12th Plenary Assembly of the CCBI
held at Chennai from 25 to 28 January 2000
Priests and their Ministry at the turn of the Third Millennium
Standing at the dawn of the third millennium we are filled with joy to celebrate Yesu Kristu Jayanti as Jubilee Year 2000. We Christians consider this time a moment of grace for the whole Church and humankind. Naturally the celebration is centered around the great humankind made known in Jesus Christ. This Christ-event is a joyful and grateful recalling of the grace and blessings the world has received during the past twenty centuries. It is also a time of prayerful reflection for the Church on the fruitfulness of her mission of sharing and proclaiming the Good News of salvation offered by God the Father in Jesus Christ.
In the closing years of the second millennium, the Church in Asia was blessed with the Synod of Bishops – Special Assembly for Asia and the post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia (EA). And both have enthused the entire Church in India to enter into the new millennium with renewed vigour, joy and commitment to the mission of evangelization of the country. It is against this immediate backdrop we the members of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India –Latin Rite (CCBI-LR) gathered in Chennai from 25-28 January 2000and reflected on the Church in India with a special focus on priests and their ministry in the Church at the turn of the millennium. We were guided in our reflection by the document from the ‘Congregation for the Clergy’, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and the Leader of Community. We also took into consideration the current situation of our country and the challenges posed by it for the mission of the Church in India.
- Scenario of India at the dawn of the Third Millennium
1.1. The fast changing situation in the religious, economic and the socio-political spheres of life in the country raises new questions and challenges for the Church and her ministry. India is the largest democracy in the world and the second most populous country (cf. EA, 6). In the past fifty two years after independence our country has made tremendous progress in many fields like agriculture, industry, science and technology. It is the cradle of many great religious traditions and is rich in diversity of cultures and languages (cf.EA,6). However, we are aware of certain limitations and failures. The multi-religious and multi-cultural mosaic of the Indian reality is being undermined by forces of division and exclusion such as fundamentalism, communalism, sectarianism, casteism, gender discrimination, etc. We are also aware of the poverty of the millions.
1.2. Globalization in India despite its few benefits is increasingly leading to marginalisation and displacement of a vast number of powerless individuals and groups who cannot withstand the aggressive and competitive forces of market economy together with the onslaught of the big national and multinational companies (cf, EA, 39). In this process the marginalized poor and the unorganized rural and agricultural labourers are the worst affected.
1.3. On the political front the democratic fabric of the country is threatened by polarization on the basis of caste, religion, and linguistic identity. This leads to segregation, mutual exclusion and violence against one another. Unholy alliance between politics and religious fundamentalism leads to fascism and criminalization of politics.
1.4. While claims of great progress in the country are being made by those in power, the anti-life forces are active and are casting their dark shadows on the life of the people. Violence from the extremist groups, tensions with the neighbouring countries, lack of political will to deal with crucial issues like illiteracy, unemployment, exploitation of women, child labour, violation of fundamental human rights, threats to the rights of the minority communities, use of the poor and the under-privileged as vote banls, corruption, etc., negate the well-being of the people in the country.
1.5. These are some of the issues and challenges to the Church’s mission of love and service. They can for ‘anew way of being Church’ and ‘anew way of rendering service.’ This means, a renewal of the Church that leads her to a profound spirituality and interiority mirroring the newness of life in the spirit of Jesus. This would empower the Church to discern and respond to the beckonings of the Spirit in the present situation in order that the Church might continue the mission of Jesus Christ – announcing Good News of Salvation to all (cf. EA, ch2: Jesus the Saviour: a Gift to Asia; cf.alsc EA, 18). Jesus entrusted this mission to the Apostles who in turn handed it over to their successors, the bishops.
- A New way of Being Priests.
2.1. The new way of being Church calls for a new way of being priest. This involves a personal holiness of the priest founded on the deep contemplative experience of the person of Christ that pervades all the aspects of life and ministry of the Priest. People in India esteem priests as men of God “who love according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5; cf.EA, n.43). Hence, constancy in personal prayer and the prayer of the Church, cultivation of interiority, meditation and the personalization of the Word of God, centering one’s life in the Eucharist, devotion to the blessed Sacrament, and frequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation and filial devotion of the Blessed Virgin Mary will sustain and motivate the priest in his mission and ministry to become, indeed alter Christus for the faithful. Despite difficulties and temptations in our increasingly secularized world, priests must be faithful to these practices manifesting joy and earnestness as re-emphasized in the document: The Priest and the Third Millennium.
2.2. Praying with the Christian community during and also outside the liturgical celebrations will enhance and enrich the spirituality and ministry of the priest. The faith life of the laity and pastoral ministry among them sustains the spiritual life and pastoral zeal of the priest. The priest should take sufficient care to avoid becoming victims of professionalism in their ministry. Personal experience of Christ thus sustained and taken care impels a priest to share the Good News of salvation with all the people according to the mandate of Christ (cf. Mt. 28:18-20, cf also Mt.5:15; cf. EA, Ch.IV Jesus the Saviour Proclaiming the Gift, nos: 19-20) both through re-evangelization of Christians and evangelisation of those who have not yet heard the Good News. As St. John reminds us “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn.1:3). In this way the priest involves himself in building basic Christian communities for re-evangelization and evangelization (cf. EA, 24).
