Fr Billy Swan

The following is a talk I gave to priests and deacons of the diocese of Cloyne on 8th November 2022


Dear friends. I am honoured to be with you, the priests and deacons of Cloyne, here this afternoon for your conference. I thank Bishop Creane for his kind invitation and for this opportunity to share a few words with you on the topic ‘The spirituality of a diocesan priest in a synodal church’. I also thank Fr Gerard Condon for the enormous work he has put into this wonderful conference that offers us fraternity, wisdom, light and hope.

I love working with priests and deacons - being with you on occasions like this. We live in extraordinary and unprecedented times – times that are both challenging, daunting and yet exciting. It is a time that calls us to be courageous, to be bold and to believe in the gift that we have to offer, a gift the world needs. In the inspiring words of Pope Francis:

‘We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 265).

We might not have chosen this time to be priests and deacons but we have been chosen for this time to be priests and deacons. Therefore, in order to meet the challenges and opportunities courageously without shrinking back or holding out as long as we can to avoid change, what we require is a solid spirituality that will enable us to minister effectively as ordained ministers in a synodal Church. This will mean an end to a type of ‘lone ranger’ ministry and a move towards greater proximity and collaboration both with brother priests, religious and with our lay brothers and sisters. So, what is that spirituality that we need to embrace and that will sustain us going forward? What does it look like? Here I describe five features of the spirituality that I believe will be foundational for a healthy diocesan priesthood in a synodal Church of today and tomorrow.

1. A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery:

During the lock down and in the aftermath of the pandemic, Fr Hugh Lagan SMA did sterling work with priests online and at diocesan conferences including one we had in Ferns. He left us with many valuable things to ponder but the main takeaway from his input was that we priests and deacons need to let go of what we find burdensome and embrace what we find life-giving and fulfilling. Whatever happens in the future, it cannot be business as usual. ‘New wine, new wineskins’ (Mark 2:22) What he described was a certain dynamic that is not just important for priests but for the whole Church – a dynamic that has been in the Church since the first Easter Sunday morning. I speak of a spirituality of the paschal mystery.

At the beating heart of our Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the Christ event that stands at the center of history and that changed the world.

In his pedagogy of faith with his disciples, Jesus indicated that he would accomplish his saving mission in a way that involved them. In other words, Christ did not come to reveal the Father’s love and save humanity in way that left his disciples as passive observers. Rather he called them to be active participants. He wanted us to participate in his saving mission, in his dying and rising. Therefore, in his teaching on discipleship, the command of ‘come follow me’ and ‘drink the cup that I will drink’ was not one of mere imitation but rather a summons to real participation in his divinity, brought about by his death and resurrection that he accomplished before them.

For St Paul, the very act of faith itself is a drama that takes us into Christ, en-Christo - an act that draws us into his person and makes us partakers in his death and resurrection: ‘And you were buried with him in baptism in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead …If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at God’s right hand’ (Col. 2:12; 3:1. See also Romans 6). According to the Catechism, ‘By virtue of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is already now on earth a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (CCC, 1002). This happens through faith, baptism and the liturgical life of the Church.

What all this means for us is that the mysteries of dying and rising are not to be considered as far apart but as mysteries that interpenetrate Christian lives. During my first visit to the Holy Land, I went straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There I discovered that the rock of Calvary and the empty tomb are located within the same building and are very close by. It struck me that this is a symbol of a deeper spiritual reality whereby the experience of losses and new life are bound together. The cross and resurrection are not mysteries that are separated but are rather intertwined. ‘Every rose has its thorn’ - No matter how good things are for us, our lives are never completely free of the cross. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ - No matter how hard life is, resurrection is still in progress.

With the gift of faith, we see how our losses are compensated by new life that comes in different ways. Here lies the challenge. As we get older, decline in numbers and as the Church contracts, it is easier to identify ways in which there is dying. At first glance it can seem as if there are many losses and few obvious gains. But we must remember that our lives are bound up with the fate of the whole Church as she makes her way through history. With intense faith based on the resurrection, we trust that despite the worst thing that can happen, God will bring out new life, somehow, someway. When we suffer losses, we ultimately become stronger and more mature provided we recognize with faith that all is unfolding because of our share in the Lord’s dying and rising. The fruits of the resurrection might be a little obscure, but they are there. ‘Behold, I make all things new’. At the level of our common humanity, here I offer some examples of what we may lose in life and gain as our journey progresses:

• In middle age we may lose some of our hair and shape but realize that what’s inside is more important than how we look on the outside.

