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Over 1,200 priests from all over the world — 26 from Boston led by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley — were united by their vocation at a conference in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta last week.
The conference on the priesthood entitled “Priests for the Formation of Saints for the New Millennium: On the Footsteps of the Apostle Paul” began Oct. 18 and ended Oct. 23.
Participants had the opportunity to visit the place where St. Paul stayed when he was shipwrecked in Malta on his way to Rome. While there, St. Paul “converted a whole island,” said Father Jonathan Gaspar parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough.
All 1,232 priests, 25 bishops and 13 cardinals attending the conference gathered each morning for communal prayer. Masses and talks were simultaneously translated in six different languages through the use of headphones. The gathering showed the universality and unity of the Church, said Father Gaspar.
“No divisions existed. Our priesthood united us,” he said.
The unity they experienced in the Mediterranean can help them in their daily vocation, especially in Boston where unity is needed, he added. The conference also addressed responding to the challenges of modern society, said Father Gaspar who was ordained in May and came to Immaculate Conception in June.
“Certainly here in Boston we know our challenges,” he said.
Learning about St. Paul’s work in Malta demonstrated that “The power and the gift of my vocation is to be used for the sanctification of the whole world,” Father Gaspar added.
Each day of the conference, priests celebrated Mass and went to conferences. During the week, they also had the opportunity for confession, meditation, eucharistic adoration and praying the rosary. The pilgrimage concluded with a Marian pilgrimage to Gozo.
On the morning of Oct. 20, Archbishop Seán O’Malley gave the lauds with meditation, speaking out against society’s obsession with material wealth and instant gratification. In the face of these values that run counter to faith, the archbishop stressed the importance of prayer.
“A Christian must do many good works, but before all else he must pray, because without prayer no other good work can be accomplished,” he said. “Without prayer we cannot find the path that leads to the Lord, we cannot grasp the truth, we cannot crucify the flesh and its passions and lust, our heart cannot be illumined by the light of Christ, and we cannot be united to God in a salvific fashion.”
The archbishop “was very well-received,” said Father Peter Gori, OSA. “He gave a message of wisdom as well as challenge.”
Father Gori, pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Methuen, said the conference stressed that “the priest and priesthood is a very important gift that the Church has and is responsible for.”
The conference was an “affirmation” to the commitment of priesthood despite the difficulties faced by the Church, society and the world, he said. Like any other person of faith, priests are in search of holiness, he said.
Father Gori said, after being a priest for 25 years, he was grateful to have the opportunity to participate in this conference.
Pope John Paul II also addressed the conference in a speech transmitted by satellite from the Vatican.
The pope only read the first and last paragraphs of his talk. In the rest of his text, read by an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, the pope said, “The church needs holy priests who, in turn, form saints for the new millennium.”
“In an uneasy and divided world marked by violence and conflicts, some ask if it is still possible to speak of hope,” the text said. “But precisely at this moment it is indispensable to present with courage the true and fullest hope for humanity, Christ the Lord.”
Malta, a nation in the Mediterranean made up of five islands, has more than 360 Roman Catholic churches, almost one church for every 1,000 inhabitants.
Archbishop Joseph Mercieca of Malta welcomed the priests to the meeting and noted that “the seed of evangelization St. Paul planted in Malta, thank God, proved fruitful.”
As described in Chapters 27 and 28 of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul and St. Luke, en route to Rome, were shipwrecked in the area now known as St. Paul’s Bay. St. Paul stayed in Malta for three months and converted the Roman governor, who became the first bishop of Malta and later a saint.
Several monuments and churches in Malta are dedicated to St. Paul, its patron saint, and special Masses were scheduled at many of them as part of the conference. St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat is a complex of caves, with a church and museum that mark the location of the shipwreck. The Cathedral of Mdina is dedicated to St. Paul, and the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta contains a relic of the saint’s wrist and a piece of the Roman column on which he was said to have been beheaded.
Malta is also where the Knights of Malta settled in 1530 after they were driven out of Jerusalem, Cyprus and the Greek island of Rhodes. The Knights began in Jerusalem, taking care of hospices for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land in the 1100s.
CNS materials contributed to this report