Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?"

I received by email subsription from the Congregation for the Clergy a letter from His Eminence Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Prefect of said Congregation, addressed to all priests. It's undated but was sent from the Congregation yesterday. The letter ends as follows:

We must not be afraid or remain subdued within our home... We will not cast the seed of the Word of God merely from the window of our parochial house, but we will go out into the open fields of our society, beginning with the poor and arriving at all levels and institutions of society. We will go to visit families, every person, above all the baptised and those who are distanced. Our people want to feel the nearness of the Church. We will do so, going out to our contemporary society with joy and enthusiasm, certain of the presence of the Lord with us on the mission, and certain that he will knock on the door of the hearts of those to whom we will announce Him.

Frankly, friends, after reading this in the presence of the Lord in the church this evening, I then sat in the confessional staring at these words. This is quite demanding. It sounds great in a letter, but it seems ever so daunting. Does the good Cardinal know how hard this is in the society he so accurately described in the opening paragraph of his letter?

The Western culture ... is a culture which is marked profoundly by a relativism which refuses any affirmation of an absolute and transcendent truth and thus which ruins the foundations of morality and which closes itself off to religion. In this way the passion for truth is lost, being relegated to the place of a “useless passion” ... Relativism, then, is accompanied by an individualistic subjectvism, which places one’s own ego at the centre of everything. In the end one cannot but arrive at a nihilism according to which there is nothing and nobody in whom there is any point in investing one’s entire life, and consequently life has no real meaning.

Isn't this so true and why we now have calls for assisted suicide to be legalised?

The Cardinal continues:

However, one must recognise that the post-modern culture which is currently dominant brings with it a truly great scientific and technological progress which fascinates the human being, especially the young. The use of this progress, unfortunately, does not always have for its principal aim the good of mankind or of individuals. It lacks an integral humanism which could give it an ultimate meaning.

This is going to need some prayer and, I would suggest, a renewal in the sense of fraternity amongst the presbyterate, the sense of a common mission.

A bit I left out above (the third '...') says:

In contrast Jesus Christ is the Truth, the Universal Logos, the Reason which enlightens and explains all that exists.

This is what we must dwell on.

I would venture to add that the accompaniment in this task of the laity would be a great moral and spiritual support. Many of us priests are on our own, and we have other demands as well as parish life. This visiting of the parish could be done fruitfully in a collaborative task of clergy and laity. I am very grateful that I have a number of parishioners who visit the sick and housebound. But outreach to the lapsed baptised and the non-evangelised is limited.


  1. Welcome back, Father. This blog is an example of the thoughtful writing that I regularly read in the old blog, and which resulted in my dissapointment when it closed.

  2. Father, this subject has interested me for some time.

    Here are a few passages from "The Diary of A Parish Priest" by Theodore Bieweis:

    From the Intro: "When this book was written the author had been for thirteen years in charge of one parish in Vienna. His fervent belief in the absolute necessity of pastoral visiting and his practical experience of the difficulties, moral as well as material, that this entails in a large working-class city parish, led him in recent years to keep a diary and from this diary to publish some of his experiences in the hope they may be of help to other priests."

    From the Forward: "The object of this book is to show how, by a proper allocation of his time, the parish priest of even the busiest parish of a big city can fit in at least a thousand calls a year. Of course it is easy enough to find important work to keep one in the presbytery, work which would appease one's conscience and be a great deal less trouble...

    "Deep down inside us lies the reason why there is always something more important, or as important, to keep us at our desks instead of trudging up and down interminable flights of stairs in tenements and council flats. It is not the physical labor, it is the fear of what we shall meet when we knock and the door is opened by a stranger who cannot understand why we have come. This shyness is something we have to overcome. Not once and for all, but each time all over again. That is the great difficulty, and from it, no doubt, stem the blessings that accompany our visits. We probably would all echo the words of an experienced social worker who told Fr. R. Fischer-Wolpert that although he spent years going up and down stairs and knocking on doors, every time he knocked he hoped in his heart of hearts that there would be no one at home and that he would be spared the first tentative approaches and the uncertainty of his welcome. But he knocked or rang just the same...

    "Most of these visits were made by going from door to door.... Archbishop Heenan (supports) this approach: 'How is it possible in a large parish to visit the whole flock at regular intervals? The answer is that we must have a system. If we pick our houses at random it is probable that we shall more often call on those we need than on those who need us. If we do not carry out our visitation house by house and street by street it is almost certain that many families will always be passed by.'

    "No priest, however much work he had, would grudge the time, if each day a different person came with some spiritual problem that demanded an hour of his time; any parish priest would presumably be prepared to devote one hour a day to religious instruction. Today's pastoral situation demands personal contact by means of house visits. A prish priest who firmly sets aside one hour each day for visiting can easily make seven to nine hundred visits in the course of a year...

    "The next question is how long a visit should be. I reckoned that ten minutes to a quarter of an hour is enough to ask the necessary questions, urge people to come to Mass and to get them to talk a bit. Of course, if there was something they wanted to discuss, some difficulty, that was a different matter.

    "All these visits were, of course, noted in the card index, and also in a small notebook, with the date and a brief note on the spiritual welfare of each person. Such notes are important if one is to know after several hundred calls where to find the sick and the frail, where there is a good possibility of saving a marriage, where there is a good practicing family to be found, where there is a chance of brining a strayed sheep back into the fold, and so on. None of these must be lost sight of: all of them need further personal contact."

