastoral priest, just as I have been described as being a pastoral bishop. Archbishop Daniel and I once compared notes and he said he too has been described as being a pastoral bishop. We agreed that what people meant by that is that they think we are quite nice people but have no brains!

While that painting in John Vianney seminary perhaps does capture the saint’s weakness, he was also a person of great strength. To be fair, his weakness in studies was largely because he lacked the opportunity of education in his childhood and youth because of the French revolution and the persecution of the church at that time, so he was only able to study late in life.

He was strong because even in the time of persecution he persevered in his faith, and clung to the faith, never allowing the fear and the danger of the persecution to overcome him.

He desired to be contemplative, and really wanted a contemplative life, and because of that he tried to escape from his parish. But, at the same time he was strong in overcoming his own feelings and his own desires, putting the needs of people first.

He was self-sacrificing, particularly in the confessional, and he was known as a caring and compassionate confessor and pastor. He was certainly an instrument of God’s healing grace, which of course every parish priest should be and the parish itself should be a place of healing and compassion. That’s why John Vianney is the patron of parish priests. He captures, in a sense, both the weakness and the strengths of priesthood.

We priests are only too aware of our weaknesses, our incompetence in many ways, and our dependence on God. We work with many diverse people, some very educated people, some very knowledgeable people, and all we have to bear is the message of Christ that has been entrusted to us. And so we are weak, and yet at the same time we are strong because we allow Christ – hopefully at least – to work through us. And it is the strength of Christ that we bring to people.

But I think this feast day of John Vianney is also a reminder to us of our need for priests to be very firmly grounded: grounded in pastoral work.

I am sure some of you will remember when we did the survey of priests a few years ago, one of the things that came out is some priests felt that there’s a lack of “career opportunities” within the church. I think at the time that it shocked us and did not sit quite easily with us as we do not see priesthood as being a “career”. And we do not see that a parish as limiting somebody in their “career opportunities”. But I suppose it is also a sign of the times.

Being a parish priest is perhaps not seen as having very much status, particularly in this day and age. Especially as people, more and more, have opportunities. And a young priest may start to see his friends, those who were in school with him and who perhaps have had an opportunity for university education and to enter into a profession, as “overtaking” him. They have careers, and are able to live a fairly materialistic life of nice houses, cars, and so on, and so that might not sit well with some priests.

I suppose that some, for the wrong reason, may wish to escape from parish work and to go into other ministries. There are certain ministries that are academic and the perception may be that there is more status in that.

We need academics, of course, but when it becomes an escape from the parish pastoral ministry it is not that healthy. And there may be those who seek ministries with salaries attached – that can also happen. Again we need those ministries. It is not a criticism of the ministry but of the motivation for money.

But I know from my own experience of the past years 35 years of priesthood that there is, sadly, often a tendency among priests to compare different parishes, and to aspire to those parishes that are considered “better” parishes. There is, in the minds of some, a type of a hierarchy of parishes in a diocese and that, of course, is usually associated with money and the wealth of a particular parish. But pastoral work should be the core ministry of any priest no matter what parish he serves in.

In our training and formation we certainly need philosophy, theology and scriptural studies but they must also, in some way, be geared to pastoral work, because this is the very meaning of priesthood. It is the sharing in the ministry of Christ, of Christ who mingled with people, associated with people, who cured people, taught people, was with people all the time, sat at banquets with people. He brought sinners to conversion and this is the very core of what the church is meant to be and what the church is. It is the very core of what the priesthood is meant to be.

And so we need to give a lot of support to our priests and to those who are aspiring to priesthood, to help them with their expectations and their motivation for being a priest, to give them support in their ministry that they may be oriented to the pastoral care of people.

Bishop Brenninkmeijer, who had an enormous influence on my own life, had these one-liners which he used to say and which were filled with meaning. One of the things he used to say was “Parish work is very difficult, but you’ve got to make it look easy”. And there’s lots of truth in that. It is really difficult because every parish is different, and in every parish there are difficult people. Some people you’re going to get on with and some not. But you can’t go around looking as if you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders and that people are making your life a misery. You’ve got to make it look easy and have the lightness and joyfulness of being a happy priest.

When you think about it pastoral work is not actually rocket science. What are people looking for in their priest? I think they are looking for a sacramental life, and that sacraments are celebrated in a very dignified and prayerful way; they want the availability of a priest when they need him, when they are worried about something or need to discuss some problems with him. I think people like to be visited by their priests, and those visits don’t have to be long, but just a pop in for a cup of coffee. They want to be known by their priests. They want priests to prepare their sermons, their homilies. All this is very much tied up with a priest’s own spiritual growth because people depend on a priest to grow spiritually – priests and people grow together.

Secondly, this revolves around priests having a genuine compassion for the people that they are called to serve, to be able to forgive those that hurt them – and I don’t think that you can be a priest without being hurt at some stage. It is the ability to forgive people for their failings and weaknesses. And also to have that sense of mission, that we are part of church’s mission and Christ’s mission.

Thirdly, pastoral work means to be unifier, to bring about unity in a parish, not to divide people. Sometimes it’s so easy for priests to divide people. But they are called to really work for unity in the diversity of the people that we serve – particularly the diversity in South Africa. Not only with our racial past but now, of course, also with the immigrants and refugees who are coming in. It is to work for a parish that is inclusive of all people, that welcomes people, that reaches out to people, that has an outreach to those who are poor and those who are marginalized. This depends on the priest’s ability to lead and his own humility in being able to work for unity.

In saying that we need to ground the priesthood in pastoral work – we know this anyway – we must also must remind ourselves that the very grounding of the church is the parish.

The parish is the most basic unit of the church and that’s where the real work of the church happens. It happens at the parish, it does not happen at the level of the bishops’ conference.

The bishop’s conference, or the universal church, would be like a tower without any foundation if it was without parishes. Just imagine the Eiffel Tower without any foundation – it would fall if even the slightest breeze blew upon it. And in exactly the same way the church would fall if we did not have it grounded in parishes.

Parishes are not merely places of maintenance, of just carrying on a routine pastoral work. If our parishes are like that then we have become a maintenance church, and we will have self-perpetuating structures and offices that are void of the mission of Christ. So, we have to put a lot of work into our parishes.

St John Vianney reminds us of that, that parishes must be places of life, energy, evangelization, outreach to the world, places of welcome, places of love and joy.

Hopefully the visit of Fr. James Mallon, the author of “Divine Renovation”, who is coming to South Africa soon and will be going to various centres, will inspire and enable us to really work to re-energize our parishes again, that they can truly be those places of welcome, love and joy, of real life.

St. John Vianney also inspires us to this, as we try both to ground the priesthood in the parish and the church in the parish, as the most basic unit of the church where the life of the church is really lived.

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