Being A Priest
Being A Priest
Leo Philomin (Oblate Priest) gives expert video advice on: Do you ever wonder about marriage and children?; Are you ever lonely?; Do you have a favourite saint? and more...
Do you ever wonder about marriage and children?
I do, Yes. Initially when I joined that Oblates, I knew I would be sacrificing that area. There's that first sense of being and falling in love and doing what you feel is right as a young person. You are willing to sacrifice anything and everything to get there and to do what's right. There's a romanticism in it, and I never thought about marriage until my first niece was born and I was very jealous of my brother. In matter of fact, I was trying to tell him "have you got this sorted out, have you got that sorted out, and this sorted out?" and that's when he said, “Did you become the father or did I become the father?” So I do think of marriage, we do fall in love. But it's just like anything else, once there's a commitment made to a particular life, and the priesthood is for life. There are priests who, because they made the commitment, cannot live on their own, who then have to make another commitment to say that they have to leave the priesthood and move on. The priesthood is for life and perseverance is called to live in that life, just like when you are married - you are commited for life in the Catholic Church. You might see many good things out there, but you have to make a re-commitment to what you have already made. I fell in love twice, really once, but you could say twice. It's a lonely life, it can be a lonely life and it is sometimes a lonely life because sometimes you just have to face going into your room and being on your own and not have someone else to share intimacy with, to share those things that are normal in human nature. It doesn't mean that you can't be intimate with someone. You know you can share with them your intimate thoughts, your hunger, your pain, and your desires. I can share that with some very good friends of mine, you don't share it with the world. But there might be one or two people, one of them I might fall in love with and I can share with that person, and know that it can never be taken any further and it is a sacrifice. I think we do make that sacrifice not for ourselves, but in a way we make it because God is important in our life. That's the only reason I make, no other reason and if once God stops becoming a reason for me, then every other thing then stops.
Are you ever lonely?
Yes, and that's where you need good friends. You need a good prayer guide who will help you, especially those times when you feel vulnerable, when you feel weak, when you're not sure, who will support you and walk with you. Every priest, every religious person, even every Christian should have a prayer guide - a spiritual guide, really - who they can talk to about their dificulties as well as their joys. And it's vital, especially for priests, for those who are decided to consecrate their lives in a very particular way. So, loneliness is there, and I think we all have to face it. I think it's in married life also. I don't think that it's not there. And, it's an opportunity when we do face it to encounter God, and I think that God is truly present to us when we've come face to face with our loneliness. And, I think a lot of images in Scripture talk of God leading the people into the desert. When you think about it, it's the most loneliest of places - desolate places - and yet God is encountered. It's when we become vulnerable that God really makes Himself known to us.
Do you think there will ever be a day when priests can get married?
Yes. I have no theological or philosophical reasoning why priests can't get married. But that's my own personal view, it's not the Church's view. We have priests who are married in the Catholic priesthood. They belong to a different rite - to the Greek, to the Orthodox Church and to another Church, but are in communion with the Catholic Church. We also have Anglican vicars who, having converted, have been ordained priests and who remain married to their spouses. But the idea is that if your spouse dies, you will not marry again. Within the Catholic Church, if you've been a Catholic all the time, priesthood is about celibacy and not being married. Personally, I think that there is scope for married priests. We take a vow of chastity, but the diocesan priests I think could marry if they wanted. There's a lot of logistics around it - how the family would be looked after, and everything else. But we can get over logistics.
Why are the numbers of people entering priesthood declining?
Firstly, there is much more opportunities for young people today to have access to whatever they want in life than they did probably about 30-40 years ago, even 50 years ago. There was a lot more poverty, a lot more people found themselves in the normal course of events. They didn't have access to anything else, unless you studied and you went on further. So priesthood provided opportunity for people. I'm not negating any of those priests who came in during that time, but it allowed people to think about it as a real valid choice in life because there was a future, there was a direction, there was an opportunity available there whereas otherwise it wouldn't be available to them. They would have genuinely seen it as an opportunity of responding to God's call, and I would not doubt that at all. Today, with so much things available for people, and also the idea of celibacy and the commitment for life to something, it's a big thing for young people. Young people today would come and tell you "I'm willing to go and work for 1 year or 2 years as a volunteer," and we have young people who go to Africa, to Zambia, to South Africa and South America, Brazil, who will go there for a year and give of their best in working with the poor, working with street children, with HIV, working in hospitals or whatever it is. But that's a commitment they can give, they can come back and get on with their life, and they're changed by that experience. Whatever mission experience that they would have had before, they can have it now, but for a limited period and still have choices in life. The other thing is that the choice to be a priest is a hard life today. You're bombarded with so much satisfaction, gratification of life, and the priesthood calls for a lot of sacrifice. Religious life is about sacrifice, but there's a joy and a real kind of life in it. When you sacrifice, it's about choosing betwen two goods rather than between a good and a bad, and I there's so many goods now that it's difficult for people to tune into what their heart really wants.
Have you ever had an audience with the pope?
I've never had a personal audience with the pope, but I've been with a group who have gone to Rome. I went in 1992 with oblates, young oblates. We were in Rome, all the European oblates gathered together, and it was in Casa Gandolfo when Pope John Paul II was there in his summer residence. We had the opportunity to celebrate mass with him, and then he came around and had photos taken. He's the only pope I know. And then I've been to the world youth events, but that was millions of others and I was an insignificant dot in the landscape. I don't look towards having an audience with the pope as a big thing, I don't wonder, "when am I going to get my audience?" or anything like that.
Would you like to be Pope?
It's a huge, responsible task. I don't agree with some of the church stuff, in a personal matter. In a public form it's always different, but in a personal matter there's a lot I find difficult. I think a pope has to be a person who's able to hold everyone together. No, I don't want to be the pope.