    This paperback was issued by Newman Press in 1964, originally published in Vienna by Verlag Herder.

    The Abp Heenan quote is from "The People's Priest" p. 79, Sheed and Ward, 1951

    If you are interested, I would be happy to lend Fr. Blieweis's book to you.

  3. Lee

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Yes, I'd be happy to have the opportunity to read Fr Blieweis' book.

  4. Lee’s comments are interesting. I think excessive involvement by the laity in this task can be counter-productive – how do you know what some laity may be saying in the Church’s name? From what I’ve read, that’s why RCIA sometimes gets a bad press. As a lapsed Catholic who would like to return, I’d be willing to come to the church (rather than the priest visiting me) provided a priest had some involvement in catechesis. There are ways, other than knocking on doors, of letting people know the Church is there such as a leaflet drop, an informative website, etc. A skim though the Church’s website shows there are various initiatives focused on non-Catholics and non-practising Catholics. But perhaps that’s all they are – a showcase with little substance.

  5. I'd encourage you to get in touch with your local church. I too don't think laity should take over the priest's unique role of teaching. Priests must be involved directly in RCIA, 1st communion, etc. But there is room for colaboration on the part of well-formed laity. We can't do it all ourselves!

  6. At one time I was very interested in evangelization- to the point where the pastor asked me to head up a diocesan mandated evangelization program for our parish.

    This involved writing the "evangelization prayer" and organizing small groups to gather in parishioners' homes to read a passage of scripture and discuss it as prompted by going down a list of questions. Of course, people were encouraged to invite their neighbors over for these discussions, but no one did. Getting this going and keeping it going was actually a huge effort on my part. Out of all this, there was not one conversion to the faith that I know of.

    I very much wanted to take a team of well-informed laymen and going out in groups of twos (sound familiar?)start systematically knocking on doors throughout town. Father was very apprehensive about this and I could never make it happen.

    But from reading about similar efforts in other locales, I am convinced this is the way to go.

    To my mind, we're really missing out. Leaving aside the impact on unbelievers, I am convinced that simply sharing the faith would be enormously faith-building for the parishioners involved, and all the moreso if there were some successes.

    Beyond that, in reading Catholic blogs I am often reminded of something I once heard an Pentecostal pastor say, that when a Church is not involved in substantial outreach to "the lost," they will inevitably become very involved in picking the fleas out of one another's hair.

    It's easy to see this both in the local parish and the Church as a whole. Where we aren't evangelizing, we are dividing and subdividing...

    I realize that laymen need some training for this outreach, but not a licentiate in Sacred Theology. An evening or two and off you go...

    Do our pastors have a practical belief in the Sacrament of Confirmation or not? If so, then like Jesus Christ give us a blessing and send us out. Why should you (pl) deprive yourselves of the pleasure of seeing satan falling like lightning from heaven?

  7. Dear Father Boyle,

    I have just noticed this article.

    Yes there are problems with visiting parishioners but one thing a parish priest could easily do almost every day is walk around the parish for 30minutes or so every day, perhaps to the Library - in other words being visible.

    This seems such a more natural way of meeting one's priest rather than the awful Air Hostess line that is formed to shake hands with the priest at the end of Mass.

    On several occasions I have bumped into the (Anglican) Bishop of London walking along the South Bank. I have nodded to him rather impressed that he takes the time to stroll through his "parish".

    I cannot recall the last time I saw one of priests from my parish in town.

    Just a thought.

    In caritate Xp.,


  8. Bryan

    I fully agree with you about a visible presence. A priest should not go mufty just because he's going the supermarket or wherever. It's important to be seen and one often has some interesting conversations. But the visiting thing is still on my mind. I'm reading the book that Lee (see previous comment) has lent me.

  9. Katherine Harding13 August, 2010 03:01

    It`s all in the NT. Jesus sent them out in twos; He spoke of being Himself a shepherd who went after His lost sheep; priests act `in persona Christi` so must go out after the lost ones AND BRING THEM BACK! Laity can support this work but they can`t replace the priest himself as they are not `in persona Christi` ie. they are not actual shepherds as he is.
    Father you speak of having other commitments outside the parish: with the greatest respect, I wonder if that is wise when there are so maany lost sheep to find and fetch?

  10. Katherine

    Thank you for your thoughtful message. As to other commitments, they are all connected with being the Good Shepherd. At the time I wrote this post, as well as parish priest I was lecturing in Canon Law at the diocesan seminary and was also a judge on the diocesan tribunal. In addition, I took on pro-life work (praying at a nearby abortion facility every now and then) etc.

    I wouldn't underestimate the laity's role in bringing back the lapsed. A good friendship can be a wonderful fishing line. But I fully accept and indeed share your opinion on the irreplaceable role of the priest.

  11. Thank you for your reply Father. I can understand the breadth of work expected from a priest, within the needs of his diocese. But how do we define a priest`s role within Our Lord`s description of the Good Shepherd I wonder? I know a priest provides the sacraments and teaches, but those two - vital - roles don`t seem to be the sum of the `shepherding` about which Our Blessed Lord spoke so graphically of leaving the ninety nine and going after the lost one. There is something here of physical action, mental concentration, and effort to carry the lost one home. It seems to me that cardinal Hummes, in his letter, pointed to an aspect of Our Lord`s model of priesthood which we do not sufficiently highlight these days, and which the laity does not sufficiently support.


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