Dear Rev. Fathers,
It is with great joy that I welcome you to this 9th Presbyteral gathering of the Archdiocese of Colombo since my taking over the reins of pastoral responsibility here back in August 2009. These are challenging times as we are facing a complex socio-economic, political and cultural paradigm shift especially in the aftermath of the war in this country. In the economic field Sri Lanka is moving forward even more intensely into the open market system with its resultant economic free fall, widening the gap between the rich and the poor, inroads made by secularization, technological advancement and higher interest in education and the increasingly dominant trend of the absorption of value systems of the global market economy. With the advances made especially through IT awareness, the traditional ways of our societies are undergoing drastic changes. With all of these, religious and moral values and the very role of religion itself in society has begun to be questioned. Things taken for granted decades ago have begun to lose their importance or are put on the crucible of rejection. In short the conviction that one could find happiness also through an a-religious existence is gaining ground. It will not be long before we will see the emergence of a generation of youth that will reject religious and moral values altogether or make the practice of religion just a peripheral experience in their lives like in some of the western societies. This is happening to some extent already now in our cities and suburbs. Structural religion especially those with institutions like Churches, Sacraments, hierarchy may get marginalized and non-structured religious ideologies and systems like Buddhism may gain ground. In this kind of scenario Church attendance may dwindle, so too vocations to priestly and religious life, secular values may become more attractive to people. The phenomena of television, internet, facebook, twitter, etc., more and more openness to sexual adventurism, increasing consumerism, the international schools with their basically secular outlook, crisis in family life, increasing attacks on the value of life, “syncretistic” tendencies in religious practice and corruption, diminishing respect for law and order, increasing poverty and the activities of the underground are also becoming more and more visible. I am not reading out a litany of pessimism but just cautioning you on what seems to be emerging. All of this affects the Catholic community too and then there is the increasing challenge from the Christian fundamentalist sects on the one side and from the Sinhala Buddhist extremists on the other side. The phenomenon of the lack of true reconciliation in the post war scenario between the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka is also a worrying factor for the future. All of this brings about new challenges to our pastoral mission in the Archdiocese of Colombo. The old system does not seem to work anymore. We need to, in the first place, take a good look at ourselves and our own pastoral priorities and options. And on the basis of that we need to change our strategies and make them more effective.
Option for the People
In this, the most urgent of options that need to be taken is that of being more people friendly and connected to the base. There is no better way in counteracting indifferentism or defection to other more secular looking forms of Christianity: the “come as you are” type, which lays no obligations on any one. In this, Pope Francis is giving us a very good example. His keenness to be as close to the ordinary people as possible is a great change in the Church at that level. This reflects true pastoral charity which is that quality with which Christ loved the people and most specially, the less privileged ones. He was a peoples redeemer if we can coin such a phrase. And in the same way, we too have to be people’s pastors. We cannot be cut off from the people but as shepherds we need to be profoundly connected to them – in a spousal sort of relationship. That was how Christ loved humanity. Blessed Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter Pastores Dabo Vobis stated: “the priests life ought to radiate this spousal character which demands that he be a witness to Christ’s spousal love and thus capable of loving people with a heart which is new, generous and pure, with genuine self - detachment, with full, constant and faithful dedication and at the same time with a kind of "divine jealousy" (cfr. 2 Cor. 11:2) and even with a kind of maternal tenderness, capable of bearing "the pangs of birth" until "Christ be formed" in the faithful (cf. Gal. 4:19)” [PDV 22]. By divine jealousy here, he means, those words of the scriptures which explain God’s relationship with the people of Israel as that between a husband and his wife [Ez. Chapter 16]. In the same way each and every one of us, given the charge of a parish or institution, is practically married to that reality and must love that parish or institution entrusted to us with a spousal sense of concern, in imitation of Christ who loves the Church as His spouse [Eph. 5: 25-27]. And then the basically people oriented identity of the priesthood becomes clear also from what the letter to the Hebrews states: “every high priest, taken from among men is constituted for men in matters that pertain to God: “pas gar archiereus ex anthropōn lambanoumenos huper anthropōn kathistatai ta pros ton theon” [5:1]. And so priests are taken from among men and constituted for men in matters that concern God. Thus our call is ontologically oriented towards mankind without which connection we would be absolutely nothing or no one. We may be everything else but not a priest. Thus, to have a heart that loves the people entrusted to our care, wishing to serve them and bring them closer to God and ready to be spent for the cause of their salvation is that which makes us truly priests.
