Homily by Rev. Fr Chris Mathaha The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Rev. Fr Chris Mathaha. Posted by St John Vianney Seminary NPC. on Sunday, May 30, 2021
Key note address: SJV Graduation, 19 October 2016
Formation of Merciful Pastors in the Context of Amoris Laetitia.
Rev Grand Chancellor, Bishop Dabula Mpako
Rev Father Rector, Fr Paul Manci
Members of the Faculty of this esteemed seminary
Father Bishops, Reverend Priests, Brothers and Sisters
Other distinguished guests, students, families and friends.
The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (AL), on love in the family, calls for the formation of pastors who would minister to people, to families, beginning in the families’ own contemporary life experience, even going out to where they are, seeing their situation with their perspective, and in the light of the Gospel, leading them to the fullness of life as God would want it. Pope Francis presents a vision to intensify the Church’s pastoral response to the challenges of family life in our contemporary society so that all may experience and live in the joy of love.
What kind of pastors are needed for this renewed impetus in pastoral ministry? And how do we ensure such pastors are the ones who leave the seminary fully equipped to fulfil this pastoral vision? This is the question I’ve been asked to address, the Formation of Merciful Pastors, in the context of Amoris Laetitia.
Let me remind you, dear friends, of the ecclesiological vision of Pope Francis, a vision that is clearly marked by one of merciful service, of meeting people where they’re at. He provides the vision in the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World:
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. [EG 49]
This idea of a church that – because of its mission of service – makes itself vulnerable (that is, woundable, from the etymological root) is repeated in several places in AL, esp para 308 – even if our ‘shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’ (quoting EG 45).
The merciful pastor is one who is vulnerable, accepting discomfort, insult or hurt, modelled on the Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified. Such a pastor too needs to be ‘born of friendship with Jesus Christ’ and have his ‘security’ in him, in order to bring others into the same friendship and security. He is prepared to go to the periphery; the shepherd is prepared to smell like the sheep (to paraphrase Pope Francis, Chrism Mass Homily, 28 March 2013).
PARAGRAPHS 202 AND 203 OF AMORIS LAETITIA
With the above background, let me go directly to the post-synodal document and quote what it says about formation of seminarians. Paragraphs 202 and 203 are significant.
A More Adequate (Pastoral) formation
- … Along with a pastoral outreach aimed specifically at families, this shows the need for “a more adequate formation… of priests, deacons, men and women religious, catechists and other pastoral workers”. (Relatio Finalis 2015, 61). In the replies given to the worldwide consultation, it became clear that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families. The experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon.
Three sentence; three comments:
- The vision of the pastoral outreach to families includes pastoral agents who are not ordained ministers. In fact in Pope Francis’ vision, the ‘principal agents’ of the family apostolate are Christian families, (AL 200) not (parish) priests. This fact will have a bearing on the kind of leadership formation seminarians get. Such leadership must entail the ability to animate and provide the formation of Christian families who may be best suited to be agents of the family apostolate. Such leadership must include the ability to consult the parish community in the choosing and calling families into the apostolate. I probably don’t have to unpack all the skills that are needed in order to exercise this aspect of ordained leadership: a leader who strengthens, forms, encourages and supports those who are the direct agents of the ministry. Indeed a leader who has a vision – shares the vision of Pope Francis, at least.
- A second point to note is that the general sort of feeling, mostly from the laity, is that ordained ministers are not equipped to deal with the complex problems facing families. Clearly there is a need to understand the problems and the analytical tools to unravel the complexity without minimizing the interrelation of the different aspects in specific cases. This comment arising from the worldwide consultation sets the aims and objectives of some of our pastoral courses: dealing with the complexity of the contemporary problems facing the family, and specifically the problems in Africa/South Africa.
