On Saturday 20 June 2020 I celebrate my seventeenth anniversary since I was ordained to the ministerial priesthood. I cannot forget that special Friday 20 June 2003, when, together with other ten ordinands, I was ordained a priest forever.
Ordination occurs once and for all but it consecrates what it finds at its disposal. That is why continual formation is all the more essential. As years rolled by I came to understand that the aggiornamento, rather than being an annual meeting for priests, has to be a life attitude. First and foremost, what I would term as the vertical aggiornamento. How is it going my relationship with the Lord who called me? How is my life of prayer evolving? Am I hearing his voice or the ears of my soul have become deaf because they are simply bombarded by the worldly noises that I meet daily?
In his address to the Roman Curia on December 22 2014 Pope Francis said that we priests “cannot live without a vital, personal, authentic and solid relationship with Christ…. [One] who is not daily nourished by the Food will become a bureaucrat…. Daily prayer, assiduous reception of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation, daily contact with the Word of God and a spirituality which translates into lived charity—these are vital nourishment for each of us. Let it be clear to all of us that apart from Him we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:8).” Personally speaking I am really convinced that it is not I who is performing all these things. It is an utter impossibility for a human being to do all these tasks. So, somebody is doing all this activity through me, a sinner and physically vulnerable too. Experience has been constantly showing me that it would be wise to affirm, with St Paul, a priest himself, who in his letter to the Philippians had the humble boldness to openly confess: I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).
But, where Christ is, there is total self-giving and generosity. Because Christ has been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord God … to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn (Isa. 61:1-2). In other words, Christ, the One, High, Eternal priest, who offered up himself (Heb. 7:27) to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:28), became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Thus, he immersed himself in our faulty human history full of any kind of fratricide transgressions so as to make us, once again, one with Our Heavenly Father and restore back our shattered fraternal relationships.
As a priest I was chosen from among men to be appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God (Heb. 5:1). And here comes the horizontal aggiornamento that as a priest I am called to live. Life changes but principles remain intact. Hence, amid the changes and vicissitudes that occur, from time to time, I am called to be close to God’s people. As Pope Francis said to the Polish Bishops in July 2016:
“What would I advise? I would say – but I believe it is in the Gospel, where there is precisely the Lord’s own teaching – closeness. Today we, the Lord’s servants – bishops, priests, consecrated persons and committed laypeople – need to be close to God’s people. Without closeness, there are only disembodied words. Let us think – I like to reflect on this – of the two pillars of the Gospel. What are the two pillars of the Gospel? The Beatitudes and Matthew 25, the ‘criteria’ on which all of us will be judged. Concreteness, closeness, touching, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. But you are saying all this because it is fashionable to speak about mercy this year!” No! This is the Gospel! The Gospel, the works of mercy.”
After 17 years of service I can only say that I am where I am today thanks to God’s grace and the moving example of many local priests who, amid their daily life struggles, are living their vocation in an exceptional way. To them I want to thank because, through their silent daily witness, the Lord gives me a lot of strength to keep moving on and trailing in the priestly journey He willingly chose me for since the beginning of time.
I want to make my own Pope Francis’ litany of gratitude, as found in his letter published on the 160th anniversary of the death of the Holy Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, on 4 August 2019, to these priests who have been of an incessant big encouragement to me in all these years of service:
“Thank you, [dear priests], for the joy with which you have offered your lives, revealing a heart that over the years has refused to become closed and bitter, but has grown daily in love for God and his people… Thank you for working to strengthen the bonds of fraternity and friendship with your brother priests and your bishop, providing one another with support and encouragement, caring for those who are ill, seeking out those who keep apart, visiting the elderly and drawing from their wisdom, sharing with one another and learning to laugh and cry together… Thank you for your witness of persistence and patient endurance (hypomoné) in pastoral ministry… Thank you for celebrating the Eucharist each day and for being merciful shepherds in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, neither rigorous nor lax, but deeply concerned for your people and accompanying them on their journey of conversion to the new life that the Lord bestows on us all… Thank you for anointing and fervently proclaiming to all, ‘in season and out of season’ (cf. 2 Tim 4:2) the Gospel of Jesus Christ, probing the heart of your community ‘in order to discover where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren’… Thank you for the times when, with great emotion, you embraced sinners, healed wounds, warmed hearts and showed the tenderness and compassion of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-27)…”
At the end I would also like to thank the faithful People of God, from whom I am constantly learning what it means to pray, to work hard to support one’s family and community, to suffer for what is right and still being joyful and forgiving. How many people, simple and hidden as they are from the eyes of the world and the media, taught me how to listen, be patient, accompany, bring union and be there for those who need my assistance! I am eternally grateful for each and every person the Father has lovingly put in my way to support. All of them, whoever they are and whatever there story, have been of great encouragement and inspiration to me so as to keep rowing the priestly boat notwithstanding the winds and storms that always lie ahead.
Furthermore, June 20 marks the liturgical feast of the great Byzantine mystic and theological writer, St Nicholas Cabasilas (1319/1323-1392). He wrote: “We were given thinking in order to know Christ; desire, in order to run to Him; memory, to remember Him.” This is my ardent wish, prayer and commitment for my priestly and consecrated life. It is precisely in these words where I can see the Lord’s victory and perfection occur and transform me. This is the secret for Christ’s perfect order within, through, and with me for others. This is the prayer I daily make for every person that Christ makes me meet, day after day, in whatever part of His vineyard He puts and will put me in to work for his glory ALONE. Amen!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap