|Blessed John Paul II as a young priest|
If you have ever been part of the ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation, you have been asked the question, "How did you meet the Movement?" The question is inevitable. And usually, the answer involves other persons. "I met so and so and they invited me." "I went to a lecture and the presenter moved my heart." "I read an article online and called the author." One of the interesting things about Communion and Liberation is that it is constantly proposing Christ, but it does so through the methodology of friendship. It models itself on the method used by Christ.
In the beautiful document entitled, Pastores dabo vobis, ("I will Give You Shepherds") Blessed John Paul II says that the priest is to make present in the midst of the flock Christ the Head and Shepherd of the Church. He does this, of course, in the Mass and in the confessional, but he does it in a thousand other human interactions, as well. These every day interactions between a priest and his people strengthen their bond, deepen their love, and draw them closer to Christ. To sacrifice these every day interactions would be to lose a key evangelical method and to weaken the special bond that exists between a priest and his people.
Is it true that on our deathbed, a Catholic will take any priest to bring them the sacraments? Surely. Is it true that the Mass is always the Mass whether it is offered by Pope Benedict XVI or me? Of course. But, Catholic people are often introduced into these truths by a priest with whom they have established a particular bond. The gospels list the names of the Twelve Apostles. Jesus chose particular men. Catholics come to encounter Christ through particular faces and particular priests.
Let me offer one small example. Recently, I met a high school student who is not particularly close to the Church. I'm not sure why that is the case, but he isn't. Circumstances put us together. Before long, this young person who has probably never spoken to a priest was joking around and even giving me a hard time. In that time together, I recognized that Christ was using this particular priest in this particular moment. It was in our convesation together that Christ was opening up a small possibility of drawing this young person into the life of the Church. In Christianity, particulars matter. This young person had a small taste of the friendship of the Church because he had the opportunity to spend some time with a priest.
I think of Blessed John Paul II who spent countless hours of his life engaging young people not just in the classroom or at Mass, but also on hikes through the woods, canoe trips, and other excursions. It was their friendship that kept these young people close to the Church. The priest should be a witness to Christian friendship.
Priests ought to waste a lot of time. We ought to waste time going to cookouts and parties. We ought to waste time standing out in the school yard. We ought to waste time playing board games with the high school youth group. We ought to waste time looking for the one lost sheep. Sometimes, in searching for the one lost sheep, you wind up winning over 99 lost sheep. The priest ought to be close to his people, not distant.
Every so often, like all parish priests, I get a phone call from somebody whom I have not seen in a long time. They are usually experiencing some sort of great trial or burden. They call because along the way they established a friendship with a particular priest and they need that friendship again. They need Christ, the Head and Shepherd, but it is through this particular priest that they most easily and readily can find Christ. Can they find him in every priest? Of course. But, into their life God sent a particular priest and it was this particular priest that ate with them, joked with them, taught them, and loved them.
These moments are also important for the priest. A shepherd is sent to a particular people. His heart grows and is educated through the exercise of this ministry. The priest has to be, in a very real sense, the first witness to the communion of the Church. A pastoral plan for the future has to be the plan of Christ himself. Christ lived a friendship with his disciples. This method is frustrating because it leaves open so many opportunities for things to go wrong. It is not scientific. It risks so much! We want a plan that guarantees results and that is low risk. Christ risked everything on his apostles. He risked that the friendship that he offered to them and that they encountered would ultimately win the day.
I think that a plan that is truly pastoral must be a plan that brings pastors closer to their people. Over the past few years, we have spoken a lot about people's attachments to their church buildings. And, I understand this attachment and don't underestimate it. Particular places are important. But, I wonder if we should not be emphasizing the friendship of the Church and the communion of life shared between pastors and people. It is this friendship that is the method for communicating the gospel. I'd risk everything on this friendship because that's what Jesus does.