by Fr PETER MURPHY
TAUPO — God clearly has a sense of humour, Fr Gilbert Ramos told his brother priests at the second Auckland Diocesan Clergy Assembly, held at Wairakei from July 14 to 18.
More than 60 Auckland diocesan priests were at the gathering near Taupo. Bishop Patrick Dunn, in his welcome to the priests, said there are 65 diocesan priests in Auckland diocese, plus 20 from overseas or belonging to missionary societies such as the Columbans and the Missionary Society of the Philippines. The key point of the gathering, he said, is simply to spend time together, especially as the community of priests has changed noticeably in recent years — part of that being an influx of priests from overseas. As diocesan priests, we form close relationships with our parish family, Bishop Dunn said, but there is a real need, especially as we age, to come to know one another as we form a family of diocesan priests of Auckland.
The focus of the assembly was Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The presentations were given by priests of the diocese.
Fr Neil Darragh gave an overview, noting that the exhortation is a collaborative document, having come out of the Synod on Evangelisation held in Rome in 2012. It has in mind the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach. A question asked of the priests was: “What will I have to do to shift my time and energy to missionary outreach for the good of society in the larger sense?” It is not about sitting at home in the presbytery and waiting for the world to come to us. This missionary calling belongs to all the baptised, not just priests, although priests have a unique role to play. It is especially about solidarity with the poor, not just helping them. It is a call for structural change, but with an emphasis on the parish and asking the question: How much is the parish involved in missionary outreach?
Fr John Dunn re-emphasised the theme of the entire People of God as evangelisers by asking the question: “How do you build a faith community which faces outwards rather than inwards?” One practice he found helpful was before the beginning of Mass each Sunday having the people greet each other, with the pastoral council taking the lead. After Mass, this welcoming was extended to joining together for refreshments. If people do not experience community at Mass, where else are they going to find it?
Pope Francis gives special attention to the place of the homily in the Mass. This is “the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people”. The homily is “the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people”. Fr Pat Brady in his presentation made the point that the homily was not a lecture or catechesis or an exegesis on the biblical text. It is essentially a “heart to heart” dialogue between the preacher and the people.
The dialogue dimension was further emphasised by Fr Stuart Sellar in speaking of the spiritual motivations for mission, especially the importance of prayer. It is primarily in one’s inner centre that one finds that “missionary spark”, the energy to reach out.
Fr Francis Poon spoke of the “dark” side to this call to mission, namely the presence of sin that undermines the spread of the Gospel. The sexual abuse scandals have had a devastating effect upon the Church, but also a humbling and purifying effect. There is the temptation to “bunker” down from fear, to become selfish, to descend into a selfish pessimism and to become isolated both from our brother priests and from our people. The large number of priests living alone does not help this.
Social media have brought vast changes in communication, but those can add to the isolation.
Fr Ramos highlighted the importance of simple gestures, such as little acts of kindness. This has been exemplified especially by Pope Francis, with the many photos of him reaching out to the poor and needy, especially images from the washing of the feet ceremony and his kissing of the feet of those he washed. There is a special place in the heart of God for the poor.
Msgr Pat Ward and Fr Bernie Dennehy addressed the specifics of reaching out in dialogue with the world of science, with atheists, with other churches and with non-Christian religions, especially Judaism and Islam.
Another area of dialogue that came up in discussion is that of ecology, as the plight of the planet concerns us all.
Evangelii Gaudium blends in with the Auckland Diocesan Plan, Fit for Mission. Pope Francis highlights the organic nature of the structure of the Church. For the mission to be effective, it must enter into the heart of the Church, especially at parish level with priests and people together. The move forward comes from the centre.