Forming Intentional Communities
Rekindling the practice of ‘dwelling together as one’
Father Nicholas S. Vaskov 0
“How good and how pleasant it is, / when brothers dwell together as one!” (Ps 133:1). While the psalmist was likely describing how good it was for the people of Israel to come together in unity, this verse can be used as a source of encouragement in any number of instances. Recently, I have chosen to reflect on the implications of these words relative to the priesthood.
For generations of priests going back at least a century, it is likely that they dwelt together in a rectory. While some rectories could be held up as models of priestly fraternity, others could hardly be described as living “together as one.” I have heard stories from priests ordained in the 1950s and 1960s about pastors who chained and padlocked the refrigerator at night, or about young parochial vicars who would lower money down from the third floor of the rectory in a bucket so that the neighborhood kids could go buy them ice cream because the priests weren’t free to leave after dinner.
Over the succeeding generations, priests who lived and served together in a parish might eat and pray together with varying frequency, some daily, others rarely.
Desire for Fraternity
Today, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, as in other dioceses, priests who serve together in a parish with multiple worship sites may be unlikely to live under the same roof. Often, this decision is made for the sake of parishioners, who may be comforted knowing that a priestly presence can be found at the different properties the parish is responsible for. Other times, one priest may prefer to live alone in a rectory, which necessitates the other priest or priests to reside elsewhere. While this may be amenable for some, we are quickly learning that others desire the priestly fraternity that comes from sharing meals, common prayer and regular social interaction with their brothers — truly dwelling together as one!
This desire for fraternity and unity has led us to recently explore the possibilities of intentional living communities in our diocese for those priests who would so choose them. As a member of both the Diocesan Presbyteral Council and Clergy Personnel Board, Bishop David Zubik asked that I lead a joint committee to make recommendations regarding a path forward for intentional living. The bishop is understanding of the challenges priests are facing and is committed to looking at creative ways to respond to their concerns.
Not a New Idea
Intentional communities are nothing new among diocesan presbyterates. Since 1992, for instance, the Companions of Christ have sought to build up the common life of the clergy in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Their association, like the one we are seeking to develop, is in direct response to the renewal of the priesthood envisioned by the Second Vatican Council:
“In order that priests may find mutual assistance in the development of their spiritual and intellectual life, that they may be able to cooperate more effectively in their ministry and be saved from the dangers of loneliness which may arise, it is necessary that some kind of common life or some sharing of common life be encouraged among priests. This, however, may take many forms, according to different personal or pastoral needs, such as living together where this is possible, or having a common table, or at least by frequent and periodic meetings” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 8).
It is hard to argue with the necessity of a common life among priests. Of course, this common life is not meant to be an extension of the seminary, nor is it meant to mimic the community that is part and parcel of consecrated religious life. It is rooted in common liturgical prayer, accountability supported by relationships of trust and the encouragement of one another for success in ministry. While every priest may not desire to live with other priests, those that do should have an intentional option that will provide what can be an important source of support.
Such intentional communities of priests are provided for in canon law. Both pastors and parochial vicars are typically obliged to live in the parish and near their church or churches. However, the local ordinary can allow them to reside in houses shared by several priests, as long as it is not detrimental to their ministry (cf. Code of Canon Law, Canons 533.1 and 550.1). Even more, canon law highlights the importance of such communities:
“Secular clerics are to hold in esteem especially those associations which, having statutes recognized by competent authority, foster their holiness in the exercise of the ministry through a suitable and properly approved rule of life and through fraternal assistance and which promote the unity of clerics among themselves and with their own bishop” (Canon 278.2).
Fostering holiness and promoting the unity of priests among themselves and with their bishop is not only of personal benefit for those who desire it, but also will benefit the Church as her priests seek to build her up as one. As we discern intentional living for priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, there are a number of considerations that we believe are essential to balance both the serious and organic nature of such an endeavor.
First, intentional-living communities need a certain level of formality to function well. This cannot be something a priest just decides to do one day. Conversations with other priests and the diocesan bishop are essential.
We also believe that a priest should petition the bishop to reside in an intentional community, and that his residence in a community should be an assignment from the bishop. This will provide a level of support that will be important when other parish clergy and parishioners may have questions about one of their priests not living in the parish.
This formality also includes a rule of life, as is referenced in both Presbyterorum Ordinis and the Code of Canon Law. The rule of life expresses the charism of these intentional communities in order that their members may grow in virtue, in the love of God and others, and in the work of the Spirit that will draw them together as one.
Covering a variety of topics and themes, the rule of life not only offers how intentional communities can have order and purpose but also reveals how they will support both their members and the presbyterate as a whole.
Intentional communities will certainly be places of life and encouragement for those who desire to live therein. However, they should never be intended as closed communities, nor should those who live in them somehow portray themselves as better, holier or more effective priests. Rather, they should be places of welcome to any priest who is seeking to share a meal with his brothers, spending a few days of fraternity over a break, or seeking encouragement during a personal or ministerial low. And as priests in community seek to build one another up, so they should build up the Church as one by fostering authentic and honest relationships with the diocesan bishop and sharing faithfully in the work of teaching, leading and sanctifying God’s people.
Another consideration is where such communities should be located within the diocese. Currently, we have many parishes looking how they can best use the buildings at their disposal, including rectories and convents. Some of these buildings are located near main highways and could provide easy access to nearby parishes. This way, it would not be inconvenient for a priest who desires to live in an intentional community to fulfill responsibilities of his assignment. Also, it is recommended that there be at least three priests in each communal house. Based on the initial interest in Pittsburgh, we would look to establish a number of houses in different parts of the diocese to accommodate as many priests as possible. There is a great sense of hope and excitement that this will be a source of great renewal for our presbyterate.
Of course, there are many practical considerations that need to be worked out, such as how the needs of these intentional communities are funded and who will be responsible for upkeep of the building, among others. However, reactions from the bishop and priests of varying generations and experiences reveal a great willingness to find effective solutions to these and other questions.
Ultimately, the greatest need will be effective communication among priests and with the faithful. If a priest chooses to live in an intentional community, he will need to communicate well with the other priests in his parish assignment so that the responsibilities of the parish and the expectations of the community can both be met without becoming burdensome.
The faithful will also need to be reassured that a priest living outside of the parish can still effectively minister in the parish and will, hopefully, be a more effective minister of the Gospel as he thrives in an environment attentive to his personal and spiritual needs. While there may be learning along the way, we echo the hope of the psalmist: that brothers living as one will be good and pleasant for them and for the Church.
FATHER NICHOLAS S. VASKOV is a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish.
What Is the Companions of Christ?
Companions of Christ, in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, are diocesan priests who are obedient to their ordinary and have parish or other assignments.
The organization, answering frequently asked questions on its website — companionsofchrist.org — says: “We believe, however, that some of the spiritual benefits of the religious life can be lived in the diocesan priesthood — namely, fraternity and the evangelical counsels. For this spiritual purpose of allowing these tools to help us grow in holiness we have become an association of clerics. This means that the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has made a formal agreement with The Companions of Christ that the archbishop will do his best to let us live our communal way of life (which is laid out in our statutes). To do this he attempts to assign us to parishes in such a way that we can live together in small households (we call them ‘fraternities’) of three or more priests in various places around the archdiocese.”
The organization also functions in the Diocese of Joliet.