Is there a need of a community life among the diocesan clergy?

Is there a need of a community life among  the diocesan clergy?

IS community life reserved only to the religious priests or it belongs to the essence in the life of all Christians? It is commonly thought that this is only among those who are members of religious orders or congregations are obliged to live a certain community life. Yet, we know that the first effect of the Pentecost is in fact a communitarian life style among and within the first Christian community—so much profound that they were of one heart and one mind which has lead them to live the so called communion even of their goods.

Presbyterum Ordinis, the document on the life and ministry of the priests of the Second Vatican Council promulgated by Pope Paul VI, last December 7, 1967 on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, some decades ago, talked about the common and negative situation of celibate priests: loneliness. In fact it was considered, and still is, the main reason why priests leave the priesthood, perhaps after a certain disunity with their own bishop in various and different levels. Without this genuine unity with the bishop, as the document also emphasized, the presbyter could be already standing in the “locus” of possible separation from the diocese, his local ordinary, and therefore his own very life as a priest which then opens to the decision to leave the priestly ministry.

In order to save what could be “salvable” and to prevent the seeming exodus of priests in this “locus” the same council said: “[to] be saved from the dangers of loneliness which may arise, it is necessary that some kind of common life or some sharing of common life be encouraged among priests.” (PO, 8)

The Council therefore strongly encourages a “common life” among diocesan priests which has been the lifestyle of the first Christian community and perhaps what is lacking in the life of the diocesan clergy. Most of the rectories in the country are like just like apartments where diocesan priests live together not for intrinsic reason but for an extrinsic pastoral purposes. Profound fraternal relationships could be lacking and they could be living just in a “house” and not in a “home.” In this atmosphere, loneliness especially among the young clergy could creep in and could encourage him to go out always of the rectory and look for a place where he could feel at home to the point of even creating with a suitable partner or a real home with a family of his own. This phenomena is not uncommon.

In Canon n. 280, Priests, even if they be diocesan, are encouraged to live a community life. While this will vary greatly due to circumstances and ministry, it offers them the opportunity for mutual support humanly, spiritually, economically and even sometimes psychologically.

The Council also offers some concrete suggestions and could take three different forms “according to different personal or pastoral needs.” They are: (1) “living together where this is possible.” This commonly called community life as “vita communis.” It should be understood not only just living together under one roof but a lifestyle of living together with the love similar to the three divine persons of the Blessed Trinity or the family of Nazareth where those who live there are all virgins and the only rule in their staying together is the internal dynamics of mutual love. The rationale of this communion primarily internal and not external to the very purpose of their staying together, like the staying together of firemen in a fire station to order to be vigilant of the possible fire – the reason of their staying together in one place is something external to them. The life of communion among diocesan priests stems internally from their nature of being one with Christ being “alter Christus”, of their oneness with the local bishop, with the Magisterium and with the Pope. From here pastoral ministry could draw the light how to go ahead together. Communion is the soul of the pastoral ministry and its source which in turn, all the other ministerial work could lead towards a greater communion or mutual love for one another. This centripetal and centrifugal direction and force is the divine/human dynamic wherein community life expresses itself in mission and mission leads to a greater communion among the clergy.

The Congregation for the Clery in its Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, approved by Saint John Paul II, last 31 January 1994 states that “by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders every priest is united to the other members of the priesthood by specific bonds of apostolic charity, ministry and fraternity. He is, in fact inserted into the “Ordo Presbyterorum” constituting that unity which can be defined as a true family in which the ties do not come from flesh nor from blood but from the grace of Holy Orders.” (n.25)

This “vita communis” truly a desirable reality among the diocesan clergy although it’s possible lifestyle could stem from those priests who open themselves more to a communitarian spirituality rather than an individual or individualistic one. St. John Paul II encouraged this spirituality which is necessary in this millennium – without denying the individualistic one – in his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte” saying that “before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion. . . .” In fact he said that “to make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings.” (NMI, 43)

The second suggestion from the Council is when the first one is not feasible. It is (2) “having a common table.” This could also be called “mensa communis.” With the television off, priests could try to be free at a certain point to time and a certain consensus as to the time in order to be together to eat at the same table free from their pastoral concerns and their cell phones. This could be an appropriate time to talk about the status of their physical and spiritual realities, sharing of experiences on how they live the day in God or living God’s word concretely, or even good jokes and human pleasantries. Rather than sharing the negative aspects of other brother priests, who may not be around, to the verge of gossips, they could share the positive aspects about them. Diocesan priests could continue to learn “to eat at tables not on plates” like a family who listens to one another each other’s concerns, joys, sufferings, or realizations—to foment this communion and fraternity among them. It could also be a time to relax in the presence of one another and this could occur inside the rectory or in a modest restaurant or even fast food outlets depending on the internal suggestions from the Holy Spirit to strengthen this fraternity or sacramental brotherhood.

The last suggestion of the Council in this regard is lastly (3) “by frequent and periodic meetings.” It did not specify a scheduled frequency but it suggests that for those who are living alone, meetings with other priests are strongly encouraged. This also depends on the distance and accessibility of the meeting place. Nevertheless when diocesan priests would try to consider and follow this suggestion, perhaps they would understand better its necessity in their pastoral ministry.

The charism of religious orders have been a big help in the formation of priests in the Philippines, It is enough to think of the CICM’s, the Dominicans, the Jesuits, now the Eudist Fathers, etc. They are also a big factor in helping the continued formation of seminarians and priests by offering their convents and organizing meetings or reunions for the diocesan clergy and thus foment the life of communion among the diocesan priests. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Council said: “One should hold also in high regard and eagerly promote those associations which, having been recognized by competent ecclesiastical authority, encourage priestly holiness in the ministry by the use of an appropriate and duly approved rule of life and by fraternal aid, intending thus to do service to the whole order of priests.” (PO, 8)

We could ask: What “fraternal aid” would be best? Certainly to think of a “fraternal aid” in the economic sense only, though sometimes necessary, misses the whole point! This fraternal aid should never be limited to money since it is only one of the expressions of this divine/sacramental fraternity that is more profound, basic and liberating. We could suggest that it is to help genuinely, sincerely, simply, and humbly one another in order to journey together towards holiness with the priceless joy of the gift and mystery of the priesthood that accompanies it. In a word it is really to “wash each others feet.”

This could fundamentally spring forth from the Holy Spirit who came to the nascent church during Pentecost that made the Christian community “one in heart and mind.” Through this reality, priests could visibly express, in an effective and affective manner, the life of communion (agape) within the Trinity which is inherent in the life of every diocesan priest. Communitarian life among the diocesan clergy, in whatever form it takes, therefore is a “conditio sine qua non” in the life and ministry even of diocesan priests.