For that very reason, my dear fathers, it is important that you give everything to God and to your people, as the great pastors of the caliber of St. John Mary Vianney did, suffering with your people and for them with great joy and enthusiasm. This is not so much a matter of the head as much as of the heart. St. John Mary Vianney stated once: “the priest is not for himself, he is for you.” [The Little Catechism of the Cure of Ars, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. Rockford, Illinois 61105, 1951, p.35]. And so, dear fathers we ought to love our faithful dearly and long to be of service to them especially in matters concerning their relationship with God. It is truly edifying sometimes to hear of priests about whom people speak glowingly and write to me asking me to keep them in their present parishes even if they have passed their regular five year term.
Some Practical Options
This shows that being a good shepherd zealous, committed and loving is the most effective way of combating the allurements of secularization on our people and their possible drifting into indifferentism or their defection into the fundamentalist sects. They will never leave us if they feel wanted and loved by us. And so, as priests we need to do everything possible to know and love our flock and associate ourselves closely with them. We must never be task masters to them, keeping away from them, ill-treating them or heaping burdens on them which they cannot bear. We ought to get rid of any bureaucratic mind set with regard to them or any dictatorial or hardline attitudes. Pastoral love is also the very reason why we should respect their dignity, be exemplary in our behaviour and avoid scandalizing them. We must love them but never treat them as objects at the receiving end of our orders or our own decisions. This also means great respect for the dignity of all including the more vulnerable ones, the poor, the sinners, the womenfolk and children. That is why I wrote to you all in my July 2013 Koinonia message proposing several steps to improve your relationships with your people, especially in the parishes. I wish to read out to you once again those proposals.
a) Get out of the “office day” mentality and be as available as possible for them in the parishes, throughout the week,
b) visit each and every family personally, coming to know them, blessing them and encouraging them to be strong in the faith,
c) organize cottage group Masses with your BCC or ASIPA groups, and show that you care for their spiritual well being,
d) go visiting the sick in hospitals or at home, listening to their confessions, giving them Holy Communion and being always available for sick calls, day or night. Sending the Rev. Sisters or Brothers or Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion only deprives the sick of the chance of receiving the Sacrament of reconciliation and of their meeting their shepherds personally,
e) after Sunday Mass, if it is possible, go down the aisle, shaking hands with the people and talking to them and asking them as to how they are faring. This would be a small gesture but can send a powerful message that you really wish them well,
f) arrange at regular intervals parish community get-togethers with short eats and tea so that a strong sense of community binding may take place,
g) follow up closely the Sunday school, the associations and specially the youth and children in the parish; your loving care of the children and youth will also send a powerful message to their parents,
h) organize, if possible, school holiday study and exposure camps for youth and children in places like Subodhi, our Retreat Houses, the houses at Belihuloya, Madampe or the latest that will be added, i.e. Ma-Eliya and Waradala.
i) prepare with care the Sunday and feast day sermons so that over a period of three years the people could be enriched with profoundly spiritual thoughts and gain a proper catechesis,
j) organize the liturgical services well, especially community singing and participation, celebrate the sacraments devoutly, very specially the Most Holy Eucharist. Seriousness and faithfulness to Liturgical decorum and the requirements of the norms would be the best way to convince the people that what happens at the altar is something profoundly divine and transforming and so be able to raise their hearts and minds to God. The use of Mass leaflets, hymn sheets, ushers and a conductor of assembly singing would help much. The celebration together of the Liturgy of the hours would also be a way of appreciating the common priestly office of the people,
k) learn to treat especially the laity with dignity and encourage them to collaborate with you, in keeping with their talents and views, in the common pastoral outreach of the Church in your parish. Respect their views and try and make them active partners in your own pastoral mission, especially in the area of the administration of temporal assets of your parish,
l) never take a judgmental or rejectionist attitude towards those who do not agree with you or who are indifferent and sometimes criticize you even for the flimsiest of reasons. Be nice to them too showing them that you are above such things and are genuinely interested in their salvation.
m) have a special love and closeness to the poor, the suffering and those whom others call “sinners”; create a sense of awareness among your people about the rule of charity and the need to be specially concerned about the poor and the suffering. In this, it is very important not to appear to be treating the materially richer people with special affection and respect while disdaining the others,
n) never fear to work closely with the laity and so take the Parish Pastoral Council seriously and share your concerns with them entrusting to them most of the tasks especially in the area of financial and temporal administration. Never fear to periodically at least present your parish and other accounts to them and avoid any actions which may lead them to suspect your sense of honesty in such matters. Your openness to them can also be enhanced if you voluntarily conduct a survey in your parish to find out whether they are happy with you and your work or what new proposals they wish to make for the improvement of your service in the parish or institution.
