AMONG THE PEOPLE
Focus | Insight
Fruits of presbyteral communion
Since I was fourteen, I carried within me the uncomfortable question of whether it was God’s plan for me to be a priest. Behind this question was the influence of a parish priest who shared many of his adventures and whose witness of faith left a mark on me. However, it was my parents who laid the first foundations through their life of faith lived at home.
The author is a parish priest in a “pastoral unit” in Olten1, a small town in north-central Switzerland. As a young man, he felt a fascination for community life as a diocesan priest. Currently he lives together with other priests: an experience of communion which also bears fruit in the community.
I grew up in a large parish with several priests, each living alone. Instead, in a nearby parish there was a group of priests living in community. After meeting them, I thought that if I were to become a priest, I too would want to live in community. During my now 28 years of priesthood I am grateful to the bishops of my diocese for having always responded in the affirmative to my request in this regard.
From the beginning, it was clear for me that it was not a question of living together to be supported by the others, but rather one of building a community by living the new commandment given to us by Jesus as I had learned through the spirituality of unity shared with me by my brother priests. I was convinced that Christ’s presence among us bears fruit, sustaining and awakening the faith of the people entrusted to us.
A multiethnic coexistence of priests
As a parish priest, I work in a pastoral unit together with a lay administrator which is a great help in lightening the workload. I live in a rectory with two other priests, one who is Swiss and pastor of a nearby parish, and an African priest who is also part of the Focolare Movement and responsible for the community of Eritrean Catholics in Switzerland.
It was thanks to this African priest that we understood, as a priestly community of the Focolare, that we carry out an important function. When bishops of other nations appoint missionaries to take care of their faithful minorities abroad, questions arise not only about where they will live but also about who will assist them in learning the customs and juridical realities of the local Church. It is important to help them patiently learn the language and sometimes also necessary to correct and guide each one in ways that are not always easy. In our case, we feel that we were successful but this should not be taken for granted.
Our residence has also served as a temporary home for a priest from India and a Spanish-speaking priest. It has been nice to experience this reciprocity when it comes to tackling various household tasks, taking turns cooking, doing the laundry and sharing the richness of our spiritual and material goods, even in preparing our homilies.
Beyond the rectory confines
We keep in touch with priests in nearby parishes and especially with those who are retired, visiting them or inviting them to come to us. They, for their part, respond to our initiative and reciprocate with gratitude. Sometimes we spend days off together, try to celebrate birthdays and even go shopping together.
This mutual sharing proved particularly powerful when the celebration of public worship became impossible due to the pandemic. We celebrated the Eucharist together and remained in touch by phone, Zoom or visits by bicycle. We celebrated the Easter vigil with our Eritrean priest and this was broadcast to other parts of the world. We also try to be a bridge between the two regions of German and French-speaking Switzerland. Every year we organize a priests’ meeting in the French-speaking area and hold bilingual meetings. Preparing in this way is more complex but it is also more fruitful.
We also try to cultivate this lifestyle in our parishes as well, bringing people together to listen and share experiences on the Word of Scripture. In my parish, young people, adults, and the elderly meet to consciously journey along this path of discipleship of Jesus.
Ecumenical and inter-religious reflections
This lifestyle has also had an impact on ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. After working to prepare a meeting with a person of the Muslim faith, he invited me to come and speak to his community. On that occasion I was asked which Word of Scripture helped me the most in overcoming today’s current crisis. I answered with the Word of Life phrase that we were living that month: “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Ten days later, this same person emailed to ask if we could share a moment of prayer with the intention of overcoming this pandemic. That evening was a moment of fraternity for me.
Not only has a personal friendship developed between the two of us but also a dialogue with Reformed pastors and preachers of the Free Christian Churches with whom we are now engaged in the preparation of an inter-religious evening to know one another better. I visited each pastor - some for the first time – to compare ideas, reflections and beliefs. We have discovered that we are not as different as it first seemed and everyone declared themselves interested in inter-religious dialogue. Thus, in this way, an ecumenical conversation goes ahead as well.
Another initiative is a course for couples who are already married and who wish to deepen their relationship. Together with three couples (one Reformed, another Methodist and a third Catholic), we prepared seven evenings of a meal and encounter. Due to the pandemic, they ended up taking place primarily via Zoom. However, the fact that Christians of different confessions collaborated was gratefully welcomed by the participants, with one couple later confiding to us that their relationship, which had been in crisis, was saved by these gatherings.
Taken by the ‘virus’ of communion
The commitment to go beyond the boundaries of the pastoral unit is not always seen positively by my coworkers. Often we must apologize and begin again, becoming aware of our own mistakes and shortcomings and above all to be patient.
I will conclude with a recent experience. Twelve families from four parishes (two different pastoral units) accepted the invitation to spend a weekend together. We rented a youth hostel on the shore of a beautiful lake and it could not have been a better location. From Friday to Sunday we all met - children, teenagers and adults - for an experience of communion by building small rafts, playing games and celebrating Mass by the lake. There was nothing extraordinary about the program but everything served to build the community, even priests dressing up as clowns to do short funny skits helped to awaken the sense of God’s love for us. It was as if everyone caught a good community virus: helping to wash dishes in the kitchen, baking bread or accompanying songs with the guitar. There was an almost inexplicable peace among everyone.
Afterwards one mother wrote to us: “I want to tell you that these days have far exceeded what I expected.” A deeply grateful father also wrote, saying: “Three days without conflicts!”
They were small signs that showed how Christ himself, through his presence, was able to touch adults and children during those days. As parish priests we do not have a natural talent for putting together such gatherings but we had shared our ideas, letting them be ‘worked on’ to the point that, in the end, they were no longer the ideas of one or another, but rather what arose, I would say, came from His presence among us.
The fact that this experience was defined by some participants as “unique” is a further sign for me that God was at work. One grandmother said: “What you are doing here is something very special.” And a young mother: “You can’t find anything like it anywhere else. Everyone should be able to experience it. There is not only the negative in this world but also what we experienced here!”
1 "Pastoral unit" refers to a configuration within a diocese that incorporates several distinct parish communities whose care is entrusted to a pastoral team. See the Vatican Instruction "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church", of the Congregation for the Clergy”, July 20, 2020: https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/07/20/200720a.html .