A model of priestly life and vocation

Fr Jerome Lloyd has posted an article with the title Our Vocation. The conception is familiar to anyone who has come into contact with the Oratory of St Philip Neri. The Oratorian idea is taken and adapted to a situation that cannot be further from Rome in the sixteenth century! Some of the terminology is re-used, and many of Fr Jerome’s ideas are original and based on his own experience of priestly life.

Oratories of St Philip Neri are traditionally autonomous communities of priests from aristocratic backgrounds in major cities and centring their apostolate on the normal parish ministry in addition to the Oratorio, a prayer group with young lay people of all walks of life. Fr Jerome’s adaptation of the ideal involves lay prayer groups whose members do not live in the same house or community. He extends the notion of vocation beyond priesthood and religious life to emphasise priest and humanitarian work.

The Oratory seeks to assist every member to find their vocation and God’s purpose for them in this life and enable them to life in love with God and with each other in order for them to receive their salvation and their soul’s true desire [Psalms 63:1; 27:8 & Isaiah 26:9].

The notion of vocation extends beyond ecclesiastical ministries and often involves what a person does for a living, especially in professions that deal with people, such as teaching, caring for the sick and those in various difficulties and the legal profession – defending the wrongly accused or obtaining justice for those who are wronged. Teaching encompasses not only those with teaching posts in schools and universities, but also those who write and use modern forms of social communication like the Internet. If small and intimate groups of fellowship and prayer can help people find their way, this is indeed a beautiful calling.

This blog is aimed towards reaching out to priests who are alone and seem to have “failed” in their vocations. I cannot give them episcopal oversight or point them to the Church of their dreams, but at least to let them know they are not alone. On that basis, some might rediscover the spark of God’s grace and find their way wherever they live or whatever they do to earn their living and do for other people in a spirit of altruistic service.

What does an Oratory do? It brings together a small people for prayer and worship at Mass. Large numbers would also be welcome, certainly, but small numbers are more likely. People can be encouraged to lay their consciences before God and make their confession to a priest and receive Absolution. During the week there are opportunities too for catechesis, Bible study, discussion and social activities. This idea is extremely healthy, and it is something I began last year on a Friday evening in Dieppe with two Roman Catholic ladies, one English, who approached me for Mass in English. I find their motivations hard to understand, but I just have to tend the garden and let it grow without seeking to understand everything.

I find this idea of an Oratory more realistic than a parish. My idea of the Chaplaincy is not only inspired by the Church of England calling its Continental European missions Chaplaincies, but because it represents a notion of a priest who is available for any good work, and is approached by those who for some reason need God, the Word and the Sacraments. The idea is fluid, and it abides whether there are no faithful, just one or two coming from any Christian tradition, or a bus-load (which has never happened in my chaplaincy).

Fr Jerome’s ministry is urban. Mine is rural, and I simply don’t live where most people live – in cities. I can’t afford city real estate prices. Secondly, there is an ironic tendency for town people to get fed up to the back teeth of town life and have a house built in the country. Perhaps there is a way to be in contact with those people through participation in village activities such as farming shows and sporting activities.

The Mass video is a wonderful idea, and I am considering investing in a video camera and tripod to record Masses and homilies. The videos can be put on Youtube and seen by those with Internet connections. I have seen how Fr Jerome does it, and perhaps there are ways to improve “intimacy” by using a closer view, and the Oratorian manner of preaching – sitting and being informal. It has always been a problem for priests to locate sick people at home and in hospital wanting a priest. In this country, people take a very dim view of any kind of proselytism or taking advantage of weakness for the purposes of building up one’s “sect”. The Oratory can certainly take a page out of the book of the Society of St Vincent de Paul – lay people who hunt out the sick and housebound who would like a priest – and then you go for it…

Cell fellowships? It sounds complex, but perhaps it works. I suppose that in the concrete, most such cells would be families or retired couples living far away from Brighton. The idea is noted, but it seems to be suited only for a more evolved organisation of dispersed prayer groups referring to the same Church and clergy.

Fr Jerome divides the community into clerics and religious, committed faithful and sympathetic but less committed faithful. Again, I hope it works, but I find it a little fussy and perhaps intimidating to people who are wary of institutions and too much organisation.  A few years ago, I used to draw up ideas for institutes and brotherhoods of priests, and I quickly saw that my biggest fallacy was seeing myself as the superior and in a leadership role. I am not made for it. I am not a leader. One has to have the charisma, which of course can be used for good or evil.

