Thursday, March 19, 2015


Having been invited to write an article on Priestly Spirituality* my first thought was how difficult it is to define what we actually mean by ‘spirituality’ 1   Like love or happiness we have the experience but find it difficult to know or explain the meaning.  S. Paul saw a “spiritual person” as someone in whom the Spirit of God dwelt or who lived under the influence of the Spirit of God 2 but, increasingly, the term is being separated from its religious roots.  However for us it will be intrinsically connected to the matter of holiness. ‘(This) quest for holiness is the quest for God, and that quest turns out to be God’s quest for us.  Christian spirituality implies an understanding of what it is to be human, and what it is to grow as a human being.’  

For me spirituality concerns my need to respond to the Other so that I am taken beyond myself and grow into the fullness of life.  Or, to put it another way: that which is most real in me desiring to reach out to that which is most real in the Other.  What follows is based on the way my own experience, not least during my time as a Franciscan (and in what follows I will be making some use of The Principles of Life of the First Order of the Society of St. Francis), and through directing other priests over many years.

I would first observe that this desire for union with the Other lies at the heart of our priestly calling.  Whilst ministry may form its expression it is not its essence, for that can only be found as Cor ad cor loquitur.4   Vocation concerns the heart of being which our actions express.  Sadly, for many, the demands of ministry can over-balance the call to intimacy and relationship and doing can easily replace being in our desire for meaning (something not unique to priesthood): ‘If our personal and (ministerial) life is not founded on the solid rock of a mystical encounter with Jesus Christ, sooner or later it will collapse and die.’ 5  

Some of the difficulty around this matter of developing a ‘healthy’ spirituality may arise because so much of the catholic tradition that has inspired priestly vocation is rooted in celibacy.  Many of us will probably have been inspired by the lives of people such as the Cure d’Ars, enthused over stories of heroic 19th cent. slum-priests or been moved by Michel Quoist’s The Priest: a Prayer on Sunday Night 6.  But these are connected with a celibate calling.  Even Michael Ramsey in his classic work 7 only addresses ministry and says little or nothing about the wider context of a priest’s life.  So I would like to suggest that a healthy priestly spirituality takes into account our primary relational calling, otherwise our partners can easily become merely adjuncts to our ministry.  Before we begin to consider developing a specific priestly spirituality we need to recognise that we are called into relationship and the I-Thou that connects with our deepest need is to be realised in every relationship in which we engage.  Yet whether a priest is celibate, partnered or single the essence of our holiness is tested through our human relationships and a growing realisation that, whilst we are wounded and broken, we are loved to the depth of our being.  Any authentic priestly spirituality will take seriously the need to give time and space to our own call to love and friendship.

Perhaps the concept of the priest as alter Christus (another Christ) comes closest to the heart of priestly spirituality.  Not in the way the term has been used to argue that only a man can be ordained to the priesthood but in the sense that we are all called to ‘put on Christ’ 8   Christ be in my head, hands, feet – and especially my heart.  Our priestly calling expresses this need to let go of our ‘false self’ that the ‘true (Christ) self’ may live in particular ways 9.   Just as all are called to be an icon of Christ so it will be that as each of us gazes upon Him that He will be reflected in our lives.  Whether we like it or not priests are often regarded by many as ‘threshold-keepers’ who, because of their familiarity with the Divine, are able to assist others encounter and make sense of what lies beyond.   So our spirituality needs to be nurtured by keeping ever-fresh our desire for God.

Arguably this desire for the Other is at the heart of what we mean by prayer.  We are called to create that space in our lives in which God can work within the heart/soul 9Praise and prayer constitute the atmosphere in which (I) must strive to live. (I) must endeavour to maintain a constant recollection of the presence of God and of the unseen world. An ever-deepening devotion to Christ is the hidden source of (my) strength and joy.  Yet the demands of ministry can marginalise prayer.  So I must, therefore, always be on my guard against the constant temptation to let other work encroach upon the hours of prayer, remembering that if I seek in this way to increase the bulk of my activity it can only be at the cost of its true quality and value.10   How hard that is for many of us!

A few years ago during the Exeter Conference we were encouraged to develop ‘Fresh Expressions’ of Catholic spirituality.  The point was made that we might do so not just for others but for our own benefit.  As a consequence I began a weekly Holy Hour on Thursday and a contemplative Vigil Mass on Saturday evenings.  None came to the former; some found the latter helpful.  But the greatest beneficiary was me as my own spiritual life was enhanced.

As to the Divine Office we are required to celebrate, it is clear that the Benedictine-based Divine Office doesn’t suit everyone. However any priestly spirituality needs to be nourished each day by scripture and prayer to make certain these are central to our calling.  Our spirit – the truest part of the self that connects with the Other – also needs to be offered adequate silence and space (including Retreats and regular Days of Reflection) so that we avoid being ‘trapped’ by our ministry with the consequent withering of our humanity.

