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Posted November 17, 2010

Another Year of the Priest Needed!

Eugene Hemrick

Pope Benedict chose the Year of the Priest on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of St. John Baptist Vianney, the Curé of Ars, inviting the church “to look at the poor peasant who became a humble parish priest and carried out his pastoral service in a small village.” He underscored the holiness of priests in an age when “functionality” seems to be a crucial element in determining a priest’s effectiveness.

Without question, the holiness of priests is the heart of the priesthood, and without a doubt its health and growth depend on it functioning well. To accomplish the latter, another year of the priest is needed! Why do we say this? We aren’t functioning as well as we should! We are aging rapidly with fewer young priests reenforcing our ranks; a growing number of pastors now confront a difficult multi-tasking-multi-location era, and many priests are still leaving.

What function in particular needs attention when we speak of functionality? Creativity comes to mind most because of millennium challenges that are calling for a greater surge in brainstorming, visioning, imagination, inventiveness and the vitality this causes.

The leader of major evangelical institutions, Ted Engstrom, gives us an even more profound reason for selecting creativity, “Creativity has been built into everyone of us; it’s part of our design. Each of us lives less of the life God intended for us when we choose not to live out the creative powers we possess.” To paraphrase Engstrom, creativity is not only a God-given gift, but a God-given duty!

To what should creativity be applied? Recent research on the priesthood, and a pastoral letter written by Cardinal Roger Mahoney are but a few of several recent signals that our priestly fraternity needs to be strengthened substantially.

In the study International Priests in America, Dean Hoge and Aniedi Okure estimate between 380 and 400 international priests enter the U.S. yearly. At priests retreats, it is common to experience a third of the priests coming from a variety of cultures. This increase will continue, leading to the possibility that international priests could very easily equal the number of American-born priests in the near future. Strengthening bonds between cultures is critical lest we end up with fragmented presbyterates in which international priests and American-born priests work side by side but are enclaves onto themselves. The need for a stronger fraternity holds true equally for priests of different ages, backgrounds and theological formations lest we end up with a “we” and “they” presbyterate rather than a unified “us” presbyterate.

In a pastoral letter to his priests, Mahoney addressed the need for “fixing priestly relationships.” “No parish exists or thrives spiritually and pastorally in isolation from all other parishes and no priest exists or thrives spiritually and pastorally in isolation from other priests,” he writes.

He senses a “creeping isolation” between priests and the need for two essential expressions of affective fraternity among priests living in the same residence: “prayer together and sharing meals together.”

The growing need for a more cohesive fraternity raises the question, on what should we focus to unify ourselves better? The Book of Proverbs gives us our answer in stating, “Wisdom is the principal thing, get wisdom. And with all thy getting get understanding.” It also points out, “By wisdom is a house built, by understanding is it established.” As understanding is pivotal to the well being of all life, so too, is it especially essential for priestly life. How do we accomplish a deeper and more far ranging understanding of each other?

One possible suggestion is to focus on knowing each other better through story-sharing sessions in which we share our journeys through the priesthood. These sessions might include discussing who or what it was that inspired us to become a priest? What were the greatest challenges we encountered, and who or what most supported us during them? What have been some of our most difficult hurdles? From where does our joy come most?

Sharing sessions should also include looking into the future and reflecting on the role we need to fulfill personally and collectively in creating a more personalized presbyterate.

What might be the best setting for fostering successful story sharing?

I would recommend retreats and three-day convocations. Why do I point to these choices? Because they create prayerful environments that remove us from our hurried, distracted daily existence. Praying, reflecting, eating and sharing together, likewise create a contemplative learning atmosphere par excellence for deepening our understanding of each other. As helpful as is periodic clergy days, they are far less effective because we are often rushed for the time needed to absorb each other. Pastoral letters from the bishop are helpful, but they don’t fulfill the personal need for sharing face to face with each other.

Why is story sharing considered so important?

By its nature, priestly fraternity is expected to possess a deep sense of bonding, mutual support and having a common mission of evangelization. At its heart is a team spirit, and at the heart of team spirit is knowing each other’s expectations, potential and personalities. Where better to achieve this knowledge than in sharing our journeys?

Priestly fraternity is seldom a topic we see discussed. As essential as it is to the priesthood, it is usually not a high priority. There are several reasons this is so. First, we tend to become more attached to our parish communities, since this is where we receive our greatest joy, support, and fraternity. Second, most of us live alone and are distanced from each other. Getting to know each other has become increasingly difficult, especially for pastors of multiple parishes. Third, we have lost the old tradition of visiting each other when passing through the parish of a brother priest. Fourth, we are much more diverse in age, cultures and seminary backgrounds than in the past, making it more difficult to have commonality.

No one will deny the need for stronger priestly fraternity, but in most instances that is not where the action is. We tend to focus primarily on knowing our people because this is where we eat, work and sleep. Knowing them in the sense of cognoscere, i.e., having a close acquaintance with them is our first priority. More often than not, and through no fault of our own, we know our brother priests in the sense of sapere, i.e., knowing something about them, but little of who they really are.

