July-August 2019 Editorial: Feeding the Fire – Sharpening the Axe

With the passage of time, tiredness, natural physical weaknesses, and the first manifestations of frail health, conflicts, disappointments over pastoral expectations, the burden of routine, the fatigue induced by change, and other sociocultural elements can dampen apostolic zeal and generosity in giving oneself to the pastoral ministry. (1)

Amen to that. And here’s to a quiet summer. Maybe.

Those who are engaged in parish ministry know that hoping for a quiet summer can seem like tempting fate. In some respects, the summer months can be quieter. There are generally fewer meetings; the schools are closed; some pastoral activities may be shelved for a few weeks. On the other hand, if you’re involved in hiring new teachers, or your list of weddings is long, or there is some work to be done on the ‘plant,’ that quiet summer can pass in a blaze of activity.

There is no guarantee of sustained downtime, yet most of us are more likely to experience it during July and August than at any other time of year. And if we’re fortunate, if we have some weeks during which, even if we’re not actually on holiday, we’re not as pressed to the grindstone as usual, what then?

I’ve always been taken with the image of the lumberjack who is too busy to sharpen his axe. Its application to our contemporary situation hardly needs to be drawn out. We’ve become – or we’re chronically at risk of becoming – so busy responding to immediate demands that we don’t have time either to nurture ourselves or to reflect on our mission. The mission gets swallowed up in the moment and we get spread very thin, more extended than effective.

The sharpening of the axe has, of course, a name: ‘Ongoing Formation.’ It would be unfortunate if those words were heard simply as a call for yet another share of our already precious time. If we were to take a lead from the axe-sharpening image, ongoing formation would be something to welcome, in the anticipation that it might make our use of time more effective. Not more efficient – we’re not machines – but pastoral effectiveness can be a matter of the heart.

In its description of ongoing formation, the Congregation for the Clergy notes: ‘One must constantly feed the “fire” that gives light and warmth to the exercise of the ministry.’ (2) Feeding the fire. That sounds more enticing than some revision of theological fundamentals, necessary and valuable though the latter may be.

Granted, the fire might need to be rekindled, rather than just having a couple of extra sticks thrown into the hearth, and the Ratio, the document I’ve just quoted, is reassuringly realistic: it goes on to look at a range of challenges priests – and other humans! – can face.

Ongoing formation, while it may include upskilling, is not reducible to that. It is at least as much a mentality as it is a matter of any particular content. And the Ratio refers repeatedly to the need for fraternity and the risk of isolation: ‘Priestly fraternity is the first setting in which ongoing formation takes place.’ (3)

The Ratio contains an abundance of exhortations to priestly fraternity, and while they may be couched in that terse, ecclesiastical prose that one expects from such documents, the message is clear: Watch out for each other.

God willing, the weeks of summer will afford us a chance not only to slow down a little, but to feed the fire, to reflect on fundamentals both personal and pastoral, and to carve out a little space for fraternity.

1 Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalibus (2017),
2 Ibid., 80.
3 Ibid., 82.

Father Chris Hayden