On Being a Priest in Contemporary Ireland

On Being a Priest in Contemporary Ireland

Fr Denis Hartnett mhm

“Give your opinion about what a priest in Ireland needs to be at this time in our history.”

I was asked to write an article on the above topic and as a result I found myself reflecting on what a long and expansive title it is. Do they not realise that I am not a theologian or scripture scholar or a philosopher or a writer but I am a simple missionary priest who is now living and working in Ireland?

The Church, as laity and priests in Ireland have come through a lot in recent years together, especially coming through the scandals of sexual abuse committed by some priests and religious against the most vulnerable in our society, little children. It is a shameful part of our history, a part we can’t deny but hopefully we can learn from and avoid the danger of minimisation, the danger of denial, the danger of distortion and the danger of lack of ownership of that history. The lessons of history are not how we behaved in the past but how we behave in the present.

The Church and its priests are also challenged by secularism, materialism and indifference. The real challenge for us priests is to walk the walk in our daily lives through being people of truth, people of commitment, people of generosity, people without chips on our shoulders, people who are positive and not negative, people who project the human face of God to all who are on the journey of life, and people who are open to all who seek to fulfil their potentialities as people created in the image and likeness of God their creator.

What does a priest in Ireland need to be at this time of our history? I reflected and discerned what this could be and I was left with a single image, a single word, namely, “stories”.

Listening to stories and telling stories helped our ancestors live humanly. Perhaps somewhere along the way our ability to tell (and to listen to) stories was lost. I feel that every priest in Ireland at this time needs to be a storyteller and a story listener in order to find positive meaning in ministry as a priest.

Listening to stories as priest’s means being available to people in a gentle and compassionate way. Listening to stories as priest’s means sharing in the joys, the hopes and the despairs of the people we journey with. Telling stories as priest’s means speaking the truth, seeking justice for those marginalised or ignored. Telling stories as priests means safeguarding the most vulnerable in our society, the little children. Telling stories as priest’s means articulating the church’s message that God is love and that we are called to live in love.

Listen! Listen to stories! For life itself is conveyed by stories, which use words in ways that go beyond words to speak the language of the heart. Jesus’ whole life was a sharing of his story, was a sharing of his journey within the stories and the journeys of those who listened to him.

Stories allow the listeners to draw their own conclusions. Jesus spoke in parables; this was a unique form of storytelling that allowed the listeners to search for meaning, to create new possibilities, and new journeys.

We priests as storytellers in Ireland at this time in our history need to practice the spirituality of imperfection, that is, a spirituality of not having all the answers. Stories convey the mystery and the miracle, the adventure of being alive. The spirituality of imperfection through story telling allows the priests to minister in an inclusive way, it allows for a journeying together with our fellow travellers, it allows for a human sharing that embraces and exudes the love of God.

Love exists, evil exists, beauty exists, spirituality exists, and these are the realities that have always been recognised as defining human existence. We do not define them, they define us. When we attempt to define what a priest is at this time in Ireland, we discover not its limit but our own. Life is not what we “have” or even what we do, connected as these may be; we are what and how and who we are.

We priests in Ireland at this time in our history as storytellers can share our lives in an open way, in a way without answers, in a way that allows the spiritual. Someone once said, “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.” We priests in Ireland today need to be in the spiritual space of so many who have experienced hell in their personal lives or who have had hell imposed upon them by the abusive actions of others, especially those who were sexually abused by some of our fellow priests.

We priests in Ireland at this time of our history need to remember that God comes through our wounds and not through our theological positions, or our clerical self –importance or our self-introspection as priests in a world of clerical issues that have nothing to do with the great story of God’s faithful people. Spirituality transcends the ordinary, and yet, paradoxically, it can be found only in the ordinary, in the ordinary life of a priest living in Ireland as a storyteller, as a story listener.

