Prayer in the Life of the Diocesan Priest

Author: Richard McCullen, C.M.

Prayer in the Life of the Diocesan Priest

by Richard McCullen, C.M.

I am sure most of you have recognized the character from Graham Greene's novel Earlier, during the last night of his life, the whiskey priest had made his confession to God. His fellow priest, Padre Jose, the only other priest in town, cowered by fear and by the woman he was living with, had failed to come to the prison. In the course of his solitary confession, the whiskey-priest had thought:

If I had only one soul to offer, so that I could say, Look what I've done.... People had died for him, they had deserved a saint, and a tinge of bitterness spread across his mind for their sake that God hadn't thought fit to send them one. Padre Jose and me, he thought, Padre Jose and me, and he took a drink again from the brandy flask.

I don't imagine that there is a priest among us with the smallest shred of honesty and authenticity who would not identify with many of the sentiments of the whiskey priest on the morning of his execution. And there is none of us who will not in his more calm and reflective moments authenticate the conviction of Greene's character-a conviction articulated earlier by the French writer Leon Bloy- that there is only one tragedy in life: not being a saint.

Not being a saint may be the only tragedy in life. Yet, if there is one compliment more than another that we priests feel embarrassed about and which leaves us groping for effective words to reject, it is to hear ourselves described as saints. We know that we are not saints. And I suppose that when we would list to ourselves the reasons why the description of being a saint does not fit, we might ultimately find ourselves saying: ". . . and I am not the man of prayer that I know I am called to be."

A saint, almost by definition, is a person of deep and sustained prayer- unless you prefer the definition given by Ambrose Bierce in his : "A saint is a dead sinner revised and edited." A saint is one who knows his or her God more than by hearsay. And it is only through deep and sustained prayer that anyone can come to know God more than by hearsay.

The ability to pray with Christ and in His name is a seed that has been implanted in all of us through the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. For a priest, it is a seed that received from the Spirit of God a special culture when through ordination he was configured in the depths of his being to Christ, Head and Shepherd. In some, the seed seems to lie on the surface without taking very deep root. With others, the seed enters more deeply and takes root, and over a lifetime fruit is brought forth, some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred-fold. With such, the love language, which is at the heart and is the grammar of all prayer, is developed with increasing proficiency.

As in so many areas of thought within the Church, the past 30 years have seen some marked shifts in the approach to prayer on the part of the diocesan priest. One of those shifts could be said to be reflected in a commonly voiced criticism of the formation given on prayer in pre-Vatican II days.

One hears it said that the type of prayer, as indeed of spirituality, that was offered in the Tridentine seminaries was monastic in character; and being monastic, it was ill adapted to the life to which a diocesan priest is called. There are elements of truth in that criticism. However, one must always be mindful of William Blake's observation that "to generalize is to be an idiot," and to depreciate the whole pattern of formation for prayer that one received in the Tridentine seminary as too monastic is to run the risk of idiotically jettisoning some elements that are perennial and essential if the priest is to climb the mountain of prayer. More later on some of those elements.

However, it must be said that the general shift of emphasis in the approach to prayer on the part of the diocesan priest to which I have referred was introduced and authenticated by the conciliar decree itself on the ministry and life of priests. Indeed, the shift is signaled clearly in the very title of that document: Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests. If the priest is to avoid the only tragedy in life-that of not being a saint-his way to God and his prayer will lie through a deeply lived experience of his ministry, an experience daily shared with Christ, Head and Shepherd. And how can that experience so rich and kaleidoscopic for every priest be shared with the Head and Shepherd if not by some form of sustained reflective prayer? The point is made with crystal clarity in , when Pope John Paul 11 writes:

In the Church, the primary ingredient of priestly identity is a close relationship with Jesus Christ.... The priest's relationship with Christ makes present and visible the Church's intimate relationship with Christ.... It is through the sacred actions they perform every day, as through their whole ministry which they exercise in union with the bishop and their fellow priests, that priests are set on the right course to perfection of life.... Priests will acquire holiness in their own distinctive way by exercising their functions sincerely and tirelessly in the spirit of Christ [nos. 1213].

