Reclaiming the Secular Spirituality of Diocesan Priests

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Diocesan priests face several challenges today. The condition of the diocesan priests is varied and complex all over the world.[1] But there are certainly several common challenges along with the specific ones that are afflicting the diocesans priests.  All these challenges can become opportunities if one views them from the perspective of diocesan spirituality. Hence, here, I am not cataloguing all challenges that afflict our diocesan priests today but would rather try to unravel how a diocesan spirituality can assist to face them and convert them into opportunities. Here we concentrate on the challenges emerging from our specific context of our country.  We can classify the challenges as those that originate from within our community and those that have their origin outside it. Within the community, we have an issue of loss of credibility generated by several factors like the scandal of sex abuse, mismanagement of church finances, ritualism, legalism, clericalism and lack of holiness, . Besides internal challenges , we have external challenges posed by the acceleration of our society produced by new technologies of communications, rising fundamentalism, haunting sense of loss of present and the future,  haunting past being seen as linked with the colonizers, economic slowdown.

 Specific Character of Diocesan Spirituality

‘Is there a specific diocesan spirituality?’ is question raised by many.[2]  We can find it even in the angelic doctor St. Thomas Aquinas who seems to affirm the specificity of Diocesan spirituality as he asks whether the religious or the secular clergy is perfect.[3]  This seems to presume that there is a hierarchy of spirituality and it is often used to relegate diocesan spirituality to a lower level.  Thus, while affirming the specificity of diocesan spirituality,[4] I refrain from a thought that seems to flow from the assumption that the call of a diocesan priest is something inferior. [5] Perhaps, it is better to trace the locus theologicus of the spirituality of the diocesan priest in the universal call to holiness that  came to a profound understanding in the dogmatic constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, given by the Vatican II council.[6]  With the conciliar rediscovery of the essential nature of the Church, the Diocesan priest is enabled to respond to the call of the Spirit to live the priesthood of Christ in complete fidelity to Christ   our saviour and God our father.  Within this context, I wish to reclaim the secular calling of the diocesan priest.[7] It is a call of complete immersion into the life and world of our people. Perhaps, Raimon  Panikkar’s sacred secularity might open some windows into the understanding of the secular spirituality of the diocesan priest.[8]  Panikkar’s sacred secularity chiefly follows from the non-dual perspective. I rather wish to take up an incarnational and sacramental approach to understand the specific spirituality of a diocesan priest and explore how a diocesan priest can become a living Christo-ecclesial-cosmo-anthropophany or the sacramental manifestation of the Christ his Church, humanity and the world sacradizing all space and time.   May be  this is close to  Pierre Tielhard  de Chardin’s  celebration of mass on the altar of the world.[9]

 Diocesan Spirituality as Incarnational

The spirituality of diocesan priest is incarnational. It can never be one of Fuga Mundi of the yesteryears which was largely animated by a dualist worldview. It was this separation of the sacred and secular that might have interpreted the incarnational impulse of the diocesan priest in terms  of secular life.  It is in the giving of oneself in the ministry that a diocesan priest becomes most aware of the Spirit’s action in him.  A diocesan priest is an incessant mediator[10] wherein he witnesses to and channels God’s grace when God the father encounters his people in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Hence, besides the Ecclesial and Christic dimensions, diocesan spirituality has constitutive sacramental and Trinitarian dimensions.  It is a spirituality centred on pastoral ministry or action. Indeed, it is based on the sacramental economy that is the moral and eschatological incursions of   divine power into time and space until the eschaton.  This is why the spirituality of a diocesan priest is a spirituality of blessed hope, centred on the sacraments and the word of God. He chiefly does it through liturgy and other pastoral actions by which he situates the sacramental grace into nature and culture that is inhabited by the people of God. This means that the sacraments perpetuate God, the father’s creative plan, the Son’s re-creative task of directing all things towards the glory of the Father and the Spirit’s trans-creative power which never ceases to make present the Son’s resurrection to renew the face of the earth.  This is the reason why a diocesan priest has to become an incarnated sacrament of divine action of love, not in abstraction but in concrete actions.

