Most Reverend Philip Tartaglia, Archbishop of Glasgow
Convocation of Priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia—May 2017
Yesterday I offered an overview of today’s pastoral terrain. And I shared some thoughts on our mission as priests over the next twenty or so years. But this isn’t the first time the Church has faced radical changes to culture and intense challenges to evangelization. Through the centuries the Church has responded in a variety of ways. But for our purposes today I want to focus on one essential thing: priestly fraternity.
We find this in St. Benedict’s founding of a monastery that would, in turn, found and inspire countless others. We find it in the evangelization of England, when Pope Gregory sent not Augustine alone, but other monks with him. In the twelfth century this took the form of the mendicant orders, when Francis and Dominic joined men together in evangelization. In the sixteenth century it took the form of the Jesuits and the Oratorians.
And so on. There’s great diversity in these initiatives, but the common thread through all of them is priestly fraternity. The difficulty of the times and the new challenges confronting us underline the need for priests to be not just many in number, and not just well trained, but to be united…one…a body. The issues confronting us are such that it’s only as a body that we can both deal with them fruitfully, and push forward in evangelization.
There’s a practical, apostolic dimension of priestly fraternity worth considering. We can take two images from scripture. First, let’s consider the account of the Israelites crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3). You remember that Joshua was commanded to have the Levites – that is, the priests – carry the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders and wade into the Jordan. They did so. The river stopped and the waters “stood in one heap” (Joshua 3:16). While the priests stood there bearing that weight, the entire nation of Israel passed over the Jordan dry-shod. It was a new beginning.
The priests in effect constructed a bridge – in a sense they became the bridge – that enabled the people of God to pass from the wilderness to the Promised Land. We can imagine them there as the entire nation passes over. Consider the patience and perseverance required. Consider the trust required in the Lord’s promise: that this would hold, that the water would not come rushing down on them.
But for our purposes, let’s consider the unity required of them. They all had to carry the Ark together. Anyone who has helped out on moving day – moving large pieces of furniture – knows that it demands not just a group of men but also men working in unity. The Levites at the Jordan had to work as one, to be attentive to one another, to encourage and even to correct.
What did that look like? Did they know each other? Did they like each other? As one man grew tired, did the others compensate until he was back on his feet? As the day wore on, as patience grew thin and devotion lagged, did they encourage one another? What brought them together was a common faith and a common purpose. They had to place their personal preferences and interactions at the service of that faith and purpose.
The second image is more familiar: the healing of the paralytic in Capernaum. Here is Luke’s account:
And behold, men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they sought to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Lk 5:18-20).
Mark provides the added detail that it was four men who carried the paralytic. But that’s still not enough. It was four men united in this common purpose. We can imagine how they had to coordinate their efforts in order to carry the paralytic, to hoist him up on the roof, and then to lower him down. If they are not united – if each is doing his own thing – then the paralytic does not make it through the crowd, or up the roof, or down into the house, or – worse still – he’s spilled from the roof into the crowd.
As both these images teach us, God’s people have a need for priestly unity and fraternity. These accounts in effect embody our Lord’s priestly prayer for evangelical unity: “With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you have loved me” (John 17:23). These words have meaning for all Christians. But maybe we forget that our Lord prayed them primarily and especially for his priests. Priestly unity has evangelical power.
The People of God know this – intuitively, if not theologically. Parishioners know when the priests of the parish are united…and when they’re not. Their faith is either built up or eroded as a result. How many times have people expressed joy in seeing all the priests together at the Chrism Mass or at an ordination. Their joy in our unity ought to call our attention to defend, preserve, and deepen that unity.
Like the Israelites at the Jordan, we’re at a time of transition. This demands of us even more today of that quality that’s always essential: priestly fraternity.
Nevertheless, the apostolic dimension of priestly fraternity is neither the first nor the most important. We need priestly fraternity primarily for ourselves as priests. It’s first of all for us – for safeguarding and building up the grace given to us.
Priestly fraternity is a practical reality because it is first of all a theological reality. This is how Presbyterorum Ordinis speaks of it:
All priests, who are constituted in the order of priesthood by the sacrament of order, are bound together by an intimate sacramental brotherhood; but in a special way they form one priestly body in the diocese to which they are attached under their own bishop. …So priests are all united with their brother priests by the bond of charity, prayer and total cooperation. In this way is made manifest the consummation of that unity which Christ wished for his own, that the world might know that the Son had been sent by the Father (PO 8).