- A third aspect to pick up, but I don’t know want to make much of it since there is no elaboration, is the call to ‘draw upon the experience of the broad oriental tradition of married clergy’. I don’t know why this statement is juxtaposed with the others in this paragraph. How exactly should we draw upon this experience? Is the Pope wanting us to open the discussion on the possibility of a married clergy in the Latin (Western) Church? Would marriage make it easier for an ordained minister to be a pastoral agent of the Gospel of the Family? I fail to see any other meaning to the call to draw on the experience of the married oriental clergy – its juxtaposition seems more like a ploy of psychological suggestion. I didn’t have to quote it, but I didn’t want to seem to avoid it either.
(I had a light-hearted chat with some lay people about married clergy – and they scoffed at the idea, especially when they imagined having a disagreement with the priest’s wife, and he had to preside at Mass on the Sunday.) Let’s put this point to rest. It’s for another time.
Unpacking Paragraph 203
The next paragraph of Amoris Laetitia says more specific things about formation. This is the paragraph that needs to be read slowly, unpacked and translated into doable, goal-orientated processes underpinned by a determined philosophical, theological and spiritual policy. Let’s read it, then I will go through it again, making comments on various parts of it – so you will hear it twice tonight.
- Seminarians should receive a more extensive interdisciplinary, and not merely doctrinal, formation in the areas of engagement and marriage. Their training does not always allow them to explore their own psychological and affective background and experiences. Some come from troubled families, with absent parents and a lack of emotional stability. There is a need to ensure that the formation process can enable them to attain the maturity and psychological balance needed for their future ministry. Family bonds are essential for reinforcing healthy self-esteem. It is important for families to be part of the seminary process and priestly life, since they help to reaffirm these and to keep them well grounded in reality. It is helpful for seminarians to combine time in the seminary with time spent in parishes. There they can have greater contact with the concrete realities of family life, since in their future ministry they will largely be dealing with families. “The presence of lay people, families and especially the presence of women in priestly formation, promotes an appreciation of the diversity and complementarity of the different vocations in the Church” (Relatio Finalis 2015, 61).
There is a lot condensed in these few sentences. I would like to point on some important aspects as I see it, arising from my experience and reflection.
- Seminarians should receive a (1) more extensive interdisciplinary, and (2) not merely doctrinal, formation in the (3) areas of engagement and marriage.
Area of formation for the family apostolate
A first target area of the ministry is identified: engagement and marriage. Note by this distinction, the period of engagement for young couples is identified as an aspect that will receive new emphasis. Chapter six of the document has an entire section devoted to the preparation period for marriage; I counted more than 12 statements of the goals of this preparation. Pope Francis’ expectation is that seminarians ought to know some ways of achieving those goals. Here is a basic module design for the catechesis of marriage preparation.
The general means of formation for seminarians is interdisciplinary and extensive, not just the teaching of the Church. The Church’s doctrine provides the ideals in a perfect world; these are not denied nor changed; but the Church should not be ‘caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures’ – to quote EG – rather pastoral ministry is the (gradual) process of bringing people as close as possible to the ideal, integrating personal and situational weaknesses in the process.
Principle of gradualness
Thus formation must include training in what is called the ‘principle of gradualness’ – ‘not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law’ [AL 295]. The design of a programme to meet this demand needs to be given much thought. Experts in Family Life Ministries should be sought. Ability to do effective discernment, with the goal of bringing people closer to Christ, making choices for moral integrity part of our teaching and learning process.
A South African problem
The pastoral focus of ‘engagement and marriage’ needs to be seen in the South African context. Contextualized approaches to resolution of problems affecting the family is the call of Amoris Laetitia because.
Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied” [AL 3]
Here then is one contextual issue for us to face. It is of great concern that the highly valued cultural practices of lobola coupled with capitalistic, post-industrial economics has led to a serious situation of a delay of marriage and worse, of no marriage in many cases. How many children are growing up without stable relationships between their biological father and mother! It is a situation accompanied by both men and women having several children from several different partners – serial promiscuity. In one year, as a parish priest, I had baptized 159 babies, 9 of which came from marriages. A large proportion of the other 150 were from parents who already had children from other partners.