Finally, as Catholics, the Eucharist is central to our priestly spirituality 11.  Benedict XVI went to the heart of this when he stated that the essence of priesthood was "astare coram te et tibi ministrare" - “to stand before Thee and worship in Thy presence.” 12   But our Eucharistic spirituality needs to flow beyond the Mass.     The Eucharistic sacrifice we offer is made real as we seek to discern the holiness of everyday life.  Our calling is to incline the heart to thankfulness that we may notice the real presence of Christ in all things.  Priestly spirituality involves living with the intention of making of each moment an offering to God whilst recognising the fundamental importance of our human brokenness.  Like all spirituality it will be rooted in seeking to develop the grace of true humility, for the maxim ‘know thyself’ is the tap-root of the spiritual life. 13   This grace is ever unfolding and its outworking will, again, be something to process with our spiritual director or, where necessary, therapist.

All this needs to be addressed by our personal Rule of Life.  But I would like to suggest that, as we seek to create an appropriate Rule, we first consider the ‘principles’ of our calling.  Before creating a Rule, which tends to be dogmatic, we need to reflect on the circumstances in which we live, the unique personalities we are, the particularities of our relationships and types of ministry we exercise etc… and notice what gives us life, meaning and purpose.  Then to wonder how all this can help develop an authentic spirituality.  For example, how do I realise God’s love for me?  What relationships in my life need special attention - how do they reflect God’s love?  How does the Reign of God call to me and find expression in my life?  What are my particular gifts and abilities?  What gives meaning to my life?  The SSF Principles took all this into account and provided a framework and fundamental ethos to our life, providing an ‘overarching narrative’ by which we sought to live.  At its most basic, such a narrative will identify the norms and values which give meaning and purpose to our life and, hence, our spirituality.

The priest is a human being seeking to live out of his or her vocation to union with the Divine.  Our spirituality is both an expression of and means to develop that calling.  Each of us wants to be the best priest we can be, yet: ‘When any person is appreciated for what he (sic) does, he is not unique; someone else can do the same work perhaps even better than he.  But when a person is loved for what he is then he becomes a unique and irreplaceable personality.’ 14   For me the concept of priestly spirituality emerges from and helps deepen the unique being I am and reflects the whole of life.  I am called to the terrible journey of integration 15 whose source is to be found in silence and stillness and worked out in relation to others.  Yet, as we open more of ourselves to the God who would love me into being, so we recognise what draws us more deeply into life.  Priestly spirituality, rooted in this humility, realises the call all have to divinity as we return moment by moment to stand before God with faith, hope and love that we might truly become alter Christus - another Christ.

John-Francis Friendship SCP

* This article appeared in the magazine of the Society of Catholic Priests in 2013


1 Definitions … of Spirituality and Religion – Georgetown University.
2  eg. Eph. 5.16/18
3  Rowell, Geoffrey; Spirituality in the Anglican Tradition (an essay from An Introduction to Christian Spirituality). SPCK. 2001. P.125
4  ‘Heart speaks (un)to heart.’  Motto of John Henry, Cardinal Newman.
Address to the Benedictine Abbot’s Conference 2004 by Abbot Bernardo Olivera OCSO
6 Quoist, Michel: Prayers of Life. Gill and Macmillan.1963
7 Ramsey, Michael: The Christian Priest Today.  See esp. p. 6/7/10
8 Gal. 3: 27/28; Phil. 3:7-14
9 ‘Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent…etc.(Declaration from the Liturgy of Ordination of Priests)
Eph 1: 15ff
10 ‘The Principles of Life of the First Order of the Society of St. Francis’  (Amended)
11 SCP Rule of Life
12‘The priest is one who faces God and waits upon Him.  The priest is the eyes of the world fixed upon God, and the hands of the world lifted up in worship before Him.   The priest lives his (sic) priesthood most intensely when standing before the altar.’ Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, Silverstream Priory,  Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. 
13 Humility is the recognition of the truth about God and ourselves, the recognition of our own insufficiency and dependence, seeing that we have nothing which we have not received. It is the mother of all Christian virtues. I must remember that when I am always confident that I am right and eager to impose my opinion on others, especially my partner, I will be unhappy as chafing under the discipline of correction. (The Principles of Life of the First Order of the Society of St. Francis.  Amended)
14 van Breemen, S.J., Peter G. As Bread That Is Broken . Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, Inc., 1974  p.9-15. 

15 ‘The courage to be is the ethical act by which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation’ (Paul Tillich). 

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