I cannot help but compare my experiences on the first National Retreat for Clergy (Pasay, 2009) I attended and the recently concluded National Retreat for Priests (Cebu, 2023).
As a newly-ordained then, I was so excited to join in, more for the privilege of being in a clerical state. I was ecstatic to see more than 3,000 priests and religious all over the country – the fun of rubbing elbows with your classmates, formators, friends, and the hierarchy.
It was as if the retreat was my platform of recognition that finally after 16 years of formation, I made it. I can’t recall a thing from our speaker, Fr. Cantalamesa, OFM (now Cardinal) but the experience was fun and encouraging.
The event was like a feast, with food stations all around and stores for liturgical materials, books, etc strategically occupying the lobby. With the venue’s proximity to the malls, some participants didn’t bother to distinguish where to go.
The main theme then was about the renewal of clergy in time for the renewal of the country, which gave us the premise of hope and the promise of a better future. It was clear that our priestly renewal was aimed at social transformation.
This has been my bias when I joined this year’s national retreat. It should have been held in 2021 during the 500-year celebration of Christianity but the pandemic stalled it.
So I thought also that our theme should be imbued with the concept of synodality, considered lately as a ‘paradigm shift’ of the Church today. Our speakers hailed from Europe, Sr.Briege McKenna, OSC, a healing Irish nun, and Fr. Pablo Escriva de Romani, a diocesan missionary from Spain.
Sr. Briege shared her healing experience in front of the Eucharist and her “deep spiritual insight on the mystery of the call to priesthood.”
On the other hand, Fr. Pablo articulated the existential realities of the priesthood, mainly through its spirituality. The former reminded us basically of the dignity of our call while the latter prompted us to examine our commitment to the call amidst the slackening.
I was focused more on this retreat than my previous one as I listened intently to their talks, participated in the healing ritual, and eventually at the end, gladly renewed my priestly vows.
On my first participation in the national retreat (2009), I didn’t care much about the spiritual or moral/theological benefits of the rare event. But after more than 14 years of experience, I was looking for something more that could resonate with my ministry.
I know that prayer life is non-negotiable in this vocation but as I journey in my priesthood, gradually I understand that it is not the end in itself. As the basic liturgical principles direct: lex credende, lex orandi, lex vivende.
And so, during the retreat, I was patiently waiting for our speakers to connect our relationship with God to our mission. And yet, the most what I got was a leapfrog from the grandiosity of the calling to the glory of the Kingdom of God.
In other words, the realities of the Church mission on the in-between have been addressed like a white elephant in the room. I was not looking for some in-depth discussions on our ministries and apostolates at all, but only about the mention of the direction of our liturgy – it is not exhaustive.
If the recent national retreat were a food, I find it palatable but still lacking in salt. It indeed rekindled my drooping spirit. It inflamed once more my personal commitment to the One who called me.
And yet, it failed to account for the basic calling of the Church to be the salt of the earth, to engage the world, to transform the world.
Priests have prophetic responsibilities to renounce the evil of this world, to dismantle the structures of oppression, and to preach the Good News of God’s creation.
The deafening silence on the social concerns that the very people of God we are serving rendered the retreat incomplete for me. I find it even offensive to the LGBTQ+ apostolate I was heading when Sr.Briege mentioned that “homosexuality is the result of the flaw of original sin.”
And I found it misleading when Fr. Pablo insisted on “protecting’”our paternity (meaning authority) by saying, “it has nothing to do with synodality”. Isn’t it that our authority is based on synodality just as the early Christians?
While at the retreat I was bothered to see a culture of waste happening in our midst. Being a director of an Integral Ecology Apostolate, I was appalled by the unlimited use of plastics, from bottles to lunch packs and utensils.
There was much food wastage too from snacks to meals. I really appreciate the tireless efforts of the organizers but this has to be factored in already, especially in big gatherings like this.
Pope Francis recently published Laudate Deum (2023) to reiterate his appeal in Laudato Si (2015). In fact, such neglect and wastage would unwittingly reflect on the truthfulness of the renewal event.
Ecological concerns are the dominating leitmotif of our world’s advocacy today. I cannot fathom a concept of sanctity devoid of its connection with ecology.
All the more when we are becoming more aware of ecological sin wherein the destruction of the environment leads to the detriment of the people especially the poor. Food is served at our tables during the retreat.
It saved us time but nevertheless made use of plastics. I wouldn’t mind though towing a line for the buffet and avoiding the use of plastic utensils. Besides, food wastage could have been avoided by taking only what one can consume. Of course, I respect the organizers’ reasons for doing so or whatever they have done after.
The theme of the retreat is seemingly self-explanatory: “Call to Holiness”.
But I guess the concept of holiness nowadays is itself problematic. The claim for holiness of every fundamentalist at present renders us a chaotic world.
For priestly spirituality, it begs the question of the kind of spirituality the organizers are ushering us. If the organizers were to heed the “complaints” of the laity during the pre-synodal consultation, they could have clues on what to address.
But my take is that every form of spirituality is always connected with our mission. Every mystic’s life and work has its corresponding social dimension. If we remain on an apparent dichotomy, we might as well recede back to medieval times.
In my 14 years of priesthood, my most meaningful prayers emerged from my deep social engagements. It is so when reciprocally I realized that in front of the Lord, our ministries don’t matter. Only the love of God matters.
And yet, it is the same unconditional love of God that impelled me to work harder for the kingdom of God. The recently concluded retreat allowed me to revisit my love story with the Lord but it doesn’t lead me to identify myself with His works apart from the sacraments.
To be ‘alter Christus’ is not confined to the liturgy and the sacraments at all but also to the indispensable work for justice and peace.
Our encounter with the Lord should lead us to the bold proclamation against the structural evils of the world that continue to dwarf the genuine growth of the majority of the people.
The last thing I want is for our Church to be complicit in the degradation of our environment. A spiritual retreat is a chance to reflect on the direction of our journey in life.
It is supposed to correct our missteps or strengthen our resolve. I’m just glad that I found my much-needed rest there.
Fr. Raymond Montero-Ambray is the Ecology Ministry director and head of the LGBTQIA+ apostolate in the Diocese of Tandag in the southern Philippines. The priest is a staunch environmental and Indigenous Peoples’ rights activist.