Prayer, then, for the diocesan priest, is to grow out of his experience of life, the whole of it. That calls for reflection as well as a deepening of self-knowledge on the part of the priest. In the process of prayer, the priest will be led by the Spirit to perceive the reality around and within himself, and he will be aided by the indwelling Spirit to interpret that experience with his knowledge of and intimacy with Christ.

In the immediate post-conciliar years, there was a current of spirituality that put, what I might call, practical action at the center and did not show itself particularly partial to the traditional form of meditation. We frequently heard phrases like "Life is prayer" and "We meet God in our neighbor." Of course, both of those sayings are true, but they were often used to justify what I might call a "unilateral polarization."

One remembers John Robinson's and the thrust of his thought that the authentic meeting with God takes place in the moment of practical action. From that there developed pastoral lines which concentrated very much on the transformation of structures. At the risk of making one of William Blake's idiotic generalizations, I might hazard saying that in the 1960s and '70s there existed a sort of dichotomy between prayer and action in the priesthood, resulting at times in a failure to integrate both into the one following of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, I recall talking to one of the Spanish provincials of my own congregation who in the 1980s confided to me that, when he had been provincial in the late '60s and early '70s, he felt rather self-conscious and experienced on occasion difficulty in speaking to some of his communities about meditative prayer, so strong and prevalent was a current of opinion that ran against many of the traditional forms of prayer and meditation.

The rise of the charismatic prayer groups, the growth of interest in forms such as centering prayer, the formation of meditation groups-often indeed asked for, pioneered and directed by the laity-contributed much to the recovery on the part of both priests and laity of the importance of the sense of transcendence in prayer.

Indeed, it might be asked if one of the dimensions that some people claim is presently missing in the celebration of the revised eucharistic liturgy may not, in part at least, be traced back to the celebrant's lack of the sense of the transcendent. Such a sense is won only when the priest has learned to support a solitary silence before God, for it is the positive cultivation of a certain solitude and silence as a prayer-value that opens up and facilitates our entering into the mystery of God. It is the art known to the psalmist when he counsels us to be still in order to know that God is God, and to let God be God (cf. Ps 46:11).

The priest is invited to become familiar with the route that leads to what Meister Eckhart called "the core of the soul." Indeed, the same author would see that core as the place where the Word of God is continually being born, and the entire ministry of the priest centers upon that Word of God and its proclamation to the people whom he is called to serve and to lead. Meister Eckhart observed that the Word of God is spoken in the soul's most exalted place in the core, yes, in the essence of the soul. The central silence is there, where no creature may enter, nor any idea, and there the soul neither thinks nor acts, nor entertains any idea, either of itself or of anything else.... If God is to speak His Word to the soul, it must be still and at peace, and then He will speak His Word and give himself to the soul and not a mere idea. . . [Sermon 1, p. 96, Raymond Blakney (ed.)].

The importance of cultivating and capturing the sense of the transcendent on the part of the priest is something that is evident in that great pastoral and very human leader of God's people, Moses. Moses was bidden to take his shoes off as he stood before the burning bush. Entry into deep prayer entails "taking our shoes off," a shedding of peripheral and selfish concerns, in order that the heart can be more fully possessed by God. The point I am making is well expressed by Graham Kings in a little poem entitled "At Home With God":

I leave aside my shoes-my ambitions, / undo my watch-my timetable, / unclip my pen-my views, / put down my keys-my security, / to be alone with You, the only true God. / After being with You, / I take up my shoes-to walk in Your ways, / Strap on my watch-to live in Your time, / put on my glasses-to look at Your world, / clip on my pen-to write up Your thought, / pick up my keys-to open Your doors.

Some of you may remember a program that was recorded a number of years ago now by BBC Radio 4 of parts of a Mass celebrated by Father Greene, a parish priest of the Diocese of Ardagh. Listening to the program, I found myself wondering how much Father Greene was aware of the presence of the radio team of British technicians in his rural parish church on an Ash Wednesday and what they were up to.

The liturgy of that particular Mass can only be described as homely and informal, with peremptory instructions and admonitions, delivered at unscheduled intervals in a rather gruff voice to the altar boys. The parish choir was accompanied by a somewhat reedy, if not wheezy, harmonium-and the singers did not always succeed in sustaining pitch as they sang their way through "Soul of my Saviour."