Do you have a favourite saint?
I do, our founder, Saint Eugene de Mazenod, would be my favourite saint. He is someone I came to later on in life, I didn't know about him at first, until I begun to learn about the Oblates, and then I just knew him as "Blessed Eugene." It was only when I went to primary school, which was named after him, at Eugene de Mazenod, and it was only when I was in my thinking about joining the Oblates, that I decided to reflect on his life. I like him I think because he has similarities to me, not that I am a saint like him. At the age of nine, he went into exile, leaving his home. And at the age of nine, I left home, leaving Sri Lanka, for London. I lived in a different environment. Saint Eugene de Mazenod, lived in Italy, in a different environment. He was fortunate to meet a couple of priests as a teenager, who influenced him in a good way, and lived his life well. To put it mildly. He lived well. He lived in luxury, fell into good company, of people with wealth and all that. Yet he was faithful, the church was important to him, he went to mass and everything else. And I would say that for myself, I am fortunate to have good company of people. At the same time, like any teenager, I had the opportunity to be involved in all kinds of stuff and yet being faithful, that God, that the Church is important. It is part of my life. When he returned to France, he wanted to marry but he couldn't find a girl with a rich enough dowry. Which is a very human thing, I think. He wanted to gain his wealth and everything, but he lost everything. Eventually he begun to wonder what the meaning of his life is. That is when he began to think, "Well, what does God want [for me]?"I think, anyone who is allowing that question to emerge, is a person that we can imitate, and reflect on. But with all the crisis that were going on for him, he is willing to say, "What does God want in this life?" All that he discovers in that answer is the Good Friday. Jesus loved him so much, that He gave His life for him. Whatever he is going through is not insignificant. And that is what I bring with my own struggle with English and everything else. I was beginning to feel as though I was not going to cut it in this country, I was beginning to feel as though I would lose my way in this country. But with people who came my way, what I discovered was that I have something to offer. That I can be significant, that I am not alone in this world. That I am still significant to God. That made the difference to me. That was the real changing of "What can I do for others?" I was wanting to help others to be well. That was the story of Eugene that resonates with me. Eugene's story is about calling others to be part of this story of love. God's love for us. Every human person matters.
What do you think would happen if Jesus had been around today?
I think he would find the same reality, the same reaction that he got. People will find him incredulous, there'd be some people that would be attracted by him. There'd be others that would say "What's he looking for in all this?" There'd be people in authority who will feel, "You know, I like what he's about but I'm afraid of losing my own power". I think all that Jesus did then, will be repeated even today, because human nature in the same two thousand years ago as it is today. There are people who are Power; who want to make the decisions, there are people who are powerless and therefore would be attracted by what they see in Christ. There'd be people who are looking for healing, people who are looking for forgiveness, people who want to be belonging to something, and people who'd feel threatened by what he's doing. And it's happening today - Christ doesn't have to come - that people are being rejected because they haven't got the money. They're poor, they're alcoholic, they're drunk. As a matter of fact, one of the things that you said that what distresses you most is actually seeing people, especially alcoholic, and a sense of losing complete sense of their dignity, and it's awful to see that, when you know it is a human person with so much dignity in them, and somehow they've lost it all, and they feel they've lost it. And there's a great sadness into my life. Christ continues to suffer today, in the people who are insignificant, and the people who are suffering through illness and all that kind of thing. So in a sense, he is around today, in the suffering as well as in the good news that's happening in our world. It's about being able to discern it today, and there are some people who'd say, Mother Teresa, for example, some people would accuse her of not running the hospitals well, and the sisters didn't look after the patients well. And yet, she was there, looking after the dying and the sick, when no one else was tending them. So, its happening today.
Do you have a working relationship with other faiths?
We do. In Birmingham, where I'm working at the moment, all of the Christian communities - there's about 19-20 different groups including Methodists, Anglican, Welsh Chapel, all kinds of groups - form a group together called Believing in Birmingham. We meet together often, once every two months, and we organize a Justice of the Peace section, a worship group, a prayer group and different events, which brings us together as a community of the faith because we believe in one Christ, who is one Lord, one Father of all. We share information as well as saying "How can we witness to Christ in this city, together as one community" because Christ always said that they may be one. He always desired the unity of everyone, as He and the Father are one, that we may be one. As a Catholic church, as an Anglican church, we're all trying to work together to celebrate our faith in Christ. The relationship is important. We have Believing in Birmingham for the Birmingham city, and then we have local churches together. Events, and then interreligiously for Birmingham there's a community organizing foundation who are involved in justice and social issues and we're part of it. Here in Birmingham we have what we call Birmingham Citizens, in East London it's Telco, the East London community organization, and they're about bringing together all the faith communities - Hindus, Muslims, Gurdwaras, Sikh temples and all those, and the Christian community as well as unions, schools, laygroups, and secular groups who are interested in making a political change. Not in terms of being part of politics, but being an active voice of transformation in their community, like living wage for the city, social housing, secure neighborhood, cleaner neighborhoods and cleaner parks. Churches and religious communities come into contact with a lot of migrants, especially asylum seekers, but also people who have overstayed their stay here who are undocumented migrants in a sense, who are working hard, being treated rough, who are finding themselves in difficulty. We've come across a huge number of them now, and through Birmingham Citizens we're becoming a voice together of our experience and saying "Look, we need to do something about the undocumented migrants in this country, because there's about half a million here who are undocumented and they're suffering and they're being taken advantage of and we need to do something about it." We will be constructively putting forward suggestions to the councils, to the local authority, to the government to say "Can we not create an amnesty here in some workable way to help?"