By Matthew Gambino

HERSHEY, Pa. – More than 400 priests of the Philadelphia Archdiocese journeyed to a conference center in this central Pennsylvania city for three days of prayer, reflection and friendship this week.

The first-ever convocation of priests drew 422 of the 598 active and retired archdiocesan priests May 10-13, while priests of various religious orders celebrated Mass in parishes of the Archdiocese.

The archdiocesan Office for Clergy organized the convocation as part of the Catholic Church’s Year of the Priest commemoration, which winds down next month. The keynote speaker, New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, gave a series of four keynote talks for the priests on Monday and Tuesday. {{more}}

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Louis A. DeSimone gave the Wednesday address, and Cardinal Justin Rigali addressed all the priests that morning during Mass.

The theme of Archbishop Dolan’s Tuesday morning address poignantly traced the roots of the priesthood in the very being of God, who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush as “I Am:” pure being.

“God reveals the priority of being,” the archbishop said, “and the power that comes from simply being.”

Archbishop Dolan spoke on the necessity of savoring God’s being in prayer, on understanding priestly identity more as one who is than as one who acts, and on the effectiveness of the priest with the people “just by being with them,” he said.

Echoing the monk and writer Thomas Merton, the archbishop suggested “wasting time with God just by being with Him is very productive.”

He advised the priests not only to enjoy what they do as priests, but to relish being a priest. “Configure yourself to Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Dolan said. “That is your identity. Savor that. Everything you do will flow with that much more effectiveness.”

He then drew a parallel between the busyness of priesthood with the experience of married couples.

“We’re so involved with doing, we forget to bask in being priests,” he said. The result can be a tired and frustrated priest. Husbands and wives also can become tired or bored if they too fail to bask in their identity and understand they are more than what they do.

Jesus’ calls to the disciples in Scripture to “remain in me” and “abide in me” focus priests on their very identity in Him more than what they do in ministry. This has an implication for priestly celibacy.

“We belong to Jesus. We gave our identity to nobody else except to Jesus and His Church,” the archbishop said, adding, “the priesthood is not a profession, it’s a life. It’s not just a job, it’s a being of life.”

That unity with the Church becomes apparent when the priest is simply present with the people. They may not remember a homily at Mass or a parish meeting, but will remember the visit with a sick relative, a wedding Mass, the priest’s presence in a school.

“Is the priesthood ever more powerful than when we are simply with our people?” Archbishop Dolan said.

While those in attendance described various benefits from the convocation, fellowship was a mentioned by several priests.

“It’s an incredible experience just to be with so many of my brother priests,” said Father Jonathan Dalin, parochial vicar at St. Eleanor Parish in Collegeville. He enjoyed “not only the speaker, but also to get to know some guys around the table that I didn’t know.”

Most striking for Msgr. Michael McCulken, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, was the reminder from Archbishop Dolan’s talk to avoid getting “caught up in doing” which is easy, “because there is so much to be done.”

“Being a priest is so much more radical than doing,” he said. “As priests we need to focus on being with God as a priest with the people. (We are) in service to our brothers and sisters, providing Christ in their lives.”