By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 25, 2008
An array of colorful golf shirts is not what one would expect to see at a gathering of Catholic priests, but many left the traditional black and white clerical garb behind Sept. 16 as 100 to 200 priests of the archdiocese came together in solidarity to discuss the triumphs and challenges of serving the church through this unique vocation.
Held at the Legacy Lodge Resort at Lake Lanier, the three-day Convocation of Priests brings together diocesan priests every two years to meet and discuss the intricacies of the priesthood.
During the convocation, priests participate in morning and evening prayer, daily Mass and two sessions a day, while making sure to squeeze in a bit of relaxed social time as well.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was present for the convocation “from beginning to end,” said Father Jim Schillinger, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and part of the Committee for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, which planned and arranged the event. Sitting at a table with fellow priests, the archbishop showed his love and support for the presbyterate in Atlanta.
“The archbishop was very pleased,” said Father Schillinger. “He just loves being with us.”
Father Noah Casey of St. Luke Church in Indianapolis and Patricia Kelly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works extensively with religious communities and dioceses, served as the two speakers for the event.
The pair led sessions to discuss topics ranging from leadership development to healthy relationships.
Father Casey guided the first session on Tuesday morning, Sept. 16, to set the tone for the event.
Focusing on three specific topics—values, relationships and prayer—the former Benedictine monk led the priests through a morning of laughter and personal stories while challenging them to look at the way they minister to their flocks.
“What we want to address is … how we live out of the abundance of God,” Father Casey began. “We are called to something greater.”
Father Casey brought to light the challenge of being a priest and leading a congregation while also keeping up with one’s own spiritual life.
He said that priests should always promote the value of life itself, and if they do not, they could suffer from destructive tendencies. These destructive tendencies, which can include loneliness, lack of prayer and the avoidance of relationships, were a major focus of Father Casey’s talk, and he highlighted how these tendencies could manifest themselves if not treated properly.
One example he gave came during his discussion of the necessity for intentional silence and solitude, which is not just for contemplatives, according to Father Casey. For many, he said, there is a fear that arises when being alone or silent in front of God and therefore priests might begin to avoid it.
“Prayer becomes something we avoid because it becomes a moment of truth in our lives,” said Father Casey. “Prayer has to be as common as the air we breathe or the water we sip on.”
“Solitude is prayer,” he added, saying that it leads to self-discovery and that many are often afraid to put themselves “into Love’s way.”
To truly be effective in changing the lives of his parishioners, the priest must “live abundantly” in God’s love instead of “merely surviving” so his congregation can see how God works in his life, Father Casey said.
“(Parishioners) want to know how we have come to know the risen Christ,” he said. “That’s what gives our preaching credibility.”
Father Casey also discussed the importance of strong relationships, both between priests and their flocks and with their fellow priests.
Father Casey told those present that “holy priests are relational priests.” He also noted that forming and keeping up with these relationships takes a lot of work, but that “Jesus works hard on his relationship with us.”
While some priests might begin to see the questions and concerns of parishioners as “problems,” Father Casey encouraged his fellow priests to see members of their congregation as “channels of grace,” but also joked that sometimes they can be a bit of both.
This is something that stuck with Father Bill Williams, pastor of Queen of Angels Church, Thomson. He could relate to the title of “pinball priest” that Father Casey described, where a priest is shot out into the ministry and seems to bounce back and forth between meetings, parishioners and the like, without having much time to himself.
“Part of the priesthood is that you don’t own your own time,” said Father Williams to the other priests at his table after the session, describing the challenges of being the only priest in his parish.
Father Casey also said that relationships with other priests are important. Priests should not be competitive, but instead should be “privileged companions,” an encouraging message to many of those present.
“What a powerful resource we are for one another,” Father Casey added.
This comment on priestly relations struck a chord with Father John Matejek, parochial vicar at Transfiguration Church in Marietta.
“That is something we have to contemplate,” he told the group of priests at the end of the session. “It is a privilege to be a priest.”
According to Father Casey, the way to stay grounded and to continue to live in the abundance of God’s love is through prayer. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of all, he said.
“When I am in ‘survival mode,’ personal prayer is the first thing to go,” the priest said, again encouraging the priests to seek God’s abundant love.
He also encouraged his fellow priests not to be afraid of using a variety of prayers because using one form over and over can become stale.
But, in the end, the choice on how to deal with all of these challenges is theirs.
“Life is all about having choices,” Father Casey said. “And we do have choices, brethren.”
Father Schillinger said the aim of the committee planning the convocation was to bring together the priests both to hear a strong spiritual message and to build a sense of community.
“The best thing is just getting together for two or three days,” he said. “The camaraderie is as important as the topic.”
And the feedback Father Schillinger received from the gathering of priests helped confirm the fruit of the committee’s labors.
“This is the second of the ‘new and improved convocation’ and … everything went very, very well,” he said. “We got rave reviews from the guys.”