When the program of about 20 minutes length went out on the air, it was heard by millions, and asked for by popular request to be replayed on a number of occasions in subsequent years. What it would seem was most memorable about the 20-minute broadcast, and which presumably lay at the heart of its appeal to so many Christians and non-Christians alike, was the authentic and unaffected accents of reverence and of love with which Father Greene addressed the Lord when he spoke directly to Him. Such loving reverence could only have been won through knowing how to speak as Moses did to God, as a friend, in the intimacy of his own reflective, personal prayer.

To experience the transcendency of God in and through reflective, meditative prayer, one must regularly leave the marketplace to breathe a purer air and capture a larger vision. Such a larger vision is caught from that higher ground whither the Spirit of God will lead any priest who creates the conditions that allow His whisperings to be heard.

In years that have seen much writing and discussion on the role and identity of the priest, diocesan and religious; when priestly seismographs have registered tremors of five and six degrees on the Richter scale, with repeated aftershocks-the ultimate security for the priest will only be found in the consciousness of a lived and loving relationship with Jesus Christ cultivated in regular reflective prayer.

That calls for a pondering upon, a mulling over and a gentle wrestling with the word of the Gospel, as it presents the man Christ Jesus-who, if we are sufficiently open, will compassionately evaluate, enlighten and impregnate the actions and reactions of our own priestly ministry. It calls for a measure of discipline. It will demand the penciling in of a period in the day when the priest will try to be alone with the Alone.

We may try to wriggle out of that particular discipline by saying that it is a monastic practice, and not for diocesan priests. The late Father Dalrymple -writer, spiritual director and parish priest of the Edinburgh diocese-was fond of reminding diocesan priests that when they are looking for a period for meditative prayer in their day, they should consider an alternative to reckoning time from rising to bedtime. The alternative is from bedtime to rising.

If there is a genuine desire for some form of sustained prayer that is more than superficial and perfunctory, a flexible but firm structuring of time, I believe, is called for. That structure could well be the measure of the authenticity of the desire for deeper contact with the mind of Christ, the which is the fragrance of the priesthood.

I recall reading in Owen Chadwick's biography of the saintly, and sometimes rather eccentric, archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, how someone once remarked on his fidelity in trying to find in his rather crowded day an unbroken half-hour for prayer, usually in the morning time. The archbishop reacted with an amiable smile, saying that he frequently found it was necessary to spend 29 minutes in his chapel before he could elicit one prayer that he felt went from his heart to the heart of God.

The contemporary and necessary adjustment that is taking place in the vocation of the laity vis-a-vis that of the pastoral priesthood has tended to undermine the confidence of some priests. The adjustment that is being called for is ultimately theological in nature. It has, of course, sociological dimensions, but it falls primarily within the domain of the theologian.

Every priest has reason to have a measure of confidence in his grasp of theology, for even if he has not done postgraduate studies, he does have at least a basic qualification in theology. As a theologian, then, a priest will recognize that the first and fundamental act which gives tone to all theological work is prayer. It was a saying of the ancient Fathers of the Church that a theologian is one whose prayer is true. The roads that lead to Zion are traced out in a priest's heart through prayer. And the more familiar he becomes with those roads, the less threatened will he feel by the laity who are called to walk with him and who look to him as guide.

The diocesan priest is called to live out his days in a life- giving tension of commuting between mountain and marketplace. It is a tension that has its roots in the two-fold reason why Jesus Christ chose the Twelve. In St. Mark's Gospel, we read: "And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message" (Mk 3:14).

The disciple-apostle is at once "to be with" Jesus and is "to be sent out to proclaim the message." Being with the Lord and going out in His name has to be lived as one surrender. The authenticity of a priest's being "with the Lord" will be tested by his effective desire to be sent to announce good news to the poor, to give freedom to captives and sight to the blind.

For that reason, the prayer of the diocesan priest, as that of Jesus Christ himself, cannot be a solitary cry of a man who is concentrating on his own problems. It will be an invocation to the common Father who makes His sun shine on the just and the unjust alike. His prayer will be, as was the priestly prayer of Jesus himself, peopled with people. It will be an authentic reflection of his configuration through ordination to Christ-Head, Teacher and Shepherd.

The image of the priest commuting between the mountain and the marketplace evokes his mediatorial role that he shares with Him who "is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:25).

