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10-plan

The best laid plans of priest and parish

As the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans—but there is a place for finding time this summer to declutter mind and matter, writes Fr Jamie McMorin

I like to think of myself as a fairly tidy and well-organised person. I make my bed and tidy my room every morning, I never leave things lying around and I can’t abide clutter. But there is a drawer in my desk, a dark, little corner of my life, where chaos reigns.

The drawer contains scribbled notes written at meetings, incomplete ‘to do’ lists many months out of date, and good ideas sent my way by the parish priest but which I’ve never got around to implementing. The drawer is full to overflowing and threatens to invade its downstairs neighbour with every effort of mine to jam it shut.

There is an equivalent mental space in my brain into which the contents of this drawer are stuffed, reassuringly out of sight: it’s labelled ‘the summer.’ I’ll sort out the sacristy in the summer, I’ll meet that person in the summer, we’ll get that group started in the summer, and so on and so on and so on.

 

Postponement

Like my drawer, I tend to overestimate the capacity of these weeks to finally get around to doing all the things I’ve been postponing since January. But the interlude between returning from my summer holiday and the beginning of a new school term is, for many priests, a chance to tie up loose ends, make plans for the coming year and, yes, see what’s lurking in the drawer of chaos.

These are vital moments to stop and take stock of where we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re heading: to reassess priorities, to revaluate past efforts and to come up with a plan of action for the year ahead.

Of course, this sort of planning is something that should be done regularly, even daily. But there’s something about having a few weeks away and a slightly more relaxed schedule that gives an opportunity to see life more clearly and with renewed enthusiasm.

 

Fixed on the path

It’s a little bit like hillwalking, one of my favourite ways to spend these long, Scottish summer days.

Often, when hillwalking, we can tend to keep our eyes fixed on the path in front of us, concentrating only on the struggle and strain of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s only when we stop, catch our breath and look around us that we’re reminded of what all the effort was for.

We can see how far we’ve come—and the challenging peaks that still lie ahead! We can assess our supplies and our energy levels and adjust the route accordingly, perhaps pressing on as planned, perhaps choosing to come back another day with a new team and a new approach, or perhaps try a different mountain altogether.

 

Success and forgiveness

For a priest, and for a Christian in general, this has to be done in a context of prayer. Pope Francis, drawing on his deep-rooted Ignatian spirituality, talks about this process in terms of discernment: the spirituality of sifting through the events of the past few months, noticing the varied moments of light and darkness, thanking God for the successes and asking His forgiveness for the failures.

To look at the contents of my messy drawer alongside the Lord, I can allow Him to help me decide what is really important, what needs to be filed away for the future and what needs to be fed through the shredder and forgotten about.

To consider, in His presence, where He’s calling me, through my own attractions, the wishes of my superiors and the demands of my priestly vocation, to invest my limited time and energy in the coming year.

 

Planning

There’s another kind of planning that is, in some ways, even more important. This was the focus of one of the first conversations I had with my first spiritual director, many years ago as a university student.

The plan wasn’t to get a degree, organise the activities of the Catholic society more effectively or even to become a priest: the purpose of the plan was to become a saint.

The terminology he used was a ‘plan of life’: a way of structuring my daily life around my relationship with God.

To move from a vague aspiration (‘I think I should probably be praying more’) to a ruthlessly specific strategy: When? Where? For how long? In what way? Not to leave my spiritual life to chance, or a passing whim, but to plan and prioritise.

 

Gifts from God

Of course, God doesn’t want robots, inflexible automatons mindlessly fulfilling a plan which has become an end in itself. Still less does He want us labouring under the mistaken impression that our carefully devised strategies are capable of saving our parishes, our schools or even ourselves.

As the old saying puts it, ‘if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.’ Growth in holiness, pastoral effectiveness and apostolic fruitfulness are all, in the final analysis, unearned gifts from God, and the Spirit blows where He wills.

In these summer months, I’m doing my best to listen to His still, small voice whenever I catch a whisper of it: whether I’m up a mountain, tidying out my desk or on my knees in the chapel. Hopefully, together, we’ll come up with some good ideas for the year ahead. That’s the plan, anyway!

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