• In retirement we may lose some of our status and income, but we find more freedom to do the things maybe we had no time for before.

• In old age we may lose a little independence, but we receive back some of the love we gave to others.

• Oftentimes when we lose possessions in life, we find after mourning their loss we are freer and less burdened, realizing that we are meant to travel lightly through this world.

• We may lose possessions or abilities, only to realize how much we appreciate that which we have left.

From a faith perspective, these are experiences that challenge us to deepen our trust in God’s eternal love for us. Getting older and edging closer to death can make us feel terrified or can be seen as God’s way of drawing us closer to himself and to the place we are destined to be for all eternity. Realizing this can bring a wonderful peace and acceptance. We are constantly dying to one type of reality and rising to another. In the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, ‘Even though our physical being is gradually decaying, yet our spiritual being is renewed day after day’ (2 Corinthians 4:16).

But for us priests and deacons, what does this dying and rising mean for our ministry? What shape does it have? Here I try to sketch an emerging picture:

· With greater involvement of lay people in administration, I am freed up to minister as a priest and be the priest I feel I was trained for.

· With greater involvement of lay people in administration, I feel like the Apostles in Acts 6 who were freed up to concentrate on preaching, teaching, prayer and pastoral care.

· In the old model there were too many Masses with the quality of the liturgy diluted because of limited resources. Now there are fewer Masses but with better music, better participation and bigger numbers.

· In the old model I felt isolated. Now I feel more part of a team and not on my own. It doesn’t all depend on me.

· I feel like an old model of Church is dying with a new model emerging. God is doing something new. It is giving me new energy and hope.

· In the past, my fear of change and being pushed out of my comfort zone focused my energy on getting things done in the way they always were. This blinded me to new ways of thinking and new perspectives that have enabled me to see everything in a missionary key. New things are happening that are giving me new life and purpose. Working in closer proximity with people is helping me share my faith in new ways and in a new language. And in the middle of it all, I am being changed too.

These are just some of the way brothers that God’s action is changing things for the better. We have a natural default fear of change because we all like what is familiar and what we can control. But let not our fears lock us into mentalities that are not fit for purpose for the changing times in which we live. Let us leave the upper room that is locked behind closed doors and meet this new chapter of the Irish Church on the front foot and with courage. Let us go forth confidently to preach the Gospel on its own terms, despite the consequences. God is doing a something new –replacing old wineskins with new skins to unleash the power of the Gospel with new energy and power. So let us embrace a spirituality of the paschal mystery in our ministry where there is always dying to self and to old ways in order to rise to a new self and new ways, new mentalities and new possibilities to become a renewed Church of missionary disciples.

2. A Spirituality of Communion

From the outset of the synodal process, the three foundational principles were identified as ‘Communion, Participation and Mission’. The first of these is communion and it is no coincidence that it is named first of the three. For if communion between the Lord and ourselves is weak then the goals of participation and mission are compromised too.

We priests and deacons are men in relationship: in relationship with our families, with our parishes, with our diocese, with our bishop and with the universal Church. In the words of Pope St John Paul II, ‘It is impossible to define the nature and mission of the priestly mission except in the context of the rich network of relationships which spring forth from the Most Holy Trinity’.

For every priests, these bonds of communion between us can be distinguished at two levels – the first as relationships that unite us to one another in the priesthood and second, relationships that unite us to the rest of God’s people.

First, the communion that we share as priests. At the Second Vatican Council, it stated that: ‘All priests who are constituted in the Order of Priesthood by the sacrament of orders are bound together by an intimate sacramental brotherhood’ (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 8).

‘No priest is a priest on his own; we are a presbyterate and it is only in this communion with the Bishop that each one can carry out his service’. Pope Benedict XVI, 6th August 2008.

With a greater awareness of this call to communion, the Spirit is calling us in a synodal Church to a greater fraternity, teamwork, partnership and togetherness. We have been used to parishes as independent republics. The ongoing challenge is to discover more fraternal ways of being priests, especially when there are less of us about.

Within the Church and within the priesthood, there is a feeling that this unity and fraternity could be better.

‘Priests are not satisfied with the current state of priestly unity. Only 69% of priests believe that priests are supportive of each other. This is far too low. Unity is an important factor for the happiness and morale of priests’. Stephen Rossetti, ‘The Priesthood Today and Tomorrow’ in Origins, Vol. 40, No. 44, 2011, 713-723, 721.