It is interesting to note that the Greek word which we commonly translate as "intercede," carries the meaning of meeting with someone, of being someone in relation to or on behalf of others. So the priest's prayer means essentially being with the Lord, putting himself in the presence of the Lord (Head and Shepherd), wanting Him, letting heart and mind move toward Him, with the needs of the parish, the community and the world on his heart. His prayer will be a sort of rhythmic movement of his personality into the eternity and peace of God-and into all the resources that lie there-and back again into the turmoil of the world, for whose sake he is seeking God.

People today are looking for priests who, through the experience of authentic prayer, appear before them as men like the spies of the Book of Numbers, carrying a cluster of grapes from the Promised Land (Nm 13:23). There is piquancy in this observation of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The clergy, whether old or young, should make no mistake about it, no matter how far the sermon has been prepared by the standards of modern exegesis and of pastoral sociology (in case they still find time for this), if it has not been achieved in personal prayer, the congregation is fed stones instead of bread. And the faithful have a very fine sense for whether the preacher's words come from the depths of personal prayer or ultimately are as flat and as vain as anything they might read in a newspaper [The Von Balthasar Reader, p. 327].

The mediatorial aspect of the praying priesthood will surface to the priest's consciousness when he takes into his hands the Liturgy of the Hours-or as the French have titled one of its volumes, "The Prayer of the Present Time." In a recently published book on a remarkable priest of the Cashel diocese-whom I am sure some of you have known, Father Jim Meehan-Father Benedict Kiely contributes a poem as a concluding offering to the author's book. Alluding to Father Meehan's taste in books, Father Kiely in his poem makes Father Meehan say: "The only one where I read real love between the lines / was the Office that I pushed out like a pram, / the bulging psalmody of priestly wombs, / along a country road in summered calm."

The image of pushing the Office "out like a pram" is a rather unusual one, but I think it may express what many priests feel about the praying of what we still sometimes call the "Breviary." Very often, we do have to push on when we come to pray the "Prayer of the Church." It calls for effort and energy to pray the hours of the Divine Office faithfully and in their entirety day in and day out, year in and year out. One hears it said that a younger generation of priests finds the Liturgy of the Hours heavy reading, and not-at least in its totality -what in the mind of the Church it is designed to be: a real pastoral and practical aid to prayer.

Those of us who belong to an older generation of priests will recall how, after receiving the sub-diaconate, as it then was, with the obligation of reciting the Breviary, we may have carried the volume around rather ostentatiously for a time-and among young clerics, it would be jokingly referred to as the "wife." Many of us, I imagine, found that the honeymoon with the Breviary passed rather quickly.

Perhaps, however, thinking of ourselves as wedded to one's Breviary had more to it than we realized. Leaving aside the central truth that the Divine Office is an articulation of the prayer of Christ by the Church, our attitude to the Divine Office has the character of a relationship. Like all human relationships, it must be worked at. It was Dr. Johnson who said: "A man, Sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair." Our friendship with the Divine Office needs to be kept in constant repair, if it is not to end in separation or divorce. A priest who succeeds in establishing over a lifetime a good, faithful relationship with the prayer of the Church will be a praying priest.

In a conference to priests, the late Msgr. Ronald Knox once compared the Psalms of the Breviary to the sword of Goliath that David eagerly grasped when he was under pressure: "And David said, there is none like that: give it me." Msgr. Knox concluded: "So perhaps when you come to die, remembered phrases will come back to you and you will arm yourself for that last passage with the heavenly music. 'There is none like that,' your faltering lips will mutter. 'There is none like that; give it me."'

In a word, prayer in the life of the diocesan priest can only be said to be complete when he daily pushes out his Breviary like a pram, searching for love in "the bulging psalmody of priestly wombs."

It seemed to him, at the moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would have only needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted-to be a saint.

FATHER McCULLEN's talk, from which this article is adapted, was given at All Hallows College, Drumcondra, Dublin, Ireland, in February 1994, at a seminar on the priesthood. Upon obtaining Father's permission, it was submitted for publication to The Priest by Sister Mary Ellen Sheldon and Sister Eleanor McNabb of the Daughters of Charity.

This article was taken from the June, 1996 issue of "The Priest". To subscribe please write: "The Priest", Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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