Honeymoons and Vulnerability

South African Bishops’ Spokesman Speaks on Priestly Ministry

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Father Chris Townsend

PRETORIA, South Africa, JULY 24, 2009 (ZENIT.org).- Out of my depth. They lied (or maybe they were just being nice) when they told me that the first few years of priesthood would be like «a honeymoon» … if this is the honeymoon, I’m concerned about the marriage.

My first few years of priesthood have become defining for me. I have felt out of my depth.

My first assignment: Here I was, a newly ordained white South African thrown into a sprawling and notorious township called Soweto. I felt so alone. My supposed team ministry as an associate pastor hardly lasted more than the journey from the bishop’s office to the car and certainly no longer than two weeks. I sort of ended up as a pastor before long… the team ministry proved very difficult to sustain.
And yet, this feeling of being out of my depth has become my defining point for priesthood. So much of the ministry of priesthood relates to being out of our depth. Whether it is in preaching or liturgy or reconciliation or in pastoral effort, the feeling of being out of depth is, to me, fundamental to priesthood.

Out of our depth means being vulnerable. I don’t like vulnerability. It scares me.

And yet, a priest’s ministry brings many such situations: Sitting with a child whose life has been shattered by a sexual predator is vulnerability, extreme vulnerability.

Discovering the wonderful exuberance and talent of youth in our African Catholicism is an experience of being out of my depth, especially when they expect you to dance.

The ministry to the bereaved, especially to people much older than I am — shatters all your ideas and ideals of how a priest should react. Merely applying oils by formula as salve to the sick is not healing. Spending time with them in honest prayer and concern should be part of this ministry. Formula can become control — and control builds a false security and even a secure isolation.


I have two great historical models of priesthood. The crazy Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney, who wanted to run away but was so embroiled in the fight for souls that he couldn’t. And the (almost historical) Don Camillo. Both are models of extraordinary vulnerability — and willingness to serve and love out of weakness.

I also have four model priests who impacted me.

One was the parish priest when we were growing up. I think he had taken a shine to my mother and would come round after Sunday evening Mass for meals and then would have to be pointed home in the right direction after a good meal and family time (and one or three bottles of wine). We learned to love the family vulnerability of a very human, very loving person.

My second great role model was an emphysema sufferer whose whole ministry was one of frustration caused by his health. Yet so often he would haul himself out of bed to see people and celebrate Mass. His dream of ministry in China became ministry to the Chinese in our diocese and his memory lives on in so many homes and families.

My third great model was murdered in his presbytery this year: our vocations director, the man who guided my journey to priesthood, through all the joys and tribulation of discernment and seminary life. All soft and cuddly on the outside (we called him «huggy bear»), he showed a remarkable toughness and strength. He went where he was posted and transformed so many lives by his modelling of stupid, perhaps naïve, love — a love that got him killed by some young drug addicts out for money. He knew his killers.

My final great model was a mentor who became a great friend and who died a week after my ordination to the diaconate. His out of depth experiences made him a man who sought out being out of his depth. On the fifth anniversary of his appointment to a parish (we have six-year appointments in our conference) he would make an appointment to see the bishop, «just to remind him that I am available for a move.» He never sought the accolades of the priest of the parish in perpetuity, but modeled an ideal of service to me. We worked together in a working class neighborhood and always insisted that the presbytery be wide awake by 6 a.m., as this was the time people were on their way to work. So often he saw people before I’d even had my first cup of personality (coffee).

My own experience of priesthood, from those remarkable and wonderful days in Soweto to my current ministry working in Communication and Media for our bishops’ conference, have remained ones of vulnerability. I have never quite felt qualified for any of the ministries I have been asked to do. This is an extreme feeling of vulnerability. It is also an occasion for grace, for it allows for a growing sense that we are merely workers with and for an overwhelming Grace we can never contain.

I love the vulnerability of priesthood.

* * *

Father Chris Townsend was ordained a priest in 2000. After serving as pastor in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, he was appointed as the Information Officer of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (www.sacbc.org.za) in 2006.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation