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Posted January 31, 2005

Keeping Alive in Ministry

By Father Eugene Hemrick

"Attendance at some national ministry meetings I took in recently has decreased substantially from what it had been," a well-known leader in church ministry said recently. This raises a very serious question about the future of ministry: Could it be edging into an age of intellectual dryness?

It is a fact that some bishops have curtailed diocesan sabbatical programs. Even though a priest may need a sabbatical, letting him take it would mean stretching other priests too thin. Also, many priests who would like to take continuing education courses can't because of their multiple responsibilities today. It is also a fact that, for a variety of reasons, some dioceses have reduced lay staffs significantly.

History repeatedly has shown that when financial and personnel shortages arise, schooling, seminars, sabbaticals and research are the first things to go. Could we be seeing a trend in this direction, and, if so, what does it mean for ministry?

Over the years I have attended many seminars and convocations, and have been privileged to continue my education. I must admit that some of these gatherings and courses were a waste of time and money. On the whole, however, the ideas I received from them are what keep my priesthood alive. Of course, it was not only the ideas, but meeting people with ideas and keeping contact with them that energized me.

Cardinal John Newman believed that an idea is an illumination. It creates light and the life that comes from light. New ideas generate fresh possibilities and hope for a better future, while at the same time dispelling sameness and boredom.

I remember the time I first discovered the writings of the renowned liturgist, Father Romano Guardini. His book "Sacred Signs" opened a whole new way of entering deeper into the celebration of the Mass for me. Celebrating daily Mass can become very routine; even though the Mass is filled with sacred moments, this risk exists.

But Father Guardini's ideas inspired me in such a way that any sense of routine was overcome. He helped me to enter more fully into the entire mystery of the Mass.

If dioceses and parishes cut back on the continuing education of their ministers, I am afraid that our church could experience a period of "humdrumness" and "routineness." Musicians, liturgists, lectors, social justice workers, youth, family and multicultural ministers, and religious educators cannot keep alive in their ministries for a long time without fresh ideas. Without the light of fresh ideas, they can easily become victims of "light deprivation" and its negative consequences.

Years ago, a well-known theologian used to tell his class, "Study is ministry." In other words, the Word of God that has infinite meaning and is at the heart of ministry will not be plumbed, taught or exercised as God intended without continuous study.