In my own sporadic and informal ministry, I have always practised “open communion” with the only conditions that the person is baptised and believes Christ to be present in the Eucharist together with the standard doctrines of the Creeds. Therefore, most of those who come to me are French Roman Catholics, probably with canonical irregularities known only to themselves. I do not ask questions, and they are responsible before God for their own acts. I do not have the heart to be a lidless eye inquisition! Very often, their faith hangs by a mere thread – and I know what that is like.

I try to maintain an ecclesial and disciplined basis, and I refuse to make money out of ministry, but otherwise the less formal and inquisitive, the better. But, we have to keep open minds, and I am grateful for inventive ideas for working in God’s Kingdom.

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5 Responses to A model of priestly life and vocation

  1. frjeromeosjv says:

    Indeed dear Father, the organisational structure is a “working model” – only the realities of practical experience can shape what may ultimately be required and useful, but it helps to have some outline of how things might work.

    The idea of localised Oratories is indeed deliberately intended to move away from the usual concept and experience of a canonical, geographical and conventional “parish” and instead inculcate a familial sense of fellowship and to emphasise service i.e. of the members to the members and to the community. I’m not sure that a conventional parish setup works anymore in terms of inculcating true Christian fellowship, people come and go from church and their preferred service or Mass and “switch off”… doesn’t it seem generally to be always the same few who share all the tasks and concerns of running the place or of attending the extra-curricular activities? This seems to be true of all the denominations I’ve had experience of either Catholic or Protestant.

    The idea of the Oratory is to think small and personal, to try deliberately to recapture something of that sense of family that the Early Church described in Acts seems to have had. Where a fraternal greeting is genuinely meant without reservation, where the offer to pray for someone is gratefully embraced and not sheepishly acknowledged, where a member in need really can expect to receive help and support from the other members – both practical as well as spiritual etc. It requires of course, a considerable enlarging of the heart to achieve it and here the charism and the spirituality is all important founded upon and focusing on the Divine Charity i.e. the example of Christ and of the Trinity. One appreciates that a full “kenosis” is unlikely from every member, but a sincere desire to attempt such may yet enable members to come closer to the realisation of Christ’s teachings in their lives. Idealistic? Certainly. Achievable? Possibly, with enough effort and will… Its the striving and persistence that counts and I fully appreciate this approach won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, an Oratory or Cell and it’s manner of creating personal fellowship will be led naturally by the mix of its members and what they are able and prepared to share in their experience together. Its very much an organic experiment.

    As it is we have three possible Cells in conception, members of the Brighton Oratory who live some distance from the Oratory and in different locations.

    • Indeed, a Creative Minority theme, but human nature would tend to close off the group and make it elitist. When that happens, we’re back to the sclerosis of the parishes – and ordinariates! We Christians often don’t realise how few options we have left…

  2. frjeromeosjv says:

    That is something I’m very much aware of – we certainly don’t want to go down that route! Which is why ecumenical partnerships are so important. In reality we can’t do very much on our own due to lack of resources, material assets etc but we can co-operate with others in the delivery of apostolates.

    Everything we’re involved with in Brighton currently is in partnership with other churches. We are included in the conception, management, planning and delivery of the projects we’re involved in and are not just swelling volunteer numbers. That said, size of church membership is no indication of voluntary manpower and most mainstream churches struggle to find all the hands they need from among their own congregations to staff their own activities! Somebody offering to cooperate and work with them brings surprising alliances and regard. Afterall, we serve the same God!

    There are various advantages to such partnerships, it helps prevent us from isolationism and makes us observable to others, offers us some protection and provides the necessary systems and assurances required legally to be involved in certain apostolates where such systems might be difficult or prohibitive for us to obtain or maintain ourselves (types of liability insurance, registration/project/equipment/training costs, background checks etc).

    Similarly, the concept of the Oratory invites those of other confessions to participate with us, both in the projects we’re involved in and in our own activities such as Scripture study and social events etc and even our worship – an open invitation… Again, with the deliberate intention to prevent an insular and ultimately elitist mind set. While the Faith doesn’t change, it must be retold afresh to every generation and outside interaction is an obvious way to keep us on our toes, to explicate and defend (when necessary), keeping the Faith alive. I’m personally at my best when challenged to give account of the Catholic Faith and of course, St Peter himself tells us to “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you …” (1 Peter 3:15).