Respect for the Poor
Another very important way in which we can make ourselves become “lovable” by our people is not to offend the sensibilities of the poor in anyway. It is an area in which human dignity can be offended very easily. There is no problem for our people if we live happily and look after our physical and material needs as everyone else does. Our people do understand that we need rest and recreation, that we need to have decent meals, have a normally comfortable bed and our privacy. They also understand that we need a conveyance to move about attending to our duties and that to keep up with the news we need a radio or television or a computer and perhaps internet facilities. They also understand that we need to pay water and electricity bills and pay a cook, a sacristan or a driver in some cases and that we need money to do that. But they do not and cannot understand and thus are scandalized if we refuse to serve them without putting money as a condition. If we demand from them cash for buildings or repairs or for the celebration of jubilees, etc., when we surely know that they cannot pay, if we instead of purchasing a normal vehicle we go for the latest flashy version, the Prados and the Volvos and fix these up with the latest options. But, if we travel about in ordinary means of transport or reasonably efficient but normal vehicles of our own they understand and do not mind. In celebrating our Church Jubilees, tiling the floor of the church, extensions to wings of Churches or new mission houses, applying inter-locking stones to the gardens, etc., are good but they are not essential. What is most important is the spiritual upliftment of the parish, not just the external celebration. And so each time we celebrate a jubilee, if the celebration is visualized in terms of repairs or extensions to buildings or beautifying them rather than the spiritual renewal of the community with good confessions, programmes of adult catechesis, strengthening good singing and participation in the Liturgy, family visits by the parish priest, formation of cottage groups, strengthening of parish associations and apostolates, encouragement of family rosary, greater care of the sick and the elderly, assistance to the poorer sections of the parish, attention to the youth and children and a parish mission, then the jubilee is a failure. Dear fathers, it is offensive to the faith and a counter witness to insist on re-building the Church or beautifying it at great cost to the people and causing harassment and embarrassment especially to the less fortunate ones when collecting money from them, even if the parish councilors want it, as part of the jubilee celebrations. I am not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate but that priorities should be the spiritual matters and not the externals. It is also offensive for us to, on the occasion of Church feasts or jubilees, fix up a sound system in all the streets of the village or town, blaring out sales ads or songs the whole time and disturb the entire neighbourhood, which may include people of other religions too. And certainly harassing especially those who cannot give any cash for construction projects is not at all acceptable. And so let us be extremely sensitive to the suffering of the poor and never ever scold them from the pulpit if they find it difficult to contribute. Such harassment can be a sin that cries to heaven even if it is for the beautification of the Tabernacle or the Sanctuary of the Church.
Loving unto the end
All these orientations dear fathers constitute a tall order but that is what the Lord wishes us to do by loving our flock, as He did loving them upto the sacrifice of the Cross. The Gospel of John introducing the washing by Jesus of the feet of the disciples states: “now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come……… having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end” [eis telos hegapehsen autous]. Yes, loving His own and then loving them unto the very end was His mission as the supreme high priest of God. His mission was love. And that is our vocation too. And so dear fathers, pray for your communities, especially for those whose hearts are wayward, those who live in sin, those who do not respond to you or who even criticize and obstruct your mission. For, Jesus did pray for those who nailed Him to the Cross. Understand the beauty of the Eucharist you celebrate which is the highest expression of your love for your flock, for there, at the altar, you celebrate your own loving and self-effacing sacrifices of priestly commitment for your people. This is the true way of strengthening their faith and of helping them to find true redemption in Christ.
I wish to wind up this appeal to you all with the words of Pope Francis, delivered during a sermon he gave at the Chrism Mass held at St. Peter’s Basilica on 28th March 2013: I quote. “a good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the anointed one, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord; ‘pray for me Father, because I have this problem, “Bless me Father”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the people of God’………
This, I ask you: be shepherds with the “odour of the sheep” make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men…… dear priests….. may our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; may they feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the anointed one, came to bring us”.
And so dear fathers, as the Holy Father requests we as shepherds should be marked by the “odour of our flock”. We should feel their smell: “Janathawage ganda suwanda dennennata ona”. We need to feel their joys, anxieties, suffering and be touched by them; feel that their names are written on our vestments as we celebrate the Eucharist and truly be their anointing – their anointing with the Spirit of the Lord which should come to them through us. If we do that and if we are that to our people no secularization or wealth or persecution or harassment or any misleading ideology or sect would be able to take them away from us. And so let us make that commitment with a generous heart especially during this period of trial and uncertainty.
Feeling for our people
+ Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith
Archbishop of Colombo