Lay initiative seeks to give back to priests

2014-09-12 Vatican Radio

(Vatican Radio) In an age in which the Church is discovering the full meaning of the co-responsibility of the laity, in continuity with the whole history of the Church and in consonance with the Church’s divine constitution, many lay faithful are asking: what can we do to help our shepherds? Seeing the great good that so many priests do, and appreciating the irreplaceable role of service that those in ordained ministry carry out, a small but dedicated group of lay faithful are seeking to provide a space in which priests and bishops can find the encouragement and sustenance they need – a place apart – and yet created with a view to helping priests in their vital service of shepherding the faithful: a place they are calling the Christopher Inn International.

CII is an entirely lay-funded and operated initiative, founded by Joan Johnson as a response to the gratitude she felt to God for the witness of many holy priests in her life. In the wake of closeness to the trials and suffering experienced by priests she greatly admired, Joan began to conceive of a way to provide pastors of souls with the refreshment, continued spiritual and intellectual development, and opportunities to strengthen and deepen bonds of fellowship with their brothers in ordained ministry.

Click here to learn more about the Christopher Inn International

“We can’t give what we don’t have,” Johnson explained in an exclusive interview with Vatican Radio, “and we know, through the Church, that we need to be transformed in Christ: we are all called to sanctity,” both lay people and ordained clergy. “Priests,” however, are called, “in a particular way, because of the very nature of the priesthood,” Johnson continued. “So, for the priest to give, he must be in union with Christ, he must be growing his relationship with Christ – and also with his brother priests…today more than ever.”

This is a need, the importance of which Pope Francis has recognized on numerous occasions.

One of the most oft-quoted statements of Pope Francis to pastors is his encouragement of them to, “[have] the smell of the sheep,” on them, i.e. to live among their flock, be familiar with their struggles, trials, and needs, and ever-ready to restore their confidence in the Good News of salvation and bring them the healing power of the Sacraments.

“We need to ‘go out’, then,” said Pope Francis in his homily at the Chrism Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday, 2013 – just a few days after his election to the See of Rome, “first  in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the ‘outskirts’ where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.”

At the same time, Pope Francis has recognized the need for priests and bishops to enjoy, “[moments] of repose, exchange of ideas and authentic fraternity,” precisely with a view to their effectiveness – their fruitfulness – in living out their vocations of service, as Pope Francis explained to the bishops of Brazil in his meeting with them ahead of the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. “Often, that fraternity is more important than any formation – formation is importatnt – but that fraternity, that being together, is what strengthens the priesthood,” said Johnson, “and that [renewed strength] goes out to the people.”

The need to which the Christopher Inn International seeks to respond is increasingly urgent.

In the developed world especially, the numbers of priests have been declining, and have only recently begun to recover. Many priests serve in more than one parish, and nearly one in five parishes in parts of the United State have no resident pastor – which means that fewer priests are bearing increasingly heavy pastoral responsibilities. In parts of the world where the Church is young and experiencing vibrant growth, the numbers of people embracing the faith often outstrips the Church’s ability to train and prepare clergy – to respond to and foster new priestly vocations. In both contexts, the pressing nature of the need to provide serving priests with opportunities to renew their commitments to their vocation and their participation in the brotherhood of priests throughout the world becomes apparent.

“The greatest example is St. Peter,” said Johnson. “Peter thought he had all this strength,” she continued, “[though] when it came right down to it, he realized he had nothing – and it was [only] once he knew – and this goes for all of us, but especially for priests – that he is totally dependent on Christ, that Christ could fill him: and then he had something to give.”

Click below to hear extended excerpts from our conversation with the president and founder of the Christopher Inn International, Joan Johnson

(From archive of Vatican Radio)