Bishop Robert Vasa: Priests and people can inspire with spiritual zeal

Easter 2009…

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Catholic Sentinel

BEND — The examples I chose last week to indicate how the Year of the Priest can be an effective grace for all of us to grow in our appreciation of the sacred are small and external but they are not unimportant. What we do, how we act, how we dress all send loud and clear messages even if we do not recognize or intend the message which is sent. That message is received by the community at large, the youth of the parish and the priest celebrant as well. When we know that we are going to a place where we will be filled with wonder and awe, our demeanor and attitude will necessarily reflect that knowledge. When we believe that we are going to an ordinary place to participate in something quite routine and commonplace then our dress and demeanor will reflect that as well. Our approach to Mass, just like the approach of the priest to Mass, must never redound to something routine or commonplace. In this Year of the Priest we are all challenged to reflect upon and to reflect in our actions a renewed appreciation for the dignity of the priest and the dignity of what the priest does. Paying closer attention to our dress and demeanor as we approach the Most Sacred of Mysteries, the Most Holy Eucharist, can serve as a kind of attitudinal barometer for all of us.

I would like to believe that that attention of the laity to these details of life can and will have a profound effect upon the priest’s ability to recognize anew the holiness of the things which he touches and respond more fully to the graces which will come to him in the course of the coming year.

The Holy Father also implies an additional role of the laity in this Year of the Priest. He says, “The centrality of Christ leads to a correct valuation of ordained ministry” and adds that, without priestly ministry, there would be no Eucharist, no mission, and even no church. He even indicates that there could be a tendency to positively devalue the priesthood based on an erroneous interpretation of the rightful promotion of the role of the laity. In fact, the Holy Father intimates that such solutions might “lay the foundations for further diluting the priestly ministry” instead of providing a firm foundation for an authentic renewal of reverence and respect for the priestly office. There may be a number of ways in which each of us has, in some inadvertent fashion, shown an attitude of disregard for the true dignity of the priesthood. The inspiring season of grace to begin in June affords us an opportunity to reflect upon these attitudes and to reflect upon the effect these attitudes can have on the spirit and attitude of priests as well as on the promotion of vocations to the priesthood.

Our Chrism Mass at which we bless the oils used exclusively by those ordained to the Diaconate or the Priesthood is a fitting time for us to begin our remote preparation for the Official Year of the Priest scheduled to begin in June. I pray that it is a year of great grace for all of us who are priests and for all whose work, prayer and support are so essential for a rediscovery of the great dignity of the priesthood.

Each year the priests of the diocese gather during the week following Divine Mercy Sunday for our annual retreat. Thus, as you read this the priests will either be on retreat or just completing the days of our spiritual exercises. I would ask all to offer an additional prayer or two for the interior sanctification of the priest who serves in your parish or mission and for all priests. I am reminded of the passage from The Soul of the Apostolate, “If the priest is a saint (the saying goes), the people will be fervent; if the priest is fervent, the people will be pious; if the priest is pious, the people will at least be decent. But if the priest is only decent, the people will be godless. The spiritual generation is always one degree less intense that those who beget it in Christ.” Thus, it is absolutely essential for priests to be more than decent and more than pious and even more than fervent.

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In my own experience, however, it is also very possible for the sanctity of the priest to be positively influenced by the depth of sanctity of the people whom he serves. Thus we could also write: If the people strive to be saints, their priest will be drawn toward greater fervor. If the people tend toward fervor, their priest will gravitate toward piety. At the same time if the spiritual sights of the people are set quite low then this can be a source of discouragement for the priest and cause him to set his sights even lower. Thus, if the people strive only for surface piety then their priest will be content with decency and they will be content with a decent priest. If the people are content with decency then they may actually prefer a godless priest to one who is personally and seriously striving for sanctity and thus greatly challenging them.

This in no way implies that the priest does not carry the greater burden of responsibility for the spiritual environment of the parish. It does, however, acknowledge that he does not carry that burden in a vacuum but rather in the concrete reality of the Parish in which he is assigned to serve. That duty of fostering holiness is more easily accomplished in an atmosphere in which the people are likewise striving, in a genuine and truly humble fashion, for authentic holiness as well.

The Diocese of Baker has never had its own retreat center, that specified place where more intense spiritual exercises can be conducted and experienced. This absence is something which is barely noticed and yet it is an absence, a void, which is very real. The retreat center being constructed near Powell Butte is intended to fill this void. I have written on a number of occasions that for all devoted to Christ, holiness is to be job one, everyone has a first vocation to holiness. In order to pursue holiness we do need specific tools and opportunities and it is our hope that these tools and these opportunities will be accessible at our retreat center. It is no longer a distant hope but a reality on the horizon. We plan to have the retreat center open and operational as early as September. It seems most fitting that such an opening coincides with the Church’s Year of the Priest, since one of the most important duties of the priest is the fostering of sanctity for himself and his people.

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