Sacramental Basis of Diocesan Spirituality

Sacramental theology teaches us that a sacrament combines the divine and the human action of the Church. The sacraments, therefore, are viewed as visible signs instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ and entrusted to his Church for the sanctification of the faithful. We cannot understand the sacraments outside the symbolic network of the Christian faith. As sacred signs, they have both a revelatory and operative functions. They reveal God’s love and communicate his salvific grace. This is why the sacramental basis of the spirituality of a diocesan priest has both revelatory and operative dimensions. He has the mission to indicate as well as become the channel of God’s love and his grace of salvation in the spirit of Diakonia.  This mission is linked to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that teaches us that the Church is the sacrament of salvation. It is in and through the sacramental dimension of the Church that the diocesan priest lives/exercises his specific ministerial priesthood in communion with the faithful who share in the common priesthood derived from the one priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ. [11] The challenge to indicate the love of God and live the imperative of being a sacrament of the same is at the heart of the spirituality of a diocesan priest.  Canon law also teaches us that the source of sanctification of the diocesan priest is his pastoral ministry.[12]  It is holiness that is lived through active participation in the triple mission of our Lord Jesus Christ.[13]  While understanding the sacramentality of diocesan spirituality,  one should care not to view the priestly ministry as mainly inward looking locked within the Church. It is ministry that takes the sacramentality of the world seriously. Hence, justice and peace, inter-religious dialogue, environmental issues, dialogue with science and technology also become central to him. This is why a diocesan priest naturally and fully lives the sacred secularity.

Diocesan Priest as Immersed into the sacramentality of the Church

Like every other Catholic, a diocesan priest is already immersed in the sacramentality of the Church.  We inhabit it but the diocesan priest is also exercising leadership within it.  In anthropological and philosophical language, we can say that we are living under a Catholic symbolic order.  The sacramental theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet of the Institut Catholique  in Paris can assist to understand   the spiritual challenge of a diocesan  priest.  He invites us to give up our common sense instrumentalist view of language and embrace language not as an instrument but as mediation.  Language thus becomes a medium of our experience of our world.[14] Following Jacques Lacan, he teaches that language forms an important constituent of the symbolic order.  Thus, we live our faith and have our being in the symbolic order. Chauvet sees the symbolic order as synonymous to sacramental order.[15]   Within the symbolic order, Lacan traces two psychic constituents: Imaginary and symbolic. The symbolic keeps the real at a distance and represents it while the imaginary tries to erase the distance where it attempts to gain immediate contact with things.[16]  This means the subject tries to find its image in the things and is a narcissist.   Self-being a subject of liturgical and sacramental action is assisted by the mediation of the symbolic in the sacramental order to form ourselves and everything that we experience into a world.   Often we may get fixated into the mirror stage of Lacan where a person identifies with the mirror image and thinks that he/ she is only that image. Thus, for instance, for a diocesan priest, his entire ministry can be only a selfie / a narcissist indulgence, but when he humbly recognizes the surplus in the symbolic, he is enabled to live the mystery of Christ who is living and acting in him.

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Mystery of Symbolic Mediation and Resonance  

The challenge to live the mystery of symbolic mediation can also be understood with the help of Jerry D. Korsmeyer’s resonance model of revelation. It does assist us to understand how the human and the divine co-participate in the drama of experience.  He proposes resonance as a mode where God and humans meet on the platform of experience.  Resonance is a key analogy to him. All physical systems have a natural frequency. Each system reacts by the maximization of its own amplitude impulse or impact corresponding to its natural frequency.[17] Our blowing musical instruments work on this principle. We can also understand through this model of revelation, not just the sacramental economy but also the  consequences of the original sin which can be seen as being of tune or our of resonance with God and cosmos. He teaches that God’s revelation is an event that brings about an inter-personal communion between God and Human beings which is symbolically mediated and accessible though the resonance of God-human relationship.  Hartmut Rosa, a socialist and political scientist also presents resonance as model to understand the relationship.[18] Resonance thus provides a powerful model to consider our embodied nature seriously and presents a synchronic reciprocal form to understand the divine human engagement in the sacramental economy of our salvation. The wind instruments can provide us a deep insight into how resonance can be a profound model to understand a reciprocal model by which a diocesan priest can allow his pastoral ministry to become an incarnation of divine love and let it become a source of holiness for the faithful as well as the sanctification of the priests themselves.[19]  This means that the diocesan priest like any other faithful can also fail to synchronize /harmonize/ resonate with the economy of grace and salvation.

Absence of Resonance

The lack of resonance with the divine as well as the people of God/ Church can render the pastoral ministry of a diocesan priest arid and sterile. This mainly happens when  pastoral work  becomes an egology for the concerned priests. Maybe we can illustrate this virus of narcissism that afflicts several of our diocesan priests with the help of conjugation of a verb. We are familiar with the conjugation of the several verbs but what if the entire life of the priest becomes a conjugation of an ego.[20] Let’s illustrate it.  Let us take the case of one Fr. Newton.   Here Fr. Newton is imaginary and does not stand for any living or a dead person.

