After the Confirmation Mass on the hottest, most humid day of the year to date, I entertain the bishop to lunch and by four o’clock I am on the road, heading for Leeds. I am going on the intercession for priests retreat lead by Sr Briege McKenna and Fr Kevin Scallon.
It came as something of a blow, therefore, to arrive some hours later at Hinsley Hall, hard by Headingley cricket ground, to find that a sinus operation had made air travel impossible for Sr Briege, so she wouldn’t be with us after all. At the risk of sounding trite, it was a bit like getting your hands on a ticket to hear Domingo sing Tosca and turning up to discover he has a sore throat and that Darius will sing songs from the shows instead. That’s no reflection on Fr Kevin, indeed it was hard not to feel for him in the circumstances, for he would have to carry the retreat on his own. He was, of course, more than capable of doing so, but one sympathised with him for he was facing the constant implicit rebuke that he wasn’t Sr Briege McKenna. You could hardly fault him for that, and indeed you couldn’t fault him at all for the inspiring talks and celebrations that he led us in over the next few days. Again, I feel I am skating on thin ice if I say that by the end of the five days it didn’t seem to matter that Sr Briege hadn’t come. In fact, the intercession for priests programme is based on solid, sacramental and spiritual foundations. Both Sr Briege and Fr Kevin are far too sensible and too humble to want anything but the work of the intercession to be what impresses – not them or the cult of their personalities.
And a great work it is: to pray for a renewal of holiness in the priesthood; for those priests actually present to celebrate the sacraments and pray for repentance, healing, renewal and courageous faith. So each day there is the Divine Office said and sung in common, followed by prayers of intercession for the needs of bishops and priests and the Church, periods of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Mass, the rosary and talks. Each day there is a service with some relevance to the renewal of priestly life; one day a penitential service with Confession, another day a service of healing and anointing, another day a renewal of priestly commitment.
Through the preaching and the aims of the intercession there runs a quiet realism about the situation of priests that you don’t seem to hear articulated elsewhere. The language used describes a wider arc of a pendulum that swings between the exalted dignity and awesome demands of the ordained priesthood and the terrible damage that is done when priests forget these. There is noth ing ecclesiologically political or judgmental about the approach. Nor indeed, is there any false nostalgia or recidivism about some golden age; much of the language and feel of the intercession is very contemporary in tone. But there is a very Catholic insistence that the priesthood is not evolving in its essence; it remains the awesome responsibility of being chosen to act in persona Christi. This means carrying out the sacraments with their ex opere operato guarantee that in them Christ is truly present, but more, it means seeking to conform your life more and more to the holiness of Christ so that you may reveal his presence as he reveals his Godhead, through the words and actions and gestures of everyday life, through a humanity transformed by grace.
To be a priest is not only to mediate Christ merely in a role, but in person, through a life truly rooted in his own holiness, which is just another word for love. To embrace wholeheartedly this ideal is to shudder deeply at the sins that contradict such a presence of Christ in the priesthood, the gestures and attitudes that betray his looks and his accents and his healing touch; it is to want to pray for repentance and healing for ourselves and our brothers, and especially for those people and parts of the Church that have been devastated by the child-abuse scandals. These, Sr Briege would say, are a wake-up call for the priesthood, a call for profound renewal.
If this all sounds a little abstract, most edifying of all is to be in the company of so many priests who would accept that they find their place somewhere within that arc of the call to holiness and the reality of human sinfulness. Just by looking at some of them when they pray you can see the marks of a long struggle that has left them with a serenity showing in the contours of their faces and the light in their eyes. There must be several hundred years of priestly ministry represented here between the 40 or so priests on the retreat, many of whom have been coming for years. It inspires me to want to seek be a better priest, to seek holiness. Holiness, which comes from outside you; the awareness that you are loved by God, and the courage to surrender to that alone is what makes you get up in the morning. Something tells me that in one way or another this is a labour to which I may well be coming back year after year.