January 1, 2015
Solemnity of Mary Mother of God
Circular 2015-1: The PRIESTS IN THE YEAR OF THE POOR
My brother priests:
2015 is Year of the Poor. It is also Year of Consecrated Life for the universal Church as willed by Pope Francis. As our year opens, I wish to offer you some thoughts on living out the call to simplicity so that the Gospel to the poor may better glow through us priests.
From Pope Francis
Addressing the Curia, the Holy Father laid out his thoughts on the danger of avarice and greed and materialism in our vocation. He said one of the maladies of ecclesiastics is the sickness of accumulating: when the apostle seeks to fill an existential void in his heart by accumulating material goods, not out of necessity but only to feel secure.
In reality, we can take nothing material with us because “the shroud does not have pockets” and all our earthly treasures – also if they are gifts – will never be able to fill that void, in fact, they will render it ever more exacting and more profound.
To these persons, the Lord repeats: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked … Therefore, be zealous and be converted” (Revelation 3:17-19).
Accumulation only weighs down and slows the inexorable journey! And I think of an anecdote: one time the Spanish Jesuits described the Society of Jesus as the “light cavalry of the Church.” I remember the transfer of a young Jesuit that while loading his many belongings on a truck: bags, books, objects and gifts, heard an old Jesuit who was observing him say, with a wise smile: Is this the Church’s “light cavalry”?! Our transfers give a sign of this sickness. (December 23, 2014)From our vocation
Let us return to our original reason for desiring to be a priest. We were trained for a difficult life in the seminary. We seemed to be in a perennial food lack; remember those days? We deprived ourselves of the warmth of family life and contented ourselves with living together with the brother seminarians. We cleaned the seminary ourselves, maintained the garden and observed the rules. We wanted to be priests hence nothing was unbearable.
The ordination was our turning point. The Church entrusted her mission to our hands. We also received in trust the money of the faithful believing that priests help so many poor people. They gave us money to send poor children to school, to feed the malnourished, to help the sick receive medication, to defray the cost of burying the poor and so many more duties.
Accumulation, Comfort and Security
And the sickness of accumulating possessed us so quickly. Money got stuck in our hands instead of sliding to the needy. The car became a status symbol even for the newly ordained when the chrism of anointing had hardly dried. The recreation became more sophisticated to expensive tourist sites unreached by the working class. We were no longer lacking in food; we were now choosing our food after being initiated into the palate of the filthy wealthy.
It is bad for a priest to fall in love with a woman. It is worse if he falls in love with money. Ordination gave us access to church money but that money is not ours to enjoy.
Our ordination gave us powers. In a manner of speaking, the ordained are supermen. But the awesome plan of God cannot be restored by a Church that is more concerned about power than of service, more interested in convenience than sacrifice. A Church that is so focused on the powers of supermen clerics will hardly inspire hearts for renewal. We priests can start touching hearts again if we talk less about our powers and instead expose ourselves more to the power of Christ to change us. When we demand integrity from public officials, can we humbly say like Saint Paul “imitate me because I imitate Christ”? In this Year of the Poor self accusation must precede prophetic denunciation of social corruption.
Materialism and Clericalism
If our youth and children see shepherds who are more concerned about imitation than money we will see them staying with God. If we would be more focused on imitation of Christ before imposing fixed rates for the sacraments, we would see renewal. These times call for imitation before proclamation, imitation before teaching, imitation before mission, imitation fund raising. Imitation of Christ before all else! Our confused flock, like everyone else, listen only to life examples. The best fund raiser is the holy priest because he is credible. People know his hands are slippery when he touches money. The donations always end in the tables of the poor.
Clericalism speaks of privilege, prerogatives, entitlement and special treatment. Clericalism prefers sacristies to the slums. Clericalism is more concerned with embroidered vestments than reconciled souls. When we look back at the history of the Church, Church reform always started with clergy reform. As the shepherds go so the sheep follow.
When we lose humility, we lose perspective. When we lose perspective, we also become too reactive. When we become too reactive and possessive and materialistic, we become less effective and less credible as pastors. The loss of humility and the sickness of accumulation in Church ministry can be very costly. With materialistic clericalism laid aside, and Gospel empowered humble shepherding taking its place, we might be able to see the rainbow of hope in the Year of the Poor.
Clerical accumulation injures the idealism of our seminarians, hurts the sensibilities of the youth and confuses many of the faithful who know that Christ lived as a poor man and His disciples cannot be anybody less than that.
Signs of Simplicity
As a brother in the vocation whose mission is to bring the Good News to the poor, let us impose on ourselves strict discipline in the following areas of priestly life:
Avoid as much as you can foreign travels and frequent recreation in expensive tourist destinations. Even if such are paid for by friends and family, it is best to decline and choose austerity and simplicity. Rest is important but luxurious recreation is disrespectful for the poor who cannot even take a rest from their backbreaking jobs. Be more sensitive.
High end cars and expensive vehicles smack of vainglory and luxuryespecially in a province like ours where there are so many who are poor who cannot afford a tricycle ride. There is no excuse for any priest to have such high end vehicles. We need vehicles to reach the poor barangays and bring them the blessings of God. Expensive cars alienate the poor from the Church. We smell differently from the sheep.
We need to return to the clerical attire or clerical cross in public places as a form of witnessing to the poverty of Christ. Loud colored signature shirts and pants are fashionable but we cannot let Christ glow unless we let our glamour go. To be simple is to be great in the eyes of God. The poor priest does not need to dress sloppy. We must give dignity to our vocation.
It is a serious sin of omission for a priest not to have a regular poor person to help whether for education, health or livelihood. While it is morally acceptable to set aside some savings for future needs, it must be done with prudence. The money spent for the poor on earth are savings in the heavenly kingdom. It is a scandal for a priest to die a rich man. We bring to heaven only what we give away on earth.
We must be honest in reporting to the Curia the true financial condition of the parish or school. There are no fixed rates of offerings for the celebration of Masses, for confirmations, for funerals, for weddings and other sacramentals in our archdiocese as we agreed on. What the archdiocese forbids, the parish priest must not circumvent. We are only temporary stewards not chief executive officers. Our goal is ministry not revenue upgrade.
We need to re examine what we keep in our bedrooms. A priest’s room and a bachelor’s pad are exact opposites. Is the Lord our only companion in this sacred space of the rectory? “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away belongs to the naked” (Saint Thomas Aquinas)
Always give alms to the poor who come to you. Do not be afraid to be fooled nor turn them away empty. Do not be afraid to pamper the beggars. They have no one to help them. If you have to make a mistake, make a mistake in being too charitable, in being too kind. There is no excess in kindness. We cannot outdo Christ in kindness.
There is much to be done in the Year of the Poor but the first in the list is the simplification of priestly lifestyle. The renewal of the Church begins with the renewal of the priests. Let us take the lead in embracing the poverty of Jesus on the Cross.
I impose all these challenges on myself first before inviting you to embrace them too. Let us look at Jesus. Let us look at Him and let us be like Him. That is our only duty—to be Jesus and to give Jesus who alone is our treasure.
+SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS
Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan
Also published in http://rcald.org/