We’re familiar with this teaching. But how is this theological reality lived out? The Church in the United States is entering a time when widespread support for some very basic Christian beliefs – both in the broader culture and even within the Church – can no longer be presumed. What was once presumed must now become intentional. Likewise, the priestly fraternity once taken for granted or given lip service, we now must seek out and cultivate deliberately.
And we must do it because we need it. As the external supports for Christian faith decrease, two things happen. First, priests are in more demand…more stretched and stressed. Second, temptations increase. The shared morality of our society no longer exists. The temptations are now more “in your face.” As you know from your own pastoral work, pornography has gone from the private and costly habit of a few to the ubiquitous and cheap addiction of many. Priests are not immune to this. Stress, loneliness, discouragement are all openings for this vice. The more old-fashioned temptations still very much remain: drinking, gambling, sex, and so on.
Pope Francis’ 2015 Chrism Mass homily centred on a curious theme: proper rest. Given the many challenges we face, this may have seemed like a trivial topic. But in my opinion it was right on the money. Greater stress needs to be addressed by proper rest. The traps priests fall into often take the form of unhealthy – that is, false – relaxation : thus the temptation to drink, to pornography, to illicit relationships. As the Pope said, “It can also happen that, whenever we feel weighed down by pastoral work, we can be tempted to rest however we please, as if rest were not itself a gift of God. We must not fall into this temptation” (emphasis added).
The collapse of a Christian culture means that a priest will – like it or not – be “counter cultural.” Two problems arise from this. First, nobody can live simply against something. We need to live for something. Second, nobody can live that way alone. So, we need to cultivate a culture of authentic priestly fraternity where we can find purpose, support, affection, encouragement, and correction.
It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. The same can be said of the supernatural. If that healthy priestly fraternity is not in place, false solutions will rush in. Temptations find their way in through a breach in the wall. The Psalmist describes Jerusalem as a city of “compact unity” (Ps 122:3). The walls were secure, tightly fit together, impregnable. Priests, as a body, are to be like that: so closely united, of such compact unity, that no enemies – no temptations – can penetrate.
Now, I don’t think I’m saying anything unusual or new. So, at the risk of being too blunt…Why do we have so much difficulty with it? Given the need for it, why don’t we apply ourselves to cultivating it more? And not just here in Philadelphia. Such is the case in most dioceses. It is in mine too.
Maybe the first thing that comes to mind is time. We don’t have enough of it. But is that really true? In the end, we have time for what we choose to have time for. We’ve all heard the saying, “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy.” Quite right. The same applies to priestly fraternity. If we’re too busy to avail ourselves of it, we’re simply too busy. Something has to give. Priestly fraternity must have such a priority that we’re willing to cancel and/or rearrange other things for it.
Another difficulty comes from the awareness – or fear – that we’ll be challenged. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). That is a beautiful verse from Proverbs. But being sharpened does not sound pleasant or easy. To be sharpened requires resistance and friction. Maybe we don’t want that.
We’ve all known the kind of priest who – either figuratively or literally — posts a sign on his door: “Forced Fraternity Is No Fraternity!” We can smile at that, because none of us likes forced fun. But if we really think about it, the quip doesn’t hold up. Because…all fraternity is forced fraternity. We don’t get to choose our brothers. We choose our friends, not our brothers. Some of you are friends. All of you are brothers. Friendship is a great good. But brotherhood is more fundamental to the Gospel and to the priesthood. Your common bond in the priesthood is deeper than the bonds of friendship.
Brotherhood challenges us. It forces us out of ourselves. With our friends we risk becoming a clique, limiting ourselves to those who share our ideas and ways of doing things. We risk locking ourselves in an echo chamber. With brothers, some of whom are quite different from us, we’re called to go out of ourselves more, to love those who are not like us, who don’t see everything the way we do, who may be difficult or going through difficulties.
Some years ago, the then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger warned against a concept of “communion” in which “the avoidance of conflict becomes the prime…value” (New Outpourings of the Spirit, 59). We might fall into that trap and draw back from priestly communion because sometimes there can be conflict. Brothers are known for unity…and also for disagreements. But as long as we have before us at all times our common priesthood in Jesus Christ and under the bishop, we shouldn’t fear the conflict that comes from a frank and manly exchange.
Another difficulty is the fear – or pain – of being inadequate. Every man, every priest, wants to be equal to the task before him. He wants to be “the man.” As a discouraged American seminarian once said to his formation adviser, “I just want to be awesome!” This isn’t a bad desire in itself. Problem is, we tend to measure ourselves against one another. We gauge our adequacy and goodness by how we stack up against others. Then we run into Father Wonderful. His parish is booming, his ministry is incredible…he can sing, he can raise money, he can preach, and so on. That comparison leads to discouragement, and who wants that?
