50 Years of Holy Disquiet

Being a Missionary Priest at 80 years of age

Fifty years ago when I was a very young priest, I read a prayer composed by Romano Guardini that went like this, “O Lord give me the gift of holy disquiet…take my hand; help me to cross over to you.” This is a healthy disquiet because it leads not to discouragement but to reliance on the Lord. I still value this prayer.

50 Years of Holy Disquiet
I ask the reader (of this article) these questions

  • Do you somehow feel dissatisfied with life at the moment?
  • Do you have an unfulfilled yearning in your heart?
  • Do you feel there is something missing in your life?
  • Do you want for something in life, more than what you have?

At various times in my 50 years as a Columban missionary priest, I have answered yes to all of these questions. There are various strategies to escape from facing the disquiet. It is so easy for a priest to get very busy. Among other escapes, I used to flee to the wide open spaces of the Arizona desert with a Louis L’Amour western!

As a young priest

When I was a young priest, full of first fervor, I prayed that I would “stay on the rails”. Then came the stark realisation that I could leave the priesthood tomorrow, especially when faced with the loneliness of living in another culture. I had realized that to be a faithful, celibate priest was absolutely impossible on my effort alone. It was a total gift from God, I was just called to cooperate. I became free! I was called to rely on Christ’s strength.

In my 50s

In my 50s, as time wore on, I was doing the priestly thing every day – Mass, Sacraments, Homily, instructions for Baptism and so on. It happened that I was hijacked into doing a Marriage Encounter with another priest. In an open-sharing session a married man said, “It is seeing you priests living a celibate life that helps me remain faithful in my married life.” It is this prayerful solidarity with married couples which I believe is important for priests in their vocations. We share a journey.

This Holy Disquiet seems to hit me every 10 years!

Columban Fr Barry Cairns has been a missionary in Japan since 1956.

In my 60s

It was in my 60s that I was asking myself, “Is my enthusiasm for overseas mission waning?” It is my personal experience, that it is not the actual work of the missionary priest that leads to stress, burn out and early retirement. Rather it is the mistaken notion that the priest has to do everything himself. That kind of responsibility is draining.

In my 70s

My turning point came at 70. I had just been appointed by my Bishop to an inner city parish in Yokohama, Japan. Our bishop in a pastoral letter had used the difficult word "subsidiarity" (even more difficult in Japanese!). I was asked to explain what this word meant during a meeting with Japanese priests, in our inner city deanery. I said that "subsidiarity" means "delegating authority and various jobs to others and trusting them to do the job given". The parish priest gives me encouragement from the sideline, "and it is very much a team effort". The parish priest is the symbol and source of unity for all the various jobs, especially in the liturgy.

Having studied this theory, I decided to consciously put it into practice. Within two years, in a deeper way, our community became missionaries in their own milieu. They became more united, more welcoming to the stranger and more concerned for the poor. They became just plain happy, and our liturgy became vibrant.

In my 80s

A lovely side effect of all this, is that at 80 I felt free from stress. I feel that I am a far more effective missionary than the days of my "do-it-yourself" youthful vigor! My prayer is still, “O Lord keep causing holy disquiet and keep giving me the courage to face it.”

Columban Fr Barry Cairns has been a missionary in Japan since 1956.

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