I Newton

You Newton…. You have to Newton

He/She/ It Newtons ….. Everyone has to Newton

We Newton

You Newton

They Newton

This makes the entire pastoral work into an ego project.  When there is resonance with the divine the conjugation will change…..

I Christ

You Christ

He/She/ It Christs

We Christ

You Christ

They Christ

This is conjugation of reciprocal resonance.



The unique diocesan spirituality can let the diocesan priest transform the challenges that afflict them into opportunities. The sacramental paradigm that we have tried to intertwine with the incarnational model of holiness can assist us to respond to the scandals within the Church and challenges that we face in our society.  The paradigm that we have embraced invigorates and builds synergy within the Church[21] and leads it to become light to everyone. It is not an inward-looking model but is profoundly missionary paradigm that echoes the life and mission of Christ our Lord.




[1] George Aschenbrenner, S.J, “a Check on our Availability: The Examen”, Review for Relgious (May 1980) 321-324.

[2] We can trace it being raised by Archbishop Henry D’Souza, “ Diocesan Spirituality” , Vidyajoyti, 58/11 (1994) 738.

[3] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol II, Trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Brothers, Inc, 1947), part II-II, question 184, Article 8.

[4] Apostolic lives of saints like Charles Boromeo, Vincent de Paul, Cure de’Ars, John Marie Vianney teaches us that there is a specific diocesan spirituality.

[5] One can trace the famous French debate on the spirituality of a diocesan priest that basis on a conception of the inferior calling of a diocesan priest. See La  Maison-Deiu, “ Debat sur la Spiritualite du clerge diocesan”, La Maison –Deiu 1/3(1945) 71-90.

[6] Lumen Gentium, 39-42.

[7] The dichotomy between the sacred and secular is bridged by the great Vatican Council II and hence, we cannot think that the secular calling of the diocesan priest is inferior to the religious life.

[8]  There is nothing that is non-sacred. The sacred and the profane inter-penetrate each other. We live  tempternity. accessed on 30/09/2019. Hans Gustafson, “ Guidance for contemporary Pilgrims” accessed on 30/09/2019.

[9] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 11-31.

[10] Religious priest are also mediators but a diocesan priest lives his entire live mediating God’s sacramental economy to his people with the people.

[11] See john Ponnore , Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest (Raipur : United Printers, 2016)66-67.

[12] See can 276 para 2, 1  Code of Canon Law  ( Bangalore : Theological Publication  in India, 2015).

[13] Abraham Kadaolackal, The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest (Mumbai: St. Pauls 2004), 29-39.

[14] Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacrament: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Banglore: Claretian Publication, 2001),3.

[15] Ibid., 11-14.

[16] Ibid., 15-16.

[17] Jerry D. Korsmeyer, GodCreature, Revelation: A Neoclassical Framework for Fundamental Theology (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995), 161.

[18] Rosa presents three axes of resonance: Horizontal (family, friendship and politics), Diagonal ( relationship to objects at work, in education, sport, and consumption), and Vertical (religion, nature, art and history). We either have resonance or are alienated from the world. Resonance takes our embodied nature seriously and views us as resonating bodies. Madalina Diacono “Engagement and Resonance: To ways out from disinterestedness and alienation” accessed on 25/05/2019.

[19] To understand how resonance works in a wind instrument, think of someone pushing the child swing. Like any pendulum the length of the swing decides the natural frequency of the swing. Pushes that are closer to the frequency of the swing will produce optimum swing for the child. The pushes that are not in tune with the frequency of the swing will produce bad swing.  By changing the length of the swing you can produce different frequencies and consequently corresponding optimal swing. In a wind instrument the mouth piece vibrations are the push and the column of air inside the instrument is the swing.  The push that gives right frequency produces the musical sound while the push that does not hit the right frequency fails to produce the right musical sound. By changing the length of the air column the musician produces different frequencies that resonate and generate soothing music.  See ‘Resonance and Musical Instruments’ accessed on 25/09/2019.

[20] I draw inspiration from the book, Applying: To Derrida See John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, Applying: To Derrida (London: Macmillian Press, 1996).

[21] Fr. George A. Aschenbrenner S.J calls it fire. See George A. Aschenbrenner, Quickening the Fire in our Mind (Chicago: Loyola College)

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao