Subject: Young Priests Challenged To Sanctify Local Church


Young Priests Challenged To Sanctify Local Church

By Hipolito Aparicio

October 27, 2008 | TL06020.1521 | 1399 words Text size

DILI (UCAN) -- Lay Timorese, even very simple Catholics living in villages, have been talking intensively for nearly a year about a Church in crisis.

The crisis was caused by clergy sexual abuse, which led to some priests and nuns abandoning their vocations or Religious commitments during the past year.

The bishops of Dili and Baucau dioceses have not publicly responded to the issue, but the "public secret" is constantly discussed on every street corner.

In his book The Courage To Be Catholic, American theologian George Weigel says "crisis" has two meanings in the Bible. The more familiar one is cataclysmic upheaval, breaking up what seemed fixed and sure. We've certainly experienced this sense of "crisis" these past years. But "crisis" could also be an opportunity, a moment ripe with the potential for deeper conversion.

If crisis-as-cataclysm is to become crisis-as-opportunity in Timor Leste's Catholic Church, today's crisis ultimately must be seen as a crisis of discipleship, one of fidelity, and its only remedy is genuine fidelity.

Sanctity is the baptismal vocation of every Christian, the ultimate goal of the sacraments, but not every Timorese Catholic understands its true meaning.

Ever since I was a child growing up in a Catholic family, I've heard many feeble ideas about sanctity. It was attributed exclusively to priests because only they could talk to God. People came to believe this when they saw the very first missioners reading their breviary and praying the rosary every day in front of the community. The people concluded that only priests could pray.

Today, our old people say, "In the past, we would see breviary, rosary and sacred pictures in the bag of priests (missioners). Now, young priests run around very busy with projects, probably with only calculators in their bag."

Weighty attributes are credited to the priest in Timor Leste. In Tetum, the local language, he is called "Na'i-Lulik" and "Amo-Santo," meaning sacred man. Such expressions bestow on him all manner of trust, respect and reverence.

Laypeople never imagined a priest would try to do what a layman could. The old evangelization may have given them such ideas about sanctity. In any case, today's Timorese Catholics were scandalized to see a priest and a pregnant nun so easily leaving their calling without one word from their Catholic leaders.

This dimension of the crisis touches everyone in the community of baptized. Regardless of our state of Christian life, we all share responsibility to help turn crisis-as-cataclysm into crisis-as-opportunity. We need to examine our consciences and ask if we are leading thoroughly, intentionally, radically Christian lives of discipleship, staking all on the Lord, reminding ourselves daily that it is his kingdom for which we pray, his Church in which we serve.

"Re-evangelization" has been declared the pastoral strategy and priority of Dili diocese, led by Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva. As a layperson, I think this is imperative if today's crisis is to become an opportunity for genuinely Catholic reform.

Such reform cannot mean turning the Catholic priesthood into an imitation of the various types of ministry found in other Christian communities. Reforming the Catholic priesthood can only mean reform in which Catholic priests become more intensely, intentionally and manifestly Catholic. In other words, especially in Timor Leste, "re-evangelization" should be seen as "Back to Christ," starting with the Catholic hierarchy.

Some experiences may be worth noting. During a two-day gathering of alumni of Fatumaca, a famous Salesian technical school in Timor Leste, one nun spoke of the family of Nazareth as model for the Christian family. She greatly stressed marital fidelity in describing the challenges that laypeople face.

In a follow-up session, Salesian Father Elisio Locatelli broke the silence by encouraging the past pupils to challenge the nun: "Why do you keep silent just listening to priests and nuns tell you about fidelity? Why don't you ask if they remain faithful? Fidelity should be required not only of laypeople."

All in the room were suddenly stupefied. It was the first time for some to hear such an unusual challenge.

Another time, at a celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the Salesian presence in Fuiloro/Lospalos, a famous agriculture school run by Salesian priests in our country's easternmost district, I spoke about the "prophetic mission of Catholic youths in the context of Timor Leste." One participant then raised a question concerning some priests involved in sexual scandal.

I responded that priests are human -- not angels, nor even saints. I also said it is seldom reported that many good and faithful priests working in Timor Leste have left their homelands, families and friends for years and are keeping the promises they solemnly swore on their ordination day. They spend their lives in service to Christ and the Church of Timor Leste.

The fidelity of so many priests in our country is a great grace. Thanks to them, many new seeds for religious vocations continue to grow and will bear much fruit in Timor Leste. Many missioners then will be sent to the countries that previously sent their sons and daughters to our lovely country. So the best we can do is pray for them, visit them regularly and give them sincere advice and support when needed.

Clerical sexual misconduct has as many explanations as there are complex human personalities, but its fundamental cause is infidelity. The crisis of commitment, fidelity and fatherhood is rooted in men not fulfilling their call to be "real men." Such men model themselves on Christ, lay down their lives out of love and learn what it is to be a father from our Father in heaven.

When a priest says at the consecration "This is my Body," not only does Christ speak through him, but the priest offers his own life and that of the people to whom he is called to serve.

If a seminarian lacks a deep desire to get married and have children, he may need to rethink his vocation, for these are a healthy man's natural desires of the heart. He must recognize that a priest truly is a married man and father. Standing "in persona Christi," the priest is called to embrace the Bride of Christ, the Church, as his own spouse. A great danger for the priest is to fall into a "bachelor mentality," which can become a selfish, disembodied and non-relational life.

"Back to Christ" means priests again keep the promises they solemnly swore at ordination and spend their lives in service to Christ and the Church. The priest is always a priest, not a simple functionary performing ritual actions, but configured to Christ in the depths of his being by an ontological change.

Like all the faithful, he is called to a life of holiness. What he received at ordination is dynamism for priestly holiness. The more he assimilates his life to Christ and submits to the gift he received at ordination, the more he will be a credible witness to the faithful and edify the Body of Christ.

To avoid misinterpreting Timor Leste in this crisis, it is now the right time for the Catholic Church to be more open minded in answering questions, especially regarding seminary formation. The questions range from recruitment and screening, to education for chastity and about the approach to be taken to the issue of homosexuality. Laypeople in Timor Leste also raise questions about confession and the sacrament of reconciliation among the ordained.

Catholics have a right to ask such questions. They also are entitled to get answers and be reassured that seminary formation programs are on the right track, forming priests sound in their faith, sexuality and dedication to the priestly life. These concrete issues should be part of the so-called "re-evangelization" that Dili diocese has announced is its pastoral priority.

In his 1992 apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis ("I Will Give You Shepherds"), Pope John Paul II spoke of future priests as "balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behaviour."

As our seminarians become such priests, let us hope and pray that "night is not the end of the day, but night is the beginning of the next day."


Hipolito Aparicio, 48, was born in Timor Leste where he taught and directed Catholic schools for many years. More recently, he has served as a translator and been involved as manager of numerous NGO-sponsored projects.

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