Addressing this particular issue would need an interdisciplinary approach – that engages cultural leaders in non-threatening dialogue to, among other things, negotiate an appropriate hierarchy of values. We have to pay attention to this pastoral issue in our seminaries in South Africa, perhaps even regionally or as a continent. In the Western world – there are other reasons for young people avoiding marriage, some of which might be relevant to our situation. But we have a particular cultural, socio-economic problem that needs our solution in the light of the Gospel, and we need people – ordained ministers – formed and willing to take it on. It is a difficult one. It seems the Church would rather live with the promiscuity – which degrades people’s self-worth – than face the issue. Nothing in my training prepared me for this problem. I have not yet found anyone in the Church who is willing to engage in the discussion about it – it is often simply dismissed, maybe because it is a can of worms.
Paragraph 203 continues:
Their training does not always allow them to explore their own psychological and affective background and experiences. Some come from troubled families, with absent parents and a lack of emotional stability. There is a need to ensure that the formation process can enable them to attain the maturity and psychological balance needed for their future ministry. Family bonds are essential for reinforcing healthy self-esteem.
Here is a focus area in formation: the seminarian’s own experience of family, in his own family, and how this had formed his psychological and affective makeup. It involves each seminarian learning to identify, resolve and heal, where necessary, the often hidden inner conflicts, prejudices, behaviour-determining beliefs arising from his own experience in his own family: embracing the broken past in a way that heals.
The 1992 Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV), has much to say on human formation of seminarians in paragraphs 43 and 44. Let me quote a few statements from it:
In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mould his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity. [PDV 43]
A powerful statement of priestly identity! Formation enables priests to become effective mediators of the encounter with the Lord Jesus. Our personalities need the psychological balance and affective maturity in order that mediation becomes part of priestly identity, and is effective in pastoral ministry and liturgical celebration. A personality that points to Christ – not to self in ego-centric adoration!
That paragraph goes on to say,
the priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments [PDV 43]
And further on:
These qualities are needed for them to be 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. [PDV 43]
Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia is identifying a focus area for formation: healing our own brokenness, which might have arisen from our family experience. Our experience does not determine our behaviour; we can transcend the brokenness and use it to empower our ministry.
I was listening to a radio interview of an NGO which provides mentors for young boys who had not grown up with a father, or at least a father figure. There were some horrendous stories of family situations, and what the boys did for lack of fatherly guidance, for lack of masculine role models. The NGO stepped into their lives, even going to the prisons to help build the lives of those young men.
It is common is South Africa to have, as I’ve said, single mothers and fathers often with children from several partners. And God has the freedom to call some of these children to the priesthood. We are already encountering this reality in those presenting themselves to us as candidates for religious life and priesthood. I only highlight one issue that could be part of the psychological makeup of seminarians; there are many other situations of ‘troubled families’. When we experience the mercy of the Father, through Christ in the Spirit, we are made whole and enabled to bring that mercy to others.
The point of delving into this area of one’s personal life is to ensure a healthy, non-egocentric, non-arrogant self-esteem. And family bonds are essential for such a self-esteem, says Pope Francis. The bonds in one’s natural family are important: the seminarian needs to be helped to reflect and interrogate, appreciate and honour, forgive and reconcile, dissolve anger and heal, confront resentment and regrets. Only then can one practice the evangelical and spiritual call to ‘leave mother and father’ for the sake of the Kingdom.
There is another aspect of self-esteem that needs to be taken seriously in our African contexts, and particularly in South Africa, an aspect that is playing itself out, in healthy and unhealthy ways, in our society right now. I speak of the aspect of decolonization of the African mind – not to mention anything of the academic cap and gown I’m wearing, or of the clothing I have beneath that, or of the weave of the cloth, or of the fact of cloth; the argument for decolonization can descend into absurdity but some apparent absurd questions can open up our consciousness and reveal the breadth and depth of the issue: Is soccer a colonial sport that needs to be decolonized and done away with?
