The Priest Today

I was horrified when the news came out that a fellow priest was shot dead. It’s tragic. Nowadays anyone can die for a cheap mobile phone or just for two thousand pesos. And it actually happened to Fr. Jovencio Rabusa who was robbed and shot in a “dimly lit portion of the Cebu South Coastal Road.” His death is a sacrifice for the so many victims of unnecessary crime because of government’s inability to deliver the basic services for our people. What a flimsy reason to die. “Way dungog nga kamatayon!” was the comment I heard from some people I talked to.

Other priests were also slain in the past. Fr. Rudy Romano was abducted on July 11, 1985 with student activist Levi Ybañez in Labangon. Since then they were never heard of – “salvaged” perhaps. Last year on February 4, 2008 Norberto Manero Jr. knelt before a tomb in Kidapawan City and placed a lit candle beside it. He prayed for some minutes then pressed his forehead against the marble gravestone. Before leaving he kissed the ceramic photograph of Fr. Tulio Favali, the Italian priest, who, two decades earlier he had viciously murdered in a highway in North Cotabato. These cases, however, were intentional. There was the plan to kill and destroy. But for Fr. Rabusa we are appalled by the sheer senselessness because of its lack of intentionality. It was just total disrespect for the dignity of life!

Yet on hindsight, I asked myself: could this be a sign of the times? I heard commentators point out had he worn his “soutana” he would have preserved his health. This is not the real issue. Surely the cloth does not make a man nor a habit does not make a religious. Yet often times the priest is referred to as the “man of the cloth.” The term originally applied to any clothes that distinguished a profession. The author, Jonathan Swift, popularized this usage in the 17th century such that the meaning had been restricted to a clergyman. Today members of the clergy could no longer be called “man of the cloth” literally. They dress like anybody else if there are no religious functions. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many times somebody comes to me and says: “Father, kung di ka mag-sotana mura jud kag sacristan” (Father, if you don’t wear the cassock, you’re just one of the servers). But the danger is that we could no longer make an impact in the world because we hide our identity. The image of the priest has been tarnished. Failings and sins of the priests are more readily noticeable even sensationalized. So we simply blend with the masses?

The pope is right in dedicating this year to the priesthood. It is, then, unfortunate that Fr. Rabusa died on the year of the priest. Pope Benedict XVI in opening this celebration said: “priests must be present, identifiable and recognizable – for their judgment of faith, their personal virtues and their attire.” He then presents St. John Vianney as example. This less than gifted diocesan priest was assigned in the rural and spiritually dying town of Ars in central France. Through his personal holiness and apostolic fervor he was able to transform his parish just in 10 years. Our call is not just limited to liturgical functions. Our “soutanas” are not mere vestments in offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. We are the sign that points to Christ. We are the sacrament of God, a leaven for the world. The latin adage “agree sequitur esse” (action follows being) applies to us. The greater challenge for the priests of our times is to be more visible. I admire the religious sisters for their witness as “women of the cloth.”

Fr. David Toups, associate director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocation of the U.S. Episcopal Conference authored a book “Reclaiming our Priestly Character.” He outlines 6 Principles of Priestly Renewal. He suggests these ideas for the regeneration of the clergy.
1. Permanence of the Priesthood – a reminder that the priest has entered into a permanent relationship with Jesus and the Church by virtue of his ordination.
2. Priest acts in “persona Christi” (in the person of Christ) – he is to be a Christ in the world.
3. The Priest is not his own, but rather he belongs to and represents the Church – he is called to courageously be a sign and symbol pointing beyond himself to Christ; he is proud to be visibly recognized as a priest.
4. Priestly presence – everything the priest does is priestly and has immense value as Christ desires to work through him at all times. Prayer and personal relationship with God is of utmost importance.
5. Caution for priest to avoid the trap of functionalism and activism – he is not to forget who he is and for whom he is doing the work.
6. Ongoing formation – the priest must not stop learning and growing to be an effective instrument of Christ.

In the end, the priest of today becomes faithful to his vocation and his mission only if he is faithful to Christ. He can only be a good shepherd if he learns to have the “heart” of the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:10). Otherwise, he will always be a hireling; he will have no concern for the sheep and works only for pay.

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