Ahead of a high-profile conference on the priesthood, prominent Jesuit canonist Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda has cautioned against the risks of social media and excessive attachment to outward devotions, stressing the importance of service.
Speaking to Crux, Ghirlanda said a priest’s spiritual life is essential to their ministry, and the greatest danger he sees to a healthy spiritual life is what Pope Francis has called “spiritual worldliness.”
Spiritual worldliness, he said, means “hiding behind external forms of devotion, liturgical correctness, orthodoxy to the bitter end, of ‘always correct manners,’ of always being in order, but to protect one’s own search for security and personal benefit.”
It is an obsession with outward details, such as fancy cufflinks on the sleeves of a shirt, and is a spiritual attitude that “can lead to careerism, losing sight of the fact that the ministry is a service for others and not for oneself,” he said.
A former rector of the Jesuit-run pontifical Gregorian University and a sought-after advisor for the Vatican on canonical affairs, Ghirlanda spoke ahead of a major Vatican seminar on the priesthood set to take place Feb. 17-19 and titled, “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood.”
Ghirlanda himself is giving a talk on the “Holy life of the clerics: theological-canonical perspective,” on the final day of the seminar, which will be opened by Pope Francis speaking on “Faith and the Priesthood Today.”
The seminar is exploring various aspects of priestly life, including the vow of celibacy.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, has said the seminar will hear various perspectives on priestly celibacy and the married priesthood, however, in the past he has defended the vow as a gift to the Church and an act of faith, and has said discussion at the seminar will not be limited to just that topic.
In his interview with Crux, Ghirlanda warned against the danger “efficiency” poses to a priest’s spiritual life, saying this becomes a problem when a priest is “exercising the ministry as if the positive effects depended on one’s own efforts and on the means applied, forgetting that it is effective only through the action of grace, even if combined with everything that the priest makes available to himself.”
“It is losing sight that everything must be done as if it depended on us, aware that everything depends on God,” he said, quoting the biblical passage, “When you have done everything you had to do, consider yourselves useless servants.”
Ghirlanda also cautioned against the misuse of social media in the digital age, saying they “can distract a priest a lot” and can “take away a lot of time unnecessarily.”
“I don’t want to demonize social media, because if used well they can also be a very valid apostolic tool,” he said, but they can lead to the “trap” of what he called an unhealthy curiosity.
The screen, he said, “generates curiosity that is never satisfied and therefore generates other curiosity about news, information, etc., that is not always necessary,” whereas a healthy spiritual life requires time away from the digital world for prayer and meditation on scripture and Jesus’s life.
“Sometimes the intrusiveness of social networks eliminates” this space of “interior silence” that needed for genuine prayer, he said.
Ghirlanda pointed to the hyper-politicized, polemic, and often toxic nature of public discourse today, especially in the online world, and noted that the Church itself is not immune to this.
“The Church, and therefore priests, lives in history and in a specific society. Unfortunately, the spirit of division and polemics also penetrates the Church,” among priests and also inside religious institutes and associates and ecclesial movements, he said.
Polarizations, he said, “are created where everyone believes they have absolute truth and is unwilling to listen to others.”
This, Ghirlanda said, is what Pope Francis has termed, “self-referentiality,” which is an attitude in which “I find the truth only in myself and I don’t need any external verification, no objectification.”
“This closes all dialogue, it leads to a polemical and exclusionary attitude of others who do not think like me,” which is unhealthy for priestly life and ministry, he said.
In Ghirlanda’s view, the strongest sign of a healthy spiritual life for a priest “is service, spending your entire life at the service of others, reserving nothing for yourself.”
“Of course, this is not easy and the search for implementation is for the whole of life,” he said, saying a true spirit of service “is that ‘leave everything’ that Jesus asks and which we hope to be able to leave at least at the end of life.”