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Catholic Priesthood: Gift And Mystery


Pope-FrancisIT is customary for seminarians in training for the Catholic priesthood to have pastoral experience for at least two months in a parish, during his long vacation every year.

So, when others plan vacation trips to Dubai, the Bahamas, the Caribbean Islands, or Europe and the U.S., the seminarian is sent to a parish for practical pastoral experience.

As a seminarian, I was sent to a village parish for my holiday apostolic work in 1987. The parish had 34 outstation churches and I had to spend at least two nights in each of them.

When I arrived in one of those churches, a man who sat close to me started a conversation. “How old are you?” I told him my age. “Are your parents still alive?” I answered in the affirmative. “Are they aware of what you are doing?” I answered in the affirmative. “Are they aware that you are in this village now?” I answered yes.

Then he thundered in annoyance; “And they allowed you to be roaming about villages doing this useless work and living this profitless life? I am sorry for your parents”.

I opened my mouth in amazement. It was then that the saying of St. Paul that “I am life has been poured out as a libation”, became real to me. The man was right.

Some years later, in 1994, I was posted from a semi-urban parish to another rural village. My cousin, who knew how I struggled against all odds to furnish the Reverend Father’s residence when I took over barely two years earlier, came to me asking if I would permit him to bring a truck to move “my things” to my new parish.

He was close to tears, when I told him that those things do not belong to me personally and as such, I was not taking any of them with me. I was taking only my personal clothing and books, which would not require a whole truck to move. “So you have laboured in vain because I know how you struggled to put these things here? When you go to the next place, you may start again from the scratch”. I told him that that is the joy of the priesthood.

You belong to all and to nobody. You own everything in the parish but possess nothing. You sign every cheque leaf of the parish account but none bears your name. Pope St. John Paul II describes the Catholic Priesthood as “Gift and Mystery”.

It is a gift because God freely gives it and “No one takes this honour upon himself” (Hebrew 5:4). It is a mystery because nobody knows how God makes this choice and call. Nobody outside the priesthood understands why a priest in the midst of needs and deprivation is very happy.

He loves everybody’s child and never has his own. People cannot understand why the Catholic priest should be happy, when he lives all alone in the village, among strange people. The joy of the priesthood is mysterious.

A priest came to visit me in the chancery office of the diocese, when I was the chancellor. He went to the books’ section of the archives, where books of the deceased clergymen are kept before sending them to the seminary. He came out and was holding a copy of a book in his hand. I asked if he wanted to loan the book.

He shook his head and said: “You see, this our life as priests has nothing in this world. It is truly a sacrifice. You see this book, I visited Fr. Vincent in his parish some years back, I begged him to let me have it to read and promised to return it immediately.

He refused, saying that it was his priced book and that it took it him time to find it in the market and so he did not want to part with it at all. You see now, here I am with this book and Fr. Vincent is nowhere to be found. He has parted with it finally. I can now keep it forever.” Fr. Vincent had died some months earlier.

In the archives section of that chancery, we have vestments, personal clothing and books of late priests. One thing I realised was that many people would not like to pick those items even for free and so we devised a way of giving out the personal clothing to those in need without them knowing that they came from a late priest. The life of a priest is nomadic.

He is here today and tomorrow he is in another place all together. And so, the priest is ever ready to pack his few belongings and move. He is always on the move.

Maybe that explains why, apart from the books and Mass Box, the next most precious thing a priest may have is his means of mobility. If he can afford it, some go for the best. If he builds a personal house in any corner of the town, he does not have the time and chance to use it.

Actually, he does not have the need for it and he does not crave for it. That is why many people do not understand the life of the priest. Why does he speak the way he speaks, reasons the way he reasons and laughs the way he does.

One of my close friends, right from my first days in secondary school became my parishioner some years back. His family was my family. His children saw me as an extension of their father. In fact, he had to present his bride to me for approval before they began any serious discussion about marriage.