‘Super-independence leads to isolation and priests who live isolated lives tend to have their needs met in unhealthy, manipulative ways.’ Brendan O’Rourke, CSsr.

Idea of phoning or visiting at least one brother priest every day.

This is the communion between ourselves in the Presbyterate. But this communion in God is a gift that extends outwards to the whole Church and that connects us with our lay brothers and sisters as friends and fellow disciples. After the Jubilee Year of 2000, Pope St John Paul’s desire was to ‘To make the Church the home and school of communion’ (Novo Millenio Inuente, 43).

In order for this to happen, there needs to be a spirituality of communion which he defined as ‘an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the mystical body and therefore as those who are ‘part of me’ (Novo Millenio Inuente, 43).

Therefore, before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed. A spirituality of communion beyond the presbyterate is vitally important to avoid clericalism but so is communion between priests important to nurture an essential priestly identity.

The Fruits of a Spirituality of Communion:

Bridging the gap between laity, religious and clergy. Less ‘them and us’. Never again a ‘Church within a Church’. Fostering mature inter-personal relationships. Counteracting loneliness and isolation.

Deepening the bonds of fraternal communion between us in the Church in the measure that we are united in Christ.

By meeting and coming into closer proximity, we will counteract the polarization that is a growing problem in the Church and the world.

Closer bonds of friendship and mutual support; that we are a Church of care.

We learn to be open to receive as well as to give.

To have courageous conversations.

To listen and to be listened to. Priests need to tell our story too. What gives us life and what demoralizes us.

In all things, charity and understanding. ‘That there be love at the heart of the Church’. St Therese of Lisieux

To help each other grow in holiness, encouraging discernment and fidelity to ones’ vocation.

3. A Spirituality of Participation

Our recent mission in Wexford. The last day – ‘You go into my vineyard too’. Patricia Carroll. A sheet distributed asking people about their gifts and inviting them to consider ways they would like to use them to serve. A good response. ‘Why are you standing around idle? Because no one has hired us!’

Participation in the life of the Church is predicated on our participation through grace in the life of the Trinity and is celebrated by actively participating in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist.

In the ‘Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church’ published in 2004, ‘Participation’ is included among eight principles of the Church’s social teaching.

‘It is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted…This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as "collaborators" of the clergy but truly recognized as "co-responsible", for the Church's being and action’

Pope Benedict XVI, Opening Address to a Pastoral Convention, Rome, 26th May 2009.

The Fruits of a Spirituality of Participation:

Moving from a passive to a participative model of Church.

Overcoming passivity at all levels – co-responsibility. Our hopes that we will not be left alone with responsibilities that are burdensome.

That we might be freed from burdensome administration to be free for being pastors, teachers of the faith and prayer.

That at deanery, diocesan and national level, the concerns and issues of priests and people be heard and taken seriously.

That greater supports be put in place for us priests and deacons.

That we model an experience of participation like this event where everyone’s contribution is valued and welcome.

An honest debate about the obstacles to participation in the life of the Church.

‘Talking up’ participation in our parishes.

Consultation and inviting feedback and fresh ideas.

Creating a culture of creativity and freshness.

‘How would you like to involved?’

Focus on our gifts and the gifts of all the baptised. Engaging the gifts of the youth.

Making people aware that we priests and deacons are struggling to cope as we get older with more responsibilities. ‘Break down can mean break through’.

4. A Spirituality of Mission

To be a missionary Church. Pope Paul VI, Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel

The Church is a mission. She has a message and a gift that the world needs. Placing a value on what’s on offer. To convince people and ourselves that faith in Christ is the friend and not the foe of everything that makes life more humane and beautiful.

Together, to focus outwards. Not to be ‘self-referential’. To have a global, universal and cosmic outlook.

To be ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’. To Christify the world, to sanctify the world and lead people to worship.

To accompany the weak, the wounded, to go out to the edges.

A Church that gets involved. Is not afraid to immerse itself in the messiness of life.

For us priests – staying close to the people we serve.

To foster every vocation as a missionary vocation

In this synodal process, to trust God walks with us and goes before us.

Not to be preoccupied about being in control.

‘Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future; faith is the courage to dance to it today’.

