About our concern for pupils and other things
Fr Zbigniew Suchy talks to Archbishop Jozef Michalik of Przemysl, President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference.
Fr Zbigniew Suchy: – Your Excellence, the meeting of the diocesan bishops at Jasna Gora is over. We learn from the communiqué about the Church’s concern for the Georgian nation, the victims of the flood in Ukraine and the victims of our Polish cataclysms. However, the media reported mostly about the proposal of terms of parish priests. Let us then draw the news about this subject as well.
Archbishop Jozef Michalik: – Wars and sufferings done by people to other people have always evoked great anxiety. Indeed, we are looking at the events in Georgia in this spirit; we can see one nation harming another one. With sorrow have we heard the news about the devastations caused by floods in our neighbours in the East. The latest wound is the disaster that afflicted the Polish community, caused by the whirlwind. The scale of damages is huge and our reflection was not to turn our attention to this fact – since help has already been given by the Polish Church through Caritas – but it was an attempt to intensify the help through money collections in churches all over Poland. And these were the basic topics of this short meeting. There was also the problem of irremovability of parish priests and the media took it up because it is catchy and interesting for many minds. I would like to reassure you that through this project (terms) we do not intend to harm anyone. The Church is a living organism, feeling the worldly problems, in which we are to serve. The problems change very rapidly and priests have to follow these changes somehow. We are far from completing this project. It will be worth consulting deans and priest councils at wide forums during traditional congregations. Then the conclusions will be presented and discussed during the plenary meeting of the Bishops’ Conference and possible decisions will be sent to suitable dicasteries of the Apostolic See.
– We are facing a change of the model of parish priest. At first, a parish priest was irremovable; he was the father of the parish who died among his children; then he retired and now we speak about terms. Don’t you think that we are becoming slowly immersed in the formalism of administration and not in pastoral care?
– Well, we should probably return to the apostolic times consequently, i.e. to the first communities and parishes that were ‘dioceses’, and perhaps remember about various pastoral concepts, e.g. the first concept of pastoral theology worked out, as you know, by Franz S. Rautenstrauch in 1777, with its main thesis: the subject of pastoral activities is only one single priest, not understood as a servant of the Church and Christ but rather as a servant of religion and state anthropocentrically and naturalistically understood. Even today there are followers of this experience and form of pastoral ministry. The 1950s produced new conscious theologians who turned their attention to the erroneous shape of this concept and consequently to its fatal effects, for example in preaching in which historicism and psychologism dominated over the kerigma of the Good News.
New proposals are not always ideal but it is worth trying to make the methods of pastoral ministry better. Therefore, in this spirit and in this understanding we should see all these reforms that have already been introduced and these ones we are considering introducing. Let us imagine a situation when a parish priest is so tired and ‘burnt out’ that he only ‘endures’ in the parish. His bishop tries to support him by giving him new assistants but it does not help much. One cannot replace him because he is still irremovable. It is a negative picture. Let us have a positive image: for example, there is a dynamic priest in a parish in some city; he has good ideas; he has created structures that other people can continue without him. Shouldn’t we use him by placing him in another parish that needs his experiences? As far as the problem of living to the parish until death, as you put it poetically ‘dying among children’ is concerned, it is not worth narrowing the problem. The whole Church is an area where a priest can realise his spiritual fatherhood. Moreover, every period of priestly life is a challenge to constant maturing in this fatherhood. Even this short time of obligatory retirement brings good examples. It is true that a senior priest can discover the gift of time after his first experiences of dissatisfaction and difficulties to find his place in this new situation. Experienced in prayer he begins or continues his powerful spiritual work. He embraces, like a rosary, the whole Church with prayer, council and even suffering. So there are no ideal solutions and one can even say that concepts or projects as such cannot change anything. The important thing is to form your priesthood as service, as ministry and being for others. At the moment of ordination a priest experiences the greatest love: the choice – unity with Jesus himself. He can meet nothing greater in the world of the spirit except blissful eternity.
– I will ask somewhat teasingly – what if we introduced terms for bishops...
– I think that it is not a necessarily teasing question. I opt for this possibility. By the way, bishops use retirement, and because of their age or other reasons they give up the administration of the dioceses and undertake other forms of ministry. Yes, I am in favour of the possibility of terms for bishops. This may come naturally. Recently, we have seen a diocesan bishop who returned to Poland and began the ministry of an auxiliary bishop. It is a good sign for all people.
