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Christian spirituality: On the loss of priests and priestly vocations

The death of four priests in one week in Malta in the final days of August created ripples in the Maltese Catholic Church. Gozo was also recently marked by the loss of several well-loved priests.

To date, in 2023, 12 priests have died in Malta, and five in Gozo. This is not an insignificant number. Some were missionaries who had spent most of their lives in service abroad. Others were much loved pastors, walking in faith with their entrusted communities. Some were gentle, quiet presences among their religious communities. Others provided the much-needed strident voice of prophecy to the Church. Some dedicated much of their time and ministry to social justice issues, research, and the mentoring of other younger priests.

To borrow from the African adage “when an old man dies a whole library burns”. In much the same way, the death of priests is a deep loss for the community of believers and for society in general.

A number of relatively younger priests have also decided to leave the ministerial priesthood in the last few months. For the communities that witnessed the departure of their shepherds, this was akin to the loss of a priest through death, and the feelings of grief and anguish were just as powerful.

It is heartening to see former priests involved in Church-related initiatives, albeit in different roles. Some have been employed in aspects of the Church’s mission, while others remain active participants in the life of the Christian community. The years of formation, academic training, and invaluable pastoral experience they had gained in their years of priesthood are thus not lost.

Next Sunday, September 17, marks the 90th anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Mgr Joseph De Piro. He died in 1933, at the age of 56, at a time when he was director of no less than six children’s homes, apart from many other ministries, including the foundation of the Missionary Society of St Paul (MSSP). His death was sudden, premature, and deeply felt. In 1933 Gozitan poet George Pisani described De Piro’s loss as a moment when all the children living in Church institutes mirrored the whole nation in feeling orphaned.

It is no different today. We also feel orphaned and bereft with the loss of priests. In such moments the temptation is to turn inwards, into the dangerous self-absorption of cynicism and lack of hope.

Joy, the highest expression of life in Christ, is the greatest witness we can offer the holy people of God

Pope Francis has often addressed this issue in the face of the declining numbers of vocations in many parts of the world: In a video message to the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious in August 2021, the pope said: “Renounce the criterion of numbers: otherwise it can turn you into fearful disciples, trapped in the past and giving into nostalgia. Instead of focusing on numbers… focus on evangelisation and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. I would like to remind you that joy, the highest expression of life in Christ, is the greatest witness we can offer the holy people of God whom we are called to serve and accompany on their pilgrimage toward the encounter with the Father.”

These words of trust by Pope Francis echo those of Jesus: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). Even as we honour and witness to our grief, when we are bowed down with sorrow, we reaffirm our faith in God’s unwavering faithfulness to us, even in ways we do not yet understand.

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