The current debates are about the Eurocentric hierarchy of values that has determined our lifestyles, through the years of apartheid, through the media, through consumerist capitalism, even through education and it pedagogical styles. The dignity of being Black and African has been eroded by years of being second class citizens. Even our political leaders have become victims of power-hungry, self-enriching western capitalism, imitating what they had once opposed. How much the indignity of racial discrimination has become part of our psyche without us even knowing it! We have not explored that enough in formation.
The Church is not immune: Eurocentric (or Western) theological reflection dominates and implicitly perpetuates the idea to be created in the image and likeness of God is to take on Western ecclesial life-styles. To have ecclesial faculties of theology we need professors with ecclesiastical degrees from approved pontifical institutes – mostly situated in Europe!
Don’t we need to return our reflection to Steve Biko’s Black consciousness, to rebuild authentic self-esteem! And find its biblical foundation in being created in the image and likeness of God.
Our formation needs to pay attention to this issue! Where are the reflections of our home-grown theologians? Priestly formation in Africa needs to address this hidden part of the African psyche in order to create a truly African Church. Priests, who have full self-esteem in their racial/ethnic identity. Such ‘decolonized’ priests will be able to live the evangelical obedience and chastity needed to be merciful pastors in today’s society in Africa, South Africa.
Another aspect of human formation concerns issues of masculinity and sexual orientation. We so often avoid comment or descriptive or evaluatory statements in assessments for fear of offence. Homosexuality is too sensitive to talk about in a personal way. All laugh at homophobic jokes – but some people silently hurt within. Besides, for some young man struggling with the issue the priesthood can be a convenient place to ‘hide’ and hopefully live a good Christian life within the norms of Catholic morality.
I was once a mentor to a young seminarian who was clearly struggling with the issue of his sexual orientation. I said to him, ‘Only when you accept yourself and reveal this to your parents and your family will you be free and you will be a better priest.’ He was taken aback by my forthrightness to address the matter and eventually became very angry towards me. But he eventually did reveal the matter to his parents who had always known but were in a state of denial.
Those who find themselves with this struggle need to be helped to embrace themselves and to live the chastity to which they are called. Only then can they be effective in ministry, especially to the growing number of families that are faced with the revelation by their children that they are gay.
Experience of Family Life
The paragraph 203 of AL continues.
It is important for families to be part of the seminary process and priestly life, since they help to reaffirm these and to keep them well grounded in reality. It is helpful for seminarians to combine time in the seminary with time spent in parishes. There they can have greater contact with the concrete realities of family life, since in their future ministry they will largely be dealing with families. “The presence of lay people, families and especially the presence of women in priestly formation, promotes an appreciation of the diversity and complementarity of the different vocations in the Church” (Relatio Finalis 2015, 61).
Contact with families, while in the seminary, during parochial pastoral placements, is seen as a means to ensure ‘contact with reality’ – as opposed to doctrinal platitudes of the dogmatic instruction in classrooms.
Listening to the Gospel; encountering the Christ of the Gospel
The paragraphs that mention formation of seminarians – pp202 and 203 – come from chapter six of AL, which is entitled, Some Pastoral Perspectives, and specifically from a section called ‘Proclaiming the Gospel of the family today’. It is significant how Pope Francis, situates the comments of formation within the call to proclaim the Gospel.
The obvious prerequisite to proclaiming the Gospel, is to have been encountered by it, personally. In a nutshell, formation is creating the best conditions to encounter the Gospel, that is to say, to encounter Christ, the one who shows his love to the end, the compassionate healer and liberator.
The parish priest may not be the direct agent of much of family ministry: but his leadership and management skills are essential to the effectiveness of any pastoral initiative. Practical management skills are needed, but the practical skills in themselves are insufficient – they make you a good organiser or even a great social worker.
Intellectual ability to analyse the situation, to appreciate the complexity and see what is most important in a hierarchy of values applicable to particular cases that set a priority-based action plan – but such skills has the danger of making you a dictator, even dictating to God what needs to be done to resolve a problem, because you think you know better after your smart analysis.
