Dear Brother Priests:
This year marks 150 years since the death of Saint John Vianney, Patron of Parish Priests. In February of 2010, we will also commemorate the 1600 th anniversary of the death of the hermit-priest Saint Maron. During this opportune time called The Year of the Priests, allow me a few personal reflections on the priesthood with the hope that what has helped and supported me would also benefit you.
Beyond the influence of my parents, family and friends, there have been some other defining elements: Spiritual Direction, the Ministry of Peter, and the Maronite Church. I will reflect on these as well as a few other disciplines that help keep our priesthood, healthy, happy and holy.
Throughout my seminary, priestly life and service as a bishop, I have seen my spiritual director on a consistent basis each month. These wise priests were my confessors and confidants. I left no matters hidden from them and in each session I would be challenged, comforted, advised and, by the grace of God, absolved of my sins.
This past year, my spiritual director, Father John King, S.J., died of a brain tumor while I was in Lebanon. From the initial diagnosis to his final breath it was a short two months. I visited him in the hospital and finally in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University. During my last visit, I asked if his right hand still worked: “Are there any more blessings and pardon to be found there?” I placed his hand on my head. He smiled and with the little energy he had left, thanked me “for being there” for him and then he blessed me. It was the last time I saw him.
His death was one more opportunity for me to “review my life”, as he would say to me each time he would hear my confession and give absolution. Since Father John, I have been able to find a retired priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn. So the journey continues.
There are many wonderful priests who make good spiritual directors. We thank God for them and we ought to seek them out to help us. Spiritual direction is essential for those who want to be more accountable, more honest with themselves and more at peace with God.
The Ministry of Peter
Unlike the Orthodox Churches and Protestant communities, the Catholic Church has an authority and a magisterium located in the person of Peter’s successor. This supports our unity and clarity of apostolic teaching.
When I was a seminarian at Catholic University of America, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope and took the name of John Paul II. At that time, I was told by some very popular professors that he writes too much, travels too much, dominates too much (thank God this spirit has changed at Catholic University). It took me two years to realize how little they knew! His teaching, pastoral love, and the warmth and strength of his personality, forged in the crucible of personal, national and global hardships in twentieth century Europe, have left a legacy that historians will write about for years, maybe centuries, and has very much left its mark on me personally.
Pope John Paul II was followed by faithful co-worker and clear-thinking Pope Benedict XVI. The magisterium of these two successors of Peter is priceless. Whether the issue was one of ethics, morality, biblical insights, Church governance, or how to be Christ’s apostle in today’s world, my personality and love for Christ and His Church has been forever changed by the successors of Peter.
Pope John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences on the Theology of the Body and on Mary, Mother of the Church, as well as Pope Benedict’s Encyclical God is Love and his clear annunciation of the role of faith and reason in Christian life are just the tip of an iceberg. The Pontiffs help us love the Church, preserve the unity, safeguard the apostolic teaching, and share in the wisdom that comes from holiness and love. Every priest owes the successor of Peter fervent and willful assent and obedience. This makes all the difference in our lives.
The Maronite Church
If it were not for the Maronite Church, I would not be a priest today. In the early years of my home parish of Our Lady of Lebanon in Flint, Michigan, we met in the homes of parishioners and worshipped in a grade school auditorium, an abandoned grocery store, and finally our own church. This “missionary” era of my life has profoundly marked my love for Christ and His Church.
The rich spiritual heritage of the Maronite Church has much to offer “born” Maronites, who may know little about their great spiritual inheritance, as well as Maronites by “choice,” who take great pride and appreciate this heritage.
I would die for the Maronite Church. There is no other way to describe my appreciation for Her. This Church is worthy of all the love, spiritual energy and hope we can give. I pray in this Year of the Priests that we priests will treasure the gift of being Maronite, and see ourselves as loving fathers to our parishioners and as missionaries of Christ in the world. One can only wonder if Saint Maron ever imagined the beauty and faithfulness of his Maronite Church.
Closeness to family members and friends is a grace for priests. Not only does it take the edge off loneliness and gives us confidants, so important in life, but it also makes our lives more joyful, less troubled and more meaningful.
Personal retreats and times of silence are important. The Eparchial Annual Retreat, obligatory for all priests, is not enough. We also need time alone in solitude. Likewise, a routine of morning and evening prayer, in which we sanctify the day by Safro, Ramsho and silent prayer, is also essential.
Spiritual reading should be part of our intellectual and spiritual discipline. Classics such as TheCloud of Unknowing, Dark Night of the Soul and Story of a Soul are a tremendous help in stirring our soul to deeper union with Christ. Likewise, modern classics such as Reaching Out, The Holy Longing, No Man is an Island by Fathers Henri Nouwen, Ron Rolheiser and Thomas Merton respectively are also a good source of insight and help. Our own Syriac Fathers, Aphrahat, Ephrem, and James of Serugh, are likewise sure guides. We ought to take the time to nurture our spiritual lives with such reading.
We must be careful with movies, novels, the internet, etc. The way we spend our time alone and our leisure time is important. We should know our own personal strengths and weaknesses. We ought not live in a protective bubble, however, as St. Paul says “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure…think of these things.” (Phil 4:8) How very true this is for us priests.
Lastly, the lives of the saints are worthy of our reflection and imitation. St. Joseph “Patron of open hearts” and “Virgin who cared for the Virgin” as our liturgy describes him is our model of chastity, self-control and self-offering love and care in the service of others. Likewise, Mary, Mother of Priests, given to us by Jesus Himself at the foot of the Cross, continues to stand next to her priest sons as she did with the Apostle John. We are not alone during our difficult times, Mary, is always there with us.
Brother priests, I hope you will find in these brief reflections some assistance and encouragement. Spiritual Direction, the Ministry of Peter, love for the Maronite Church and other disciplines that we willingly and eagerly undertake for the sake of our friendship with Christ, support a healthy, happy and holy priesthood.
In this Year of the Priests, may the prayer of Saint Maron, the Cure of Ars and all holy priests be forever with us. Mary, Mother of Priests, pray for us.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+Gregory J. Mansour
13 November 2009 Prot. No. 685/1/09
Feast of St. John Chrysostom Circ. No. 09.30
(Reprinted with permission.)