Here in New York, I am currently a seminarian on pastoral year (a year-long internship at a parish in my diocese). In an exercise of charity and concern, our diocese like many others has cancelled all Masses, public liturgies, devotions, and meetings through Easter in order to keep our most vulnerable parishioners safe. This has of course posed a certain ministerial crisis since many of the avenues (Mass, confession, one-on-one meetings) that we have been taught to send people down when feeling anxious, despondent, and isolated from God are now closed indefinitely. So, what do we do? This situation is calling us to be creative in how we minister to people. Online resources, social media, live-streaming liturgies, and even just phone calls and video chats can and will keep people feeling connected. I think many of us already know this and have been putting effort into these new ministries and forms of evangelization even before the pandemic. It is true though that without sacraments and personal connection, even this media approach could never be enough.
While creative ministry right now is important, I would like to focus rather on the flip side of that same question—what do we do? Here, I would like to address my brother seminarians and anyone, priest and lay alike, that is struggling due to a lack of fulfilling ministry. I don’t think this is a selfish pursuit, but an essential one if we are to check our own feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and despair.
Last summer I had the great experience of attending the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF). In these last few days, one of their spiritual approaches came back to me vividly; they called it Relationship-Identity-Mission—and here the order of the words does matter. IPF posited that many people in ministry may operate backwards. Mission is primary; from there flows Identity (I am a seminarian. I am a youth minister); then, the personal Relationship with Christ gets whatever energy is left. If these last few days without “real ministry” have been a struggle for you, as they have been for me, I think we need to ask ourselves not “what do I do?”—because frankly we cannot do much of anything our Mission truly requires—but rather ask “who am I? I work for Jesus, yes, but is my own, personal relationship with Him primary?”
In discussing Relationship-Identity-Mission, the question was often asked “where do you live?” If you live in your Mission and your Identity is synonymous with what you do, you are going to have a difficult month (or maybe even longer). But if you live in the Relationship and make that your starting point, even during a time when the Mission is unclear or nonexistent, then you are going to rediscover your Identity as a beloved son or daughter of a faithful God. Amidst fear and uncertainty, God is giving us this time to go deeper into a relationship with Him, so that we can live out our missions more fruitfully when this is all over.
So, if you find you are struggling now because you are living Mission-Identity- Relationship, take his time as a Lenten Retreat and don’t feel bad about it! The world needs your prayers now more than ever, and your creative approach to ministry now will then be the fruit of your time alone with Jesus. If you are living Relationship-Identity-Mission, go deeper and speak honestly with Jesus about frustrations with your minimized Mission.
In closing, I would like to offer this consoling quote from Henri Nouwen for your reflection:
“We are not what we do, we are not what we have, we are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving creator.”
Jesus is calling us to remain in His Love (John 15:9), a request that I imagine was made for times like these. So choose to live in the relationship, take ownership of your identity as the beloved, and watch your ministry take root.
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Christopher Heller is a seminarian for the Diocese of Rockville Centre studying at Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, NY. He graduated from The Catholic University of America with bachelor degrees in Philosophy and Theology in May of 2017. Chris is a native of Long Island, hailing from both Saint Edward's Parish in Syosset and Saint Patrick's Parish in Bay Shore, where his family currently lives.