We still have such strong ties and such persons make the burden of the priesthood easy to bear. They support not only for the financial gifts but also for the fact that they understand the humanity in you.

When I became their parish priest, he would visit me every evening, stay with me, watch the news items and we told old and new stories and share some good moments. One day I asked him to go since it was getting too late.

He looked at me with pity and said, “So, if I leave you now, you will be all alone without any company? That is why I have to stay with you until you are ready to sleep before I go home. This place is too lonely.”

I laughed loud and told him that I was only accommodating his every evening visit because I thought it made him happy. I lectured him on the training process for the Catholic priesthood and how a priest is taught to enjoy loneliness. He was shocked when I told him that if he stays with a priest beyond a certain period of time, he becomes a nuisance to the priest.

I told him I needed time to be alone, to read, to meditate and pray. Pope Benedict XVI said of the priest, ‘Everything a priest does in his ministry flows from what he becomes at his ordination: presiding at Mass, absolving sinners, anointing the sick, proclaiming and explaining the Gospel, giving blessings, and his whole pastoral leadership of building up a local community of faith.

The priest does what he does because of what he is: a priest of Jesus Christ.’ Also in the priesthood, there are vocations within the vocation. Some priests are in the Army as chaplains, there are priests who are professors, teachers and hospital administrators.

We have priests who are comfortable to be rural parish priests; simply saying the mass, hearing confessions, administering the sacraments and counseling the faithful.

There are others who are social commentators and they struggle to shape the moral life of the community and nation. Everyone functions as the Lord gives him the special vocation within the vocation to the priesthood.

Sometimes we hear non-Catholics and some ill-informed Catholics saying about a priest who is into social works and commentary, ‘why can’t he face his priesthood and leave this government people alone?’ Some aggrieved people angrily shot back at the priest saying, “if you think this is easy, why don’t you leave priesthood and join us in politics?” This is not strange to priests because it has always being part of the Cross they face daily.

The Israelites would cry to God for the gift of a priest and prophet who would tell them God’s mind and when there was none, they agonised, “Now there is no priest, no prophet and a place to call upon your name”.

No priest chooses any of these vocations within his vocation for anything but service. It is not because he believes it would give him any special financial advantage than a wider audience of service.

The priest may be called upon to serve in committees, boards and institutions, which the ordinary hustling Nigerian would celebrate as an opportunity to feather his economic and financial nest.

But not so for a priest, who does not have the need to save for his children’s children. It is this practice of saving for family, children, grand children and offspring that has caused much damage to Nigeria’s economy, fanning the fire of corruption. A young man with whom I grew up in the village became a Pentecostal pastor in the town where I was parish priest.

He came visiting one day in the parish house. He saw the huge crowd of parishioners, who came for various devotional prayers and meetings in the compound. He sat in the large parish house living room and said to me: “Wow! How did you do this? See the crowd outside the compound. How did you gather them? See the big house you are living in, how did you become this successful? I didn’t know you are this powerful.

Are the people in our village aware of your enormous power and charisma to be able to gather people like this? Please I will invite you to my next crusade”. I told him that I did not build the house.

In fact, a missionary priest from Ireland built the house long before I was born and that the priest who built it has died. Subsequent, priests who worked in that parish lived in and enjoyed the fruit of another priest’s labour. I did not gather the people but they had gathered to seek the face of God not because of my powers.

I left that parish just after two years and the crowd he spoke about has not diminished. It is the same with every priest and Bishop. They try to make impression by building edifices for their use, while they are there and for those after them.

The Church people and others, who share in the vision and mission of the priest or Bishop, know this and they are always happy and generous in contributing to his mission and vision. The Bishop’s house and the parish house and other buildings are not the properties of the one that builds them.

When he is transferred, he takes his mass box, cartons of books and box of personal and clerical dress to a new place, where he will begin afresh.

He is in the city today, in the village tomorrow and he remains happy because his Priesthood is a Gift and Mystery. • Rev. Fr. Ojaje Idoko is of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria

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