The example I like to use of this is the family situation of Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42) when Jesus had visited their home and Mary sat at his feet, while Martha did all the serving which did not go unappreciated – I’m sure Jesus enjoyed the date tart and pomegranate juice served to him. Martha analysed her situation, and came up with a solution to her problem of doing all the work of hospitality herself. When, according to her analysis she realised the solution to her problem she asked the Lord (which is prayer) to provide what she wanted – she dictated to the Lord what he should do: “Tell her to help me!” she said. Dictatorial prayer!
We see the same with the apostles when Jesus had been teaching the crowds for the whole day and they were hungry and it was getting late. The apostles analysed the situation and came up with their solution and they went to the Lord (which is prayer) and they said (dictated to him): “Send them away, it is getting late they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
In both cases, Jesus had other solutions. Sorry! I am getting a little homiletic here. The intellectual ability is seriously important (and modules in the curriculum would need to provide skills for the pastoral issues that need to be addressed) but it is limited – it might lead us to trust only in our own ability, asking the Lord to provide the solutions you thought up, and you might end up being a good CEO of a parish – not a mediator of the encounter with Christ.
More is needed: the ability to listen to the Gospel, to the Lord of the Gospel, to identify with him, to see with his eyes, to reproduce his pattern of thinking – which follows the logic of love, to will with his heart: then our response will be with his merciful love. His solution!
PDV provides a wonderful list of qualities after it expounds the truth that ‘an intimate bond exists between the priest’s spiritual life and the exercise of his ministry’ (PDV 24). It says, the priest needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) – such that his words and his choices and attitudes may become ever more a reflection, a proclamation and a witness to the Gospel. [PDV 26]
Then that paragraph goes on to say:
This ministry demands of the priest an intense spiritual life, filled with those qualities and virtues which are typical of a person who “presides over” and “leads” a community, of an “elder” in the noblest and richest sense of the word: qualities and virtues such as faithfulness, integrity, consistency, wisdom, a welcoming spirit, friendliness, goodness of heart, decisive firmness in essentials, freedom from overly subjective viewpoints, personal disinterestedness, patience, an enthusiasm for daily tasks, confidence in the value of the hidden workings of grace as manifested in the simple and the poor (cf. Ti. 1:7-8). [PDV 26]
Spiritual formation, although distinguished as a dimension cannot be separated from the dimension of human formation – at least not for full maturity. Those who try end up being rather pious – which is taken to be a nice cover up for host of inner struggles, sexual unhealthiness, even depression.
A healthy spirituality goes hand in hand with the full human development: in the anthropology of PDV, human is divided into physical, psychic and spiritual (PDV 44) and this must involve being comfortable in your own skin – and dare I add, hair (some seminarians are growing afros to make a statement) – embracing your own family history, with all its weakness, especially with its brokenness. Pope Francis is calling exactly for the depth of this formation; but already Pope John Paul II had noted it in PDV (44): ‘Sometimes the very family situations in which priestly vocations arise will display not a few weaknesses and at times even serious failings’. [PDV 44]
These skeletons in the cupboards of our family makeup are not something to be ashamed about, but to be integrated in a wholeness, seeing how the Lord works to use our own experience to be his agents. [Even in his genealogy as presented by the evangelist Matthew there are instances of adultery (David); incestuous rape (Tamar); prostitution (Rahab) and scandal (Mary, pregnant outside of wedlock) – I only make allusions, which won’t be approved by your scripture scholars.
In conclusion let me say, the merciful pastor must identify (acknowledge) the need for God’s mercy in his life and must have actual experience of God’s mercy. He should know that being created in the image and likeness of God does not mean conforming to a foreign culture; but being immersed in the culture of the Kingdom of God, in which every person finds true freedom.
Dear Seminarians, no one is responsible for your formation but yourself; you are the principal agent. Know why you are here. To those graduating; ready to take on pastoral ministry: no one is responsible for your on-going formation but yourself. Know why you were called; know why you responded in your freedom.
Fr Neil Frank OMI
President, St Joseph’s Theological Institute