2.3. The mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus is fulfilled through the triple ministry – ministry of the Word, ministry of the Sacraments, and ministry of leading the Community. In the ministry of the Word, the priest should diligently read the Word with faith and meditatively understand it and proclaim to the people to nourish and nurture their faith. For this, the priest should give sufficient time for preparation and seek through prayer the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Priests do the ministry of the Word in the name of Christ and the Church. Through a devout and a meaningful celebration of sacraments, which are channels of grace of God, the priest fulfills the mediating role of leading the people to God and service of neighbour. Administration of the parish involving taking the necessary decisions should help the priest to lead and build the communion of the faithful. His service to the community should be characterized by “the charity of Christ the Good Shepherd” (pastores Dabo Vobis, 57). In exercising this three-fold ministry, the priest has to have the mind of Christ who came to serve and not be served (Mk. 10:45) and be faithful to the teaching and sacrifice of Christ in the work of evangelization. The triple ministry sanctifies both the minister and the community alike.
2.4. The important and challenging mission of evangelization calls the Church, in particular bishops and priests, for triple dialogue with the poor and the marginalized, with the people of different cultures and with the followers of other faiths. Dialogue with the poor calls for solidarity with the poor, promotion of human dignity, justice (cf. EA, 34) and sharing the food news of Jesus Christ who is answer to their problems and needs. Dialogue with culture means inculturation which is not just confined to adoption of signs and symbols of a given culture in the liturgy. It calls for deeper immersion, insertion and participation in the totality of life of a people – language, values, beliefs, worldview, symbols, etc. (cf. Ea, 21). Inter-religious dialogue is carried out as an integral aspect of evangelization and promotes cooperative action for peace and harmony (cf. EA, 31). New way of being priest demands that he involves the laity in the life of the Church and its mission of evangelization. Hence, priests should facilitate participatory structures for the promotion of the laity and animate them for leadership according to their charism, especially for the evangelization of secular realities (cf. EA, 45).
2.5. During the years of ministry, priests experience moments of difficulties, failures, frustrations and loneliness. In these moments priests need understanding support and encouragement. The bishop being the most significant person in the life of a diocesan priest, he should exemplify in himself the servanthood, the self-emptying love and compassion of Christ who came to serve and not be served (Mk.10:43-45) This means that the life of the bishop is marked by implicity. His relationship with priests, his collaborators, is guided by the pastoral charity of Christ. He shows his loving and fatherly concern through his availability and listening. The bishop accepts his priests for what they are. When mistakes are made he corrects them with fatherly love. Moreover, the encouragement and support from the fellow priests and the faithful will also be a source of strength in his ministry. Priests on their part are also to manifest a spirit of obedience and loyalty to their bishops and to be open to their fatherly guidance and corrections. In this context promoting and sustaining cordial relationships and communion among the priests of the diocese, the presbyterium, will be a source of strength to priests in the ministry. It is desirable that there are structures to facilitate relationships between the bishop and priests, and between priests themselves.
3.1. New way of being priests calls for a new orientation in the formation of seminarians and in the ongoing formation of priests. The formation of seminarians requires a holistic formation wherein spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral dimensions are well integrated. Missionary spirituality should be rooted in the personal love for Christ (cf. EA, 23) and sharing in the Paschal mystery. Besides personal and community prayer, missionary spirituality characterized by pioneering spirit for venturing into new area of an authentic human person involves formation in the art of both intra-personal and inter-personal relationship. Intellectual formation needs to be contextualised and should include a sound philosophical and theological knowledge that is faithful to the Magisterium of the Church (cf. EA, 22). Pastoral formation should respond to the realities of the community.
3.2. In the priestly ministry one has to relate to a variety of individuals and groups, starting with the bishop, fellow priests, the religious and different sections of the laity in the parish like children, the youth, women, the elders, the families, the members of pious associations and above all, the parish council members. Ecumenism which is one of the main concerns of the Church should become an integral part of priestly formation (cf. EA, 30). Besides, the priest has to learn to relate with the people of other faiths and people of good will in the neighbourhood. This means that during the years of formation care needs to be taken to equip individuals candidates with skills and the necessary temperament required to relate appropriately with all in the pastoral ministry (cf. EA, 43).
3.3. In this connection the formation of the formators is of crucial importance. While academic competence is essential for those engaged in the work of formation, it is even more important that they are men of faith and prayer, and committed to the mission of the Church. They should be well integrated persons influencing and inspiring as models to those in formation (cf. EA,43). The formators do not need periodical renewal and updating.
4.4. The ongoing formation of priests is essential in the face of the present day challenges and demands of a new way of being priests. The pastoral experiences of the priests need to be critically examined in the light of the new methods of evangelization and the apostolate. The ongoing formation of priests should serve the purpose of updating oneself in the theological and missiological approaches, deepening and strengthening of one’s spiritual life, acquiring new and effective skills for the ministry of evangelization.
‘New’ envangelistion needs ‘new’ evangelizers who are known for personal holiness and commitment to the mission of the Church. The priest of the third millennium is called to be ‘Other Christ’ (Alter Christus) and thereby become credible witnesses of the Good News of God’s Kingdom. We, the bishops, acknowledge and appreciate the zeal and dedication of all the priests in their ministry for the mission of the Church. Empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, we look forward to fulfilling the mission of Christ together with the priests, our collaborators, the religious and the laity. Let us ask our Blessed Mother, the Star of New Evangelization and the Star of the Third Millenniumto accompany us in our mission.