Stories communicate what is generally invisible and ultimately inexpressible. Of all the devices available to us as human beings, stories are the surest way of touching the human spirit. We priests in Ireland today should listen. Listen to stories! We priests in Ireland today should tell. Tell stories! For what stories do, above all else, is hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves. Stories are mirrors for human beings, reflecting back our very essence. In another’s story we can discover our tragedy and our comedy and therefore our very human-ness, the ambiguity and incongruity that lie at the core of the human condition.

Jesus was the master of listening to stories. Jesus was the master of telling stories. Jesus shows us the priests of Ireland the way to be priest, that is, listen to stories and tell stories. Story telling involves not just talking about something, not just reading about or considering something, not even doing something; it involves actually experiencing life in a new way.

We priests in Ireland today both as storytellers and as story listeners can allow ourselves to practice the art of humility, to embrace the gift of gratitude for what we have, to open ourselves to the possibilities of God working in us and to live in our own stories and in the stories of those who travel life with us.

We priests in Ireland as storytellers will no longer be shackled by our tentacles of clericalism, by our detachedness, by our dogmatism, by our need to have all the answers, instead we will live in the lives of others in a way that is real, that is spiritual, that is human and that is the way of Jesus the storyteller.

We priests in Ireland today are like everybody else on a spiritual journey, we need to be like everybody else and not different than everybody else. We priests in Ireland today need to reach out to others in the ordinary of life; press the flesh as it were and allow God to be God and allow the Holy Spirit to blow through the stories of our lives. We priests of Ireland have to remember that we are all looking for, but we find what we are looking for only by being looked for. We find miracle only when we stop looking for magic and this is especially true for all priests everywhere but especially for us who are priests in Ireland.

We as priests in Ireland need to stop blaming others for our current state. We as priests in Ireland can’t continue to blame our bishops who are our fellow priests for all our difficulties, or blame them for our past and present mistakes no matter how raw they may appear to be. We as priests in Ireland can’t continually live in a perpetual state of finding fault everywhere except in ourselves. We as priests in Ireland can’t sit in clerical groups engaging in bouts of self –pity within an aging bubble of clericalisms. We as priests in Ireland have created our history and we have the possibility of creating our future if we can live in the present as storytellers, as listeners to stories, as fellow pilgrims journeying through life within the stories and lives of our fellow travellers. We need to remember again and again that the lessons of our history are not how we behaved in the past as priests but how we behave as priests in the present.

The question is not whether we as priests in Ireland have stories but whether the stories we have are negative ones that lead to isolation and negative institutional clerical group think, or whether we have stories that are positive, transforming and life giving. Our destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things. We priests of Ireland today, travel as pilgrims on a pilgrimage of life. We keep moving one step at a time because we know that staying still is nowhere.

How you do anything is how you do everything. Jesus as a storyteller and as a story listener needed time to process his stories. We know that he would withdraw in prayer by himself in order to be able to make sense of his mission in the stories of others. We priests of Ireland today need to be people of prayer. We priests of Ireland today need to be people of faith. Faith in the sense that it spells out Focusing Action In Transforming Humanity, beginning with the priests ourselves.

There has to be continual transformation as I have already said, our destination is never a place but rather a way of being priests in the present and not in the past or in the future, priests only in the present. Stories allow priests in Ireland today to give birth to the present in the spirituality of imperfection as seen through the art of storytelling. The stories of life and death, the stories of faith and doubt, the stories of vulnerability and strength, the stories of being and doing, the stories of being positive or being negative. Let our stories be life giving ones that are brimming with hope in positivity for ourselves and for all those who meet us.

In conclusion, we can say that we as priests in Ireland today need to be storytellers and story listeners. We priests need to give birth to new stories because as long as we seek new stories we will grow and find new meaning as priests in this time of our unfolding history in Ireland.

As soon as we priests in Ireland stop seeking, we stop finding. The story of what a priest in Ireland needs to be will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

Denis Hartnett MHM
Mill Hill Missionaries
50 Orwell Park
Dublin D06 C535

25th January 2017

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