A call to spiritual renewal and deeper commitment
It was breathtaking.
Thousands of priests, their white garments flailing against the wind, marched the 1.2 kilometers stretch of Roxas Boulevard from World Trade Center to Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City for the 3:30 p.m. closing Mass of the Second National Congress of the Clergy.
Visibly energized by the inspiring conferences given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, who guided the five-day retreat congress, the priests were all praises with what transpired during the congress.
“[It is] very exciting to see 5,500 or so priests gathered solely to pray, celebrating the Eucharist, reciting the Holy Rosary and going to confessions and observing the Holy Hour,” said Fr. Joey Faller, a priest from the Diocese of Lucena and famous for his healing ministry.
Fr. Fidel Penafiel, parish priest of Coron, Palawan said the challenging talks and the spirit of camaraderie among brother priests have boosted his feelings and increased his desire to serve his flock and God more faithfully.
The clergy congress, held at the World Trade Center from January 25-29 has assembled 5,542 priests across the country. Some priests from abroad also came to participate while others who were here for one reason or another at the time of the congress took the opportunity to join. Close to a hundred bishops also participated in the congress as the event was held right after the 100th plenary assembly of the bishops’ conference.
Organized by the Episcopal Commission on Clergy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the event was the highlight of the Philippines Church’s celebration of the Year for Priests centered on the same theme: “Faithfulness of Christ, faithfulness of priests.”
Msgr. Gerardo Santos, a member of the program committee said the basic objective of the congress was to provide the priests a deep and religious experience that will hopefully lead to a spiritual conversion and greater commitment.
Speaking before the 5,542 priests-participants that filled the massive hall of World Trade Center during the opening of the second congress on January 25, His Eminence Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales noted the surge in number of participants. The first congress, considered historical and unprecedented because of its 4,000 participants paled in comparison with the second congress at least in terms of attendance.
“…we have broken our own record by filling this hall with more than 5,000 priests,” the cardinal exclaimed.
Former Ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta de Villa, chair of the NCC II Central Coordinating Committee said they ran out of kits and other materials since they only prepared 5,300 of these. So those who came late had to make do with what were given them, prepared at the last minute.
But like a mother speaking fondly of her children, De Villa was all praises for the clergy.
“The priests are so very nice. They understood, nobody complained that one has none what the other got. I guess that’s also a gift of the spirit,” De Villa said.
An event waiting to happen
Cardinal Rosales said the convening of a second congress for the clergy was an event waiting to happen since it has been thought of many times as soon as the first congress in 2004 concluded.
The first congress was held at a time when controversies hounded the Church because of the accusations of sexual misconduct among some of her priests, particularly in America and Europe.
It was different this time though, as it was convened as a response to the call of the Holy Father for the entire Church to celebrate meaningfully the year for priests which the Vatican has promulgated to mark the 150th death anniversary of the saintly cure of Ars, St. John Mary Vianney.
According to the cardinal, two attempts have been made since 2004 to assemble the clergy once again since many of the participants of the first congress had asked for a follow up of the first congress.
“There is spiritual hunger in the priests and that passion among them to meet brothers again and that desire must be encouraged and sustained,” the cardinal said during the opening of the second national congress.
Another try was made when the Holy Father went to Sydney, Australia to preside the World Youth Day celebration. The thought of having the pope very near to the Philippines again inflamed the desire to hold the congress of clergy. But as divine providence would have it, again the effort did not materialize.
Nonetheless, the grace of God indeed strikes when the time is right. On March 16, 2009, in a meeting with members of the Pontifical Congregation for Clergy, Pope Benedict XVI announced a special year for priests beginning June 19, 2009 to June 19, 2010 to commemorate the 150th death anniversary of St. John Mary Vianney.
Year for Priests
In establishing a year dedicated to the clergy, the Holy Father wanted to lead the priests into a deeper reflection of the greatness of their priestly vocation. At the general audience on June 24, 2009, the pope explained that the celebration aimed to encourage the priests in their striving for spiritual perfection.
“The purpose of this Year for Priests, …is therefore to encourage every priest in this striving for spiritual perfection on which, above all, the effectiveness of their ministry depends, and first and foremost to help priests—and with them the entire People of God—to rediscover and to reinforce their knowledge of the extraordinary, indispensable gift of Grace which the ordained minister represents for those who have received it, for the whole Church and for the world which would be lost without the Real Presence of Christ.”