    • I really treasure your input, Father, because it stimulates me to think and express things clearly.

      Institutions are weighed down by the very things you mention, motivated by a “nanny state” to overprotect its citizens – hence expensive background checks and psychological screening, health and safety, a life without risk, special qualifications and credentials for doing things good people just volunteered for in the past. A person abuses a child and precautions have to be taken against the rest of humanity! So unless we belong to the organisations that provide all these things and have the money for it, a lot of things are out of our reach.

      I would love to teach kids to sail, but I’m only at level 4 of a system with 6 levels and 2 extra levels to become an instructor. In short, you have to be in your 20’s and hyper-fit! So, I can sail a boat safely, perhaps take a kid out to crew for me when there’s almost no wind and the sea is like a mill pond. And so is the world. It’s bad enough this side of the Channel, but in England… But what can be done is to get a group of adult sailors (each at his own risk) together with our boats and go on a cruise, and – – – maybe – – – bring up a vaguely spiritual subject without the high stone walls of “anti-church” feelings shooting up as if on springs!

      With French people, and I suspect elsewhere too, a good subject to bring up is the afterlife, because many people believe in that without formally being Christians. Common ground and all that…

      Here in France it’s the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants in some places. If the RC’s have the slightest suspicion you are an irregular priest, forget it. I got away with participating in the Naviclerus sailing regatta (event reserved to priests, seminarians and religious – all RC except me) last year because it seemed that the TAC was almost in communion with Rome! Things are easier in England, and the non-conformists and some Anglicans are very open.

      So those are the limits that dog us, and drive us into isolation. And so, like you, I practice “open Communion” (baptised Christians with faith and an apparently good intention). As I mentioned, almost all those who come to my Mass are Roman Catholics by origin and baptism. They know I am not in a proper situation with their Church, so they do what they want in life. I’m not answerable to the local RC parish priest. We do need to develop discussion sessions on doctrine, Scripture and spiritual life. That is specifically “church” and not regulated like the Boy Scouts or outward-bound activities for the kids.

      What I meant about elitism is not so much isolation, as is inevitable for minority Churches, but that we should maintain an attitude of poverty, abnegation and humility – knowing that we are just surviving in a world that is incredibly hostile to Christianity. Read Walter Cizek’s With God in Russia and Werenfried van Straaten’s Where God Weeps. That is the kind of courage and humility we need.

      Avoid over-institutionalisation, which I’m sure you do, and keep everything really simple.

      • frjeromeosjv says:

        Both excellent books – things are not quite that bad here(!) but even so… I get your point! “Keeping it simple” is absolutely our modus vivendi and “keeping it real” i.e. spiritual, meaningful and practical i.e. “lex orandi – lex credendi – lex vivendi”. Striving for heaven with a healthy appreciation of our condition, trusting fully in God’s Grace (Christ, Sacraments, Church) and providence “God is faithful to those faithful to Him” is a phrase I used almost daily throughout Lent. The two Great Commandments are the basis of our core values and shape our attitudes towards everything. Our Rule of Life is very simple:
        to love God
        to love neighbour
        to love one’s soul
        to love the Church
        to love the Scriptures
        to love the Sacraments.
        In explicating these again we keep it very simple and they pretty much speak for themselves; they are never presented in a numbered format for they are equal and interchangeable and reflect the overall commandment, to love God. The “Church” of course refers to the “one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” of the Creed, infers the Communion of Saints, universal Tradition – as well as our own local and particular fellowship – and ALL the Baptised – our intention here is to simplify an appreciation of the whole Church Militant. Baptism IS the universally recognised common core principle of membership of the Church and so we recognise ALL baptised Christians; not ignoring our differences, but recognising first our commonality. Starting from the position that (a little tongue in cheek perhaps) “every baptised Christian is a Catholic” [… some just don’t know it yet] we can maintain an open mind and look to find ways in which God is seeking to effect a unified witness in His Church. Of course, some of the differences are unavoidable and perhaps incontrovertible, but if we start at the point of commonality, we can gradually deal with or get over the rest in the pursuit of charity… maybe or maybe not in our lifetime but hey, we’re working with an eternal perspective here!

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