Presbyterorum Ordinis

Insights into the life of priests in Latin America

Men of God - together at the service of His People

Archbishop Anuar Batisti
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After the turbulent years of protest, priests in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, now search for a solid interior life. The challenge is in creating a more effective life of communion that would take priests out of isolation and stave off the risk of being carried away by the current mindset of an increasingly secularized world. The author, archbishop of the diocese of Londrina in southern Brazil, as a young priest worked extensively in the seminary, in far from easy times. Later he was responsible for the formation of priests in Brazil and throughout all Latin America.

In the last few years I have had the opportunity to journey alongside Brazilian priests in their life and ministry both as President of the Commission of the CNBB (National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Brazil) where I was responsible for ministries and consecrated life and as retreat master for clergy in different parts of my country.

Now I have been entrusted with the presidency of the Commission for vocations and ministries of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM), of which I was executive secretary from 1991 to 1995. These experiences have given me insight into the different stages of the life of priests in this "Continent of hope" that Benedict XVI called "Continent of love."

In search of a non-individualistic mysticism

The life of priests in Brazil has been given a certain direction at the national meetings of priests. Every two years about 500 priests come together to reflect, share experiences, pray together, create communion, and take their mission up again with a new impetus.

These meetings, especially at the beginning, witnessed moments of harsh protest, where groups were created that demanded the abolition of celibacy, which they considered a useless burden, as well as the abolition of the liturgy of the hours and daily Mass, when the latter was not strictly necessary.

Not all the participants adhered to these positions, but several did. Then, little by little, the waters calmed and the reflection became geared to seeking the evangelical profile of the priest as God wants him today.

Now I see that there is a sincere search for an inner life, a mysticism that is not individualistic but communitarian. To meet this need, associations of priests have arisen; their participation in ecclesial movements of spirituality has increased. In various dioceses, groups of priests meet weekly to meditate on the following Sunday’s liturgy and prepare the homily together. All this has meant a new phase in the life of priests, with an attempt to satisfy their thirst for communion.

Among the difficulties:
isolation and loyalty to commitment undertaken

On the other hand, priests today are facing significant challenges in their ministry, such as isolation due to great distances or, for some, out of a personal choice, as they are not trained for a life of communion. In addition, the priest today is immersed in a secularized and eroticized world where technology favors formal, lifeless relations, and often pushes him to look for affective compensation. We have lost many priests who, once they entered the world of passions, were unaware that they had entered a disastrous path.

Faced with this reality, the biggest challenge today for priests and their bishops is fidelity to the commitments that they have undertaken and perseverance in their ministry. The provocations of the world, the ease of sexual relations and the spread of the ‘gay’ culture mean that a number of priests lead a double life without having any problems of conscience. As Pope Francis said in one of his homilies: they possess "anesthetized consciences." For them, it seems there is no more sin, moral laws, chaste conduct, or any specific promise made at their ordination.

Maybe I sound pessimistic, but the problems exist, either because, with the decrease in vocations to the priesthood, people have been admitted to the priesthood who probably did not have the vocation, or because we have not taken good care of their formation.

From the desire for communion to an effective praxis

I reiterate that most clergy have a great thirst for communion, a strong desire to journey together. But we do not always know how to find ways to satisfy this thirst. In as much as the formation process in the seminary seeks to create a community experience with community living and retreats, after ordination, we notice a marked dichotomy between life in the seminary and life in the presbytery. It is difficult for a young priest, after seven or eight years of formation, to agree to working with a colleague even if he has lived with him for a few years in the seminary.

Faced with this reality, I found some light at the 15th National Meeting of Priests in 2014, where the desire for renewal was expressed along with a serious search for hope in one’s own mission. The inspirational text was: "Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope" (EG 86). The theme was: The Second Vatican Council and the priests in Brazil: testimonies of faith, hope, and charity; and the motto: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (1 Pt 3:15).

It seems to me that, in the Conclusion, a new way was opened. It stated:

"This ecclesiology of communion and participation that came from the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium immerses us in the mystery of the Trinity and integrates us into the life of our particular Churches (cf. LG 22).

It is with this vision of the adherence of our ministry with this great conciliar inspiration that we want to train new priests to be true shepherds, as indicated in Optatam Totius (no. 4), where it says that the ministry should be the focus of all priestly formation.

All this gives us the opportunity to be priests who are identified with the conciliar ecclesiology, priests of the Presbyterorum Ordinis decree, deeply embedded in our presbyteries and with a life centered on pastoral love (cf PO 8:14-16). Living like this in the presbyteries of our particular Churches, we can face our ambiguities and contradictions and then reap the benefits of our hard work, and no one will be able to steal our hope. Being conciliar priests, we will be prophets and witnesses that a different world is possible, starting from our joys and our sorrows, our anxieties and hopes, illuminated by the Constitution Gaudium et Spes (GS 1)."

Among the final conclusions of the meeting I was also impressed by this passage: "To do this, it is not enough to remain in the Church, we must remain in Christ. As priests we must be men of the Eucharistic sacrifice and of sharing, in deep intimacy with God and united to His people."

Today we are also motivated by the words and example of Pope Francis who calls our attention with these words: “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 center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures (EG 49)."

Today there is no shortage of witnesses of true martyrs of the Gospel among the priests of Latin America and the Caribbean. I remember a well-known popular saying quoted by the Pope in a speech: "A tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows."

Therefore, the challenge of a life of communion that priests, united with each other and with the bishop, are called to offer to the world today is awesome and fascinating.