Of course, this comparison game feeds a classic clerical vice: envy. We know it was a struggle for the Apostles. “He asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest” (Mk 9:33-34). Then again at the Last Supper: “A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Lk 22:24).
Priestly fraternity requires us to set aside such comparisons and not measure ourselves against each other. That attitude leads to either judgment or discouragement. We shouldn’t be looking at one another in comparison, but looking together at the only standard of the priesthood, Jesus Christ. As a seminary spiritual director once joked, “There’s only one priest; the rest of us are impostors!”
So, how do we move forward on this? How do we go from principle to action? Let me propose some questions – a kind of examination of conscience – to spark some thought and, please God, renewed commitment.
Do we pray for each other?
We say that we do. But we say that for a lot of people. And by that general intention, in a certain way we do. But do we pray deliberately and specifically for one another? Pastors, for your vicars/assistants…Vicars/assistants for your pastors, and so on.
Do we pray with each other?
Certainly we encourage families to pray together. It was an American priest who coined the popular line, “The family that prays together stays together.” Are we attentive to the same truth about us as a body? In rectories/in the parish house? When we gather? The more united we are in prayer, the more united we are period.
Do we make time for one another?
Here’s a good rule of thumb: a priest’s phone call (email, text, etc.) should receive your first response. This highlights the importance of making time for one another. We know how important it is for married couples to guard their time together and not allow the kids to come between them. Analogously, we priests have to guard our time together. This means blocking out certain times for getting together. We may feel selfish because, well, we could accomplish a lot of work during those times. But, unless it is an emergency, that time should be guarded – guarded for what guards us.
Our time together should not just be “talking shop.” Of course, we’re going to bounce pastoral questions off one another. That’s essential and good. But our time together should not be only that. It should include time for prayer, intellectual discussion, and simple relaxation.
Are we attentive to those in need?
We know that every society will be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Do we realize that this applies to us – a society of priests – as well? Presbyterorum Ordinis makes this clear:
[B]y reason of the same communion in the priesthood, priests should realize that they are obliged in a special manner toward those priests who labor under certain difficulties. They should give them timely help, and also, if necessary, admonish them discreetly. Moreover, they should always treat with fraternal charity and magnanimity those who have failed in some matters, offer urgent prayers to God for them, and continually show themselves as true brothers and friends (PO 8; emphasis added).
Don’t we preach the same thing to our people? Don’t we want the children in our schools to do this? Then we must be attentive and reach out to those priests in need.
Problem is, we don’t always know who is in need. Father Wonderful…might not in fact be that wonderful. He might be suffering. So we should extend to one another the same pastoral charity we do to parishioners…and more.
Are we willing to ask for help?
Here we again run into a man’s desire to be adequate, to be outstanding. We don’t want others to know that we are in need. The evil one traffics in secrecy, and he loves this refusal to bare our wounds and needs. But if we do ask for help we’ll discover two things. First, that our brother priests are merciful. Second, that we’re not the only ones suffering.
Are we willing to give fraternal correction?
Or to “admonish discreetly” as Presbyterorum Ordinis puts it. How many problems, scandals, and indeed wounds to the Mystical Body would have been averted had priests not been unwilling to turn a blind eye to one another’s failures? This is never an easy thing. But it’s necessary, and when done with prudence and charity, it becomes an occasion of grace and healing.
Are we willing to receive fraternal correction?
It’s not enough to value fraternal correction for others. We should also value it for ourselves. It’s easy for a priest to find a willing audience, a fan club in effect. It’s easy to place ourselves beyond those who will correct us. Here’s another reason for being brothers. We need one another to bring to our attention whatever faults or bad habits we have fallen into. And we need to receive those corrections gratefully.
Are we willing to remain silent about one another’s faults?
This might seem to contradict fraternal correction. But in fact, it’s the corollary. We should speak with the priest directly…and not speak with others. In fact, the more we speak to others, the less likely it is that we’re speaking to the priest himself. One iron clad rule to be observed is that we should not speak ill of each other. Obviously, I don’t mean remaining silent when justice requires us to speak. Too much damage has already been done by that. I mean not gossiping about each other, not making known unnecessarily another priest’s faults or struggles, and not even listening when others do so. We have our disagreements and arguments, our failings and foibles, but let’s keep them behind closed doors.
I’ll close with just this final thought: By way of ordination we’re united to one another as sons of the bishop, as brother priests, and also as sons of Mary. Let us then appeal to her as Queen of the Apostles, that she who led the Apostles in prayer in the Upper Room, will likewise gain the Spirit for us, to make us a city of compact unity, brothers bound together for one another and for the Gospel.