5. A Priestly Spirituality

During his homily at the funeral of the first of the Cresslough victims last month, Fr John Joe Duffy said to the people, “I am part of you, part of this community, and it is together that we will make the journey.” In those terrible days for the people of Cresslough, a light that shone in the darkness was the leadership of the Church shown by Fr John Joe and Bishop Alan McGuckian who attended the funerals of all the victims. In an article for the Irish Times, journalist Justine McCarthy also picked up on this and, paying tribute to the Church’s role, she wrote: “In the face of appalling suffering, secularism fades away and we turn toward a humble, loving church for comfort…For many cradle Catholics, this is the church etched on the native DNA” (Irish Times, 14th Oct. 2022).

The example of what happened in Cresslough gives us a glimpse of what a synodal Church looks like – a Church that brings people into communion with God and with one another; a Church that invites people to participate in her life and a Church that has a message of hope when that hope is sorely needed. And yet, this witness of communion, participation and mission is given in our parishes every week of the year by priests all over the country. Therefore, in paying tribute to Fr John Joe, Justine McCarthy was paying tribute to all of us.

In this synodal Church, priestly ministry is required more and not less. There is a false narrative that tries to convince us that the more we draw closer to and collaborate with lay people, the more our priestly identity will be diluted. Pope John Paul II put this to bed when he argued in Pastores Dabo Vobis, that the opposite is true – ‘The more the laity's own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the priest stands out’ (PDV, 3).

Being a priest in a synodal Church requires that we have a strong sense of our priestly identity as men configured to Christ the head and Good Shepherd of the Church. It will require that we be men of God who know God and have the desire to make Christ known and loved. It demands that we enable the laity to enter fully into a living relationship with God and with the Church. A synodal Church needs priests who face the challenges of today with intense faith and whose faith confirms the deepest faith instincts of the people around him. It will mean that he has a passion to preach the Word of God that he has internalized and made his own.

I would like to propose the example of a model priest and bishop who was also a priest and bishop in a synodal Church. I speak of St Charles Borromeo who feast day we celebrated last Friday. Charles experienced a synodal Church at the Council of Trent and following his appointment as Archbishop of Milan in 1565, he set out to implement the reforms of the Council. His reform was not just structural but spiritual.

In all of his reforms, Borromeo’s great instrument was the synod. He made a pastoral visitation of the whole Archdiocese three separate times – a feat that was extraordinary given the limited means of transportation and the size of the archdiocese. He founded seminaries, built churches, schools, colleges and hospitals. He achieved all of this, not by working alone, but with other people whose respect he earned over many years. He held about eleven diocesan synods as well as a number of provincial councils. These were not democratic assembles but occasions when Charles could present to the whole diocese the findings of his journeys and visitations. They were also opportunities for him to teach the faith at which he excelled. The Reformation was a moment of profound crisis for the whole Church but for Charles, it represented an opportunity to clarify what it is the Church believes and the reasons for doing so. He was one of the main figures of the Counter-Reformation and like others such as St Francis de Sales and St Robert Bellarmine, his approach was not defensive or polemical but evangelical, kerygmatic and courageous. In times that were darkened by confusion and division, Charles began with reform of his own life as he embraced a life of prayer, penance and dedication to his people.

Throughout all his administrative responsibilities and efforts of reform, Charles had one objective in view – that as many as possible would hear and understand the Gospel and respond with faith in Christ. He was a man of God and shared his intimate knowledge of God with his people to whom he drew close. During his councils, synods and gatherings of God’s people, the emphasis was not on the process but on the message and the person of our loving Saviour. This lesson is relevant to our times.

While the synodal path is an important way of being Church or rather a recovery of a former way of being Church, the task of proclaiming Christ, in season and out, preaching and teaching the Catholic faith must remain front and centre. And like Charles, the Church must not lack courage to speak up even when she knows that her message will be opposed or rejected.

This can only happen if we priests have priestly hearts that are aflame with the love of Christ. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010: “It is impossible to understand the charity of St Charles Borromeo without knowing his relationship of passionate love with the Lord Jesus. He contemplated this love in the holy mysteries of the Eucharist and of the Cross, venerated in very close union with the mystery of the Church”.


Dear brothers in the priesthood and diaconate, may we learn from the example of St Charles. May God fan into a flame the gift of the Spirit given to bishops, priests and deacons on the day of our ordination so that, like Charles, we may be close to God’s people, have a burning desire to preach the love of Christ and teach the Gospel. And may each of us become reformers of the Church from within, beginning with ourselves.

May the spirituality of the paschal mystery, of communion, participation, mission and of priesthood guide us forward towards a future of hope for the diocese of Cloyne and the Church around the world.

Thank you for listening!