Priestly Renewal

‘Stir into flame the gift of God’

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“I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and that I am confident lives also in you. For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tm 1:5-8).

I have a video of a riveting sermon given by the late Rev. Fred Craddock on this easily overlooked text from Paul to Timothy. “What’s happening here?” Craddock asks. “Could this be some other Timothy? The Timothy I know who appears in so many of Paul’s letters is described as ‘my right hand’… ‘my son in the gospel.’”

Timothy was one of Paul’s closest companions and most trusted assistants. Yet the tone of the Second Letter to Timothy suggests a Timothy who has become lethargic, who needs a rekindling of the fire that once burned bright in him, perhaps even someone who struggles with cowardice in the face of opposition, or timidity, amid the pressing pastoral needs of those young churches in Asia Minor and Greece. Could someone as trusted as Timothy, who played such a key role in the early Church’s growth, have needed such a strong exhortation to get moving and let the gifts of grace he was given in his vocation be renewed?

My own experience, and our collective experience as priests, affirms that this is so. Each of us knows in a very personal way that our spirits can droop from overwork, from our failures, from the disappointments we encounter, from bodies that grow ever older and less energetic, from the upkeep of buildings and the management of employees, or from the weight of our people’s sufferings and pain shared with us. Sometimes the burdens we carry can seem to outweigh the joys and life we find in our service to God’s people. The zeal and idealism with which we began our priestly lives can flag if the fire is not properly tended.

‘Great Time to Be a Priest’

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with a group of diocesan priests as part of their annual convocation. The night before I spoke, they were addressed by a bishop of a different diocese, who gave an upbeat talk that culminated in the affirmation, “It’s a great time to be a priest!” I was moved by his sincerity, his obvious care for the Church and for these men, and his faith; I left that talk encouraged and strengthened.

Yet I’m pretty sure this is not what many of us are feeling much of the time. We work long hours, which seem to get even longer. We’ve been deeply affronted by the Church’s failures, and we feel powerless. We see empty spaces in our pews, and we feel the chill winds of secular trends in society blowing in our faces. It may be a great time to be a priest, but it’s also a difficult time to be a priest, and we feel it. And if we don’t address what we’re experiencing, the harvest will be depression, anger, emotional distance, spiritual coldness, oppressive loneliness — or worse.

How does one “stir into flame the gift of God that we have through the imposition of hands” at our ordination? How might we tend that fire, nurture the passion of love for Jesus Christ, which drew us into this path?

In the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and similar programs, Step 1 is simply, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or drugs, etc.) — that our lives had become unmanageable.” There is a lesson here for us. For us, the first step may simply be to admit that we are discouraged, stressed, depressed, depleted, disappointed, tired and lonely. We have a problem. We need help. We can’t do it alone.

Another lesson we may borrow from our friends in recovery is encoded in the acronym, HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These are the danger points for us, and we dare not ignore these moments. We need to eat regularly and healthfully. When angry, we need to pray it out and talk it out and let it go. We need nurturing friendships, healthy sources of intimacy and wise mentors. We need regular and deep rest to restore energy and psychological balance.

Daily attention to the Lord’s presence is essential. Our prayer has to begin from our need and tap into the Lord’s promise of help. Prayer can’t just be putting in the time — although “showing up” is important, we have to be willing to make it a time of real relationship with Jesus. Some days prayer will be placid or sweet. Some days it will be a cry of lament or a share in the Passion.

Regardless — and no matter what prayer styles or methods we employ — it has to be real, and to be real it has to remind us that the work of ministry is, first and foremost and always, his work, not ours. This is what allowed Pope St. John XXIII, after another long day, to pray, “It’s your Church, Lord; I’m going to bed.” As caring men we can be prone to taking too much on our shoulders, both in the amount of work and in our attitude toward the things we do. But we can reflect: “It’s your parish, Lord. They’re your people. Take care of them, and just show me how to collaborate in what you alone can do and are doing. But right now, I need to rest, or have some alone time with you, or eat dinner with a friend.”

Rhythms of Life

If there are daily or weekly rhythms of life we need to abide by, there are also annual rhythms, transition moments and different seasons of life to which we also need to attend. We can start with an annual retreat. As we move into a new assignment, we need to find the time to grieve and let go of the old and open ourselves to the new.

As we age, we find advancing middle age, or even the “golden years,” upon us, and our needs change. Each of these moments in our life cycle holds challenges but also grace and opportunities for personal and professional growth.

The good news here is that the Church encourages us and supports us to take the need for all kinds of personal renewal seriously. Dioceses and religious communities set aside funds for clergy retreats and programs of continuing education. (And if yours doesn’t, you have every reason to lobby for that.) The Catholic Church has an outstanding network of retreat centers, and if one is not near, we are likely to find that many other churches do have places of retreat, which would welcome us.

In addition, there is an amazing array of educational institutions, too, many of which sponsor programs of ongoing formation, skill-building for pastoral ministry, spirituality, theology and other areas of interest. Our parishioners, too, generally understand and want to support us in our quest for spiritual nourishment and personal refreshment. In their own professions, they are likely to have requirements for ongoing learning, so they know what this means and how important it is — and they know they will benefit from a priest who is rested, renewed and still growing personally.

One of the sad things I’ve encountered over the years is the priest who has not opened a book or gone on a retreat or set aside time for an educational experience since he left the seminary. For some, the very suggestion seems to conjure up bad memories of initial formation.

Something has gone wrong here, and it makes me wonder why. Are our seminaries too much like hothouses, too distant in character from the life we will lead as priests, places that foster evaluative hoop-jumping just to reach a career goal? Are we teaching theology in ways that desiccate the life of the Spirit in us? I don’t know the answers. But, ideally, initial formation should nurture in us a thirst for lifelong learning, prayer and growth.

There is a burden here, too, for those of us who sponsor or lead programs of continuing formation for clergy. In retreats and programs of ongoing formation that I’ve been privileged to help lead over the years, I have always tried to maintain a balance that attends to and nourishes the whole person. Educational efforts, which only aim at the head or the development of skills, will succeed only if the participants also feel valued as persons with affective, social and spiritual lives. Every such program should have something of a holistic, integrated, retreat-like feel. I find that many priests like to get together and will look forward to the annual priests’ convocation if they are confident that the program and atmosphere will build relationships among them and with the Lord.

Let’s be honest here: while we have fine documents on this topic telling us that we are obligated to take continuing education seriously, on a practical level we Catholics have not done very well in this area. Many of us know Protestant and Jewish clergy colleagues who are required to earn a minimum of continuing education units each year and are held accountable for that. I only know one Catholic diocese in this country that has a system anything like that. That diocese incentivizes continuing formation by rewarding those who take it seriously with a periodic 90-day sabbatical. Maybe we need more of that.

But the real key, I think, is to approach our need for renewal honestly, and to see it as the exciting, life-giving opportunity it actually is. Jesus, Our Lord, wants to stir the life in us into flame. He wants to give us that Spirit of zealous love, which Paul held out to his junior colleague Timothy. Our ministry is that important — and we are that loved! — that we need to let Christ care for us and fan the flame within us.

FATHER MICHAEL E. CONNORS, CSC, is a pastoral theologian in the theology department at the University of Notre Dame and director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics.



“The term ‘ongoing formation’ is a reminder that the one experience of discipleship of those called to priesthood is never interrupted. The priest not only ‘learns to know Christ’ but, under the action of the Holy Spirit, he finds himself within a process of gradual and continuous configuration to him, in his being and his acting, which constantly challenges the person to inner growth.” — Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (“The Gift of the Priestly Vocation”), No. 80


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