– Before you went for the meeting at Jasna Gora you had said that you would talk about priestly crises?
– Yes, this year has been very painful for me and I have been deeply moved by various forms of priest breakdowns. One looks at these cases differently when one can hear about them in other countries or dioceses. However, when you must look at the face of a depressed priest it is a completely different experience. We are all weak and sinful but we must struggle with our weaknesses, get over them, fight with ourselves and be faithful to our first oath. When you break some promise once it can shake your whole hierarchy of values.
– Perhaps the case is that a young priest, squeezed into some catechetical structure and bureaucracy when he begins his ministry in a new parish with paper work in his old school and then in his new school, simply loses his identity and accepts the mentality of someone who only does his job?
– These are strong words and they may contain something of digression from the press. I must say that no media speculations and digressions of the so-called concerned discussants will incline me to change my stand. Teaching religious instruction in schools is tiring and exhausting but it is a great benefit for which I cannot see any alternative now. In my previous diocese during the times of the saintly and very zealous Bishop Wilhelm Pluta only 10-15% of the vocational schools and grammar schools had religious instruction. And what did this outstanding bishop do? Believing intuitively that Lord God would show mercy for this nation he prepared lay family councillors and he organised a three-year formation for them. When it was possible to teach religious instruction in schools, we had 500 teachers of religious instructions for all teaching posts within three weeks. During this Pauline Year it is worth reading the Acts of the Apostles from this angle. How much effort did the Apostle dedicate to make the Good News known and spread? The place is not a problem. The problem lies in our priestly zeal and sense of responsibility to make the name of Jesus known. I have heard about a missionary who worked thirteen years in some African country and he never had a single Catholic funeral. Even the catechists were buried according to the local tradition. The only ‘success’ was to shorten the time of mourning that sometimes lasted one year – until all members of the tribe or family visited the place where the deceased had lived – to eight days. After these eight days they invited their relatives for Mass. Shouldn’t we ask about the sense of sending other missionaries there?
We have places, centres and a challenge, which is the formation of faith of our youth and their parents. We ourselves cannot do much but sometimes, and exactly always, this helplessness of the sincerely believing teacher of religious instruction opens him to the Holy Spirit and the Spirit will tell him which ways to follow. When all things fail you have confidence in God and people. But it must be active, dynamic confidence.
– The number of priests will decrease. This year we have had a 50% decrease in candidates in our seminary. Is it only a matter of demography?
– Not only. This is an important signal. And demography is even an alarm. Several months ago I administered the sacrament of confirmation in some parish. There were 28 candidates. I asked how many children received the First Communion. The parish priest answered: 14 and only four children were baptised! And this is also an important reason. The prognosis says that soon our population will have 7 million people less. Certainly, there are more reasons. Shallow faith and lower ideals, flowing from promotion of comfort in life, have great influence on the decrease in vocations both in seminaries and in religious congregations. Family warmth, altruism and asceticism of daily life are dying. Young people are not trained to make sacrifices, to renounce things and to be obedient; the liberalisation of behaviour destroys respect for the virtue of chastity. Besides the decrease in vocations we will have a decrease in dedicated teachers, doctors, soldiers. Unselfish politicians and others will disappear completely. Therefore, it is a great challenge for the whole nation. Families have always been the places where vocations begin. Healthy, stable and dedicated families are the basis of society. This is worth thinking about.
– Traditionally, September is the beginning of the new year, not only school year but also the beginning of another stage of pastoral activities. What can we wish you for the coming months?
– Great trust in Lord God is needed. We must look at what awaits us with faith. Divine Providence has the last word in this world. When the Victorian world was dying at the beginning of the past century the reality was lined with religious scepticism and doubt. The atheist and philosopher Muggeridge announced triumphantly, ‘Christian religion was suspended, replaced by religion of progress, commanding people of good will to prepare themselves to new duties. No God is needed. He should be acknowledged as dead or retired.’ And what happened? He could see Europe giving birth to great converts in the world, just to mention Oscar Wilde, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Graham Green or Sigrid Undset. Looking humbly at oneself, trusting Lord God and people as well as sincere prayer and zealous work will bring about a fruitful seed of the Gospel.