The Vatican proclamation signaled the right time for the CBCP Commission on Clergy to put into action the congress plan that has been long prepared, merely waiting for the right time to be implemented. The plan for a second clergy congress was ratified during the CBCP Plenary Assembly last July 2009.
A call to renewal and deeper commitment
Chosen preacher for the five-day congress was Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, who electrified the clergy with his charismatic preaching punctuated with singing of songs Amazing Grace (obviously his favorite hymn) and Lord, Here I Am, and inviting participants to resounding proclamations of God is love, Christ is risen, etc.
During the congress, Cantalamessa delivered five meditations which he always began with a solemn invocation to the Holy Spirit.
Iba Bishop Florentino Lavarias, who currently sits as the chair of the Commission on Clergy said, “Fr. Raniero invited us to call upon the Spirit, precisely because the congress is focused on interior renewal and every renewal is the work of the Spirit.”
Cantalamessa’s conferences delved on the three important elements in the life of the priests—the Eucharist, the sacrament of reconciliation and the gift of celibacy.
The Capuchin monk expounded on the importance of the Eucharist in the life of the priests, urging them to be focused on the person they are representing, who is Jesus.
He also led the clergy to realize that relationship with Jesus is also a relationship with the Holy Trinity which eventually flows out to others.
Cantalamessa led the clergy to meditate on the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation on the third day, guiding the priests to look into themselves and their unworthiness, not to devalue themselves, but to acknowledge the failures committed and receive the gift of forgiveness.
The penitential service followed by the sacrament of confession was one of the highlights of the five-day congress. The entire plenary hall with lights dimmed and entirely quiet, conjured in mind the imagery of the prodigal son seeking the loving forgiveness of the father, as priests lined up to confess their sins to fellow priests.
“It takes a priest to understand his fellow priest,” Faller said of the confession.
Capping his talks on the last day, Cantalamessa focused on the gift of celibacy which according to him is founded in a special relationship and trust in and with Jesus.
The life of celibacy gives the priests wings to fly. Because of celibacy, the priest is able to give his undivided attention to the Lord. It is not a burden, he said.
“As a marriage without love is an empty shell or even hell, so is celibacy without love for Jesus can be an empty shell,” Cantalamessa said.
“This state of life is best of all a relationship with Jesus. We are not an unmarried people. We are married only not to a creature, but to the Creator,” he stressed.
Relationship in the life of the priest is relationship with God the Trinity, relationship with the Church and relationship with himself.
Bishop Lavarias, reflecting on the issue said that alongside recognizing one’s lack of fidelity is the acknowledgment of God’s fidelity toward us. Speaking on a personal note, he said, “I believe that for us priests, Jesus is fidelity… that I often take for granted, but taking that for granted I lose sight of my ministry, the fidelity of one who called me that I need to manifest and share to his people.”
A graced moment
Preacher to the Papal household since 1980, Cantalamessa gives meditation every Friday during seasons of Advent and Lent to the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops and Prelates and General Superiors of Religious Orders.
“This is really a graced moment,” De Villa said of the retreat. “…Fr. Cantalamessa is such a spiritual man, and yet very human also in his approach. He just really came precisely for the congress upon the invitation of Cardinal Rosales,” she added.
De Villa said Fr. Cantalamessa was also moved by the big assembly of priests that he remarked, “Only in the Philippines can these things happen, so many priests in one gathering.”
The former ambassador said NCC II surpassed the international gathering of priests in Ars, France held August last year in terms of number of participants. That international retreat assembled only about 1,500 priests worldwide.
To the participants, the words of Fr. Cantalamessa evoked a refreshing newness, challenging them to a creative response to their priestly commitment.
According to Fr. Fernando Suarez of the Companions of the Cross, also known as the healing priest, the greatest challenge for priests is how to be sensitive and relevant and make people listen, attract and influence them to go back to God.
Holding up banners bearing names of their respective dioceses, the sight of chasuble-clad clergy in procession for us members of the flock was a quite a statement. We come face to face with the reality that our clergy whom we often put up on a pedestal are but human beings like us. They too have feet of clay. But the realization should not stop there.
Just as they minister to our various needs and walk with us in our spiritual journey, we too ought to accompany them with our prayers that they remain faithful to their priestly commitment.
This was what Cardinal Rosales stressed once again in his homily during the closing Mass calling on priests to live steadfastly their priestly vocation.
“The priest will, therefore, start his renewal on what is essentially priestly. The priest is a creature of the Holy Spirit by virtue of his anointing… Once anointed, the priest shouts to the entire world that he already belongs completely, and for all times, to God!”