The above differences in the way we interact with our people and brother priests are understandable. As we enter more fully into the new millennium, however, we are facing a brand-new age of the priesthood that is calling for deeper interaction between us in spite of all that threatens to separate and distract us from each other. One of the biggest threats we face is imitating our pluralistic society that touts rugged individualism and less of a need for creating close ties with each other. This is partially caused by people being constantly uprooted from their homes and jobs. In many cases, a sense of neighborliness is stifled. Stability, being rooted and long-standing neighborly communities are things of the pass for many of us.

I believe all of the above also influences our priestly fraternity. We are social being who tend to mirror our society. However, we are also a priestly community who prays daily, “May we be one body one spirit in Christ.” This prayer should be applied especially to our priestly fraternity.

Undoubtedly, our two best sources of support are our people and brother priests. This reality raises a major question facing our new age of the priesthood: are these sources of support balanced equally? Do we need to rethink the need for this balance, i.e., that we not spend too much time with one source of support to the neglect of the other? Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that priests who balance their priestly fraternity and parish fraternities have less of a chance of burnout and leaving? Is priestly fraternity absolutely necessary to our spiritual, physical and psychological health?

In the play Henry IV, Shakespeare writes, “Ignorance is the curse of God, knowledge the wing whereby we fly to Heaven.” One of the greatest potentials in sharing stories is their power to reduce our ignorance of each other and keep us from being like ships passing in the night.

Another aspect of story sharing that is often missed is its potential for deepening of our appreciation for each other. When priests share their stories, it often happens they single out priests in the audience who inspired and supported them. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “You can never do a kindness too soon, because you never know when it might be too late.” Sharing stories frequently has the side effect of priests expressing gratitude to brother priests that may never have been acknowledged before or vocalized. The beauty in this is surfacing our recognition of and gratitude to each other before it is too late.

On friendship, C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Another side effect of sharing our journeys is the sense of commonality they create. We all go through difficulties during our life, feeling we are the only ones experiencing this. When we share our difficulties openly, it affects our bonding in an ironic way. Between the lines we can hear whispered, “You too? I thought I was the only one, we have more in common than I ever thought.”

Years ago there was a television series called Roots that explored the history, traditions and customs of African Americans. In like manner, sharing stories reveals our roots, some being theological and devotional in nature, and others being family traditions or cultural customs.

Over the years, we have seen a dramatic change in our backgrounds. Some of us are converts to Catholicism, and some of us have had to stand firm against families that did not look kindly on Catholics. Some of us have lived under Communist regimes, and are Boat People. Many of us have studied in different parts of this country and the world. A good number of us are second and third career priests who worked in the business world. Some of us have been married and have children. And too, some of us have been drifters for a period of time in our life. These various backgrounds and histories are our roots. To better understand them is to better understand why we act, think and theologize as we do.

One of the growing concerns among us is our diversity of theological attitudes. Some of us are extremely conservative and rigid, while others of us are liberal and freewheeling. Orthodoxy has become a lightning rod, as has the Latin liturgical rite versus the Vatican II rite. Different points of view have been and always will be part of human nature, as will be diversity in theological thinking. The benefit of sharing our journeys is they help to surface our attitudinal and formative underpinnings. In doing so, they enable us make small strides forward in understanding where we are coming from. Thanks to the process of sharing there is fostered a family atmosphere in which we sit around the table and each member is given the opportunity to tell his or her side of their story.

In his Rule, St. Benedict points out listening is at the center of community life and respected leadership. He is quick to add, “listen with the ear of an open heart.” In providing us with the opportunity to listen to each other, sharing our stories affords us an opportunity to open our hearts to each other.

As complex as our diversity is, I believe we are blessed with a priestly moment for creating a new and exciting priestly look. It is a moment for asking questions that haven’t been voiced before: what would it be like if we better understood elderly priests and the wisdom community they are? If they and younger priests were closer knit, would so many young priests have left the priesthood? What would it be like if we understood priests from second or third careers better and the potential their career backgrounds have for building a wiser and stronger church? What would it be like if men who came through harrowing difficulties amassed their experiences and used them to help other priests who are enduring similar experiences? What would it be like if international liturgies with their expressive music and uniqueness were made a more integral part of church? [Having experienced spirited Latino/a and African American liturgies frequently, I often wished the energy they exude were more a part of all parish liturgies].

If all the hypothetical “what if’s” happened ever so little more, we must wonder if these would be our best tools for attracting vocations to the religious life? It is a known sociological fact that our happiness and cohesiveness as priests attract vocations best.

Two final comments are in order. First, there are some of us who resist revealing our self. Second, creating another year of the priest connotes more work for priests who already have more on their plate than they can handle.

We need to be realistic in regard to those of us who don’t like revealing anything about our personal lives. We have a right to our space, a space that is our’s to share or not to share. This must be respected at all costs.

I have learned from my limited experience in conducting the exercise of story sharing that when four or five priests finish sharing their journeys and the session ends, the sharing continues. Often those who have not been part of the sharing session will begin sharing their stories. Most of us enjoy reminiscing, and especially being able to pass on the priestly wisdom we accrued.

The objection that creating new programs means more work is justifiable. However, we need to look at it from another angle than its additional work side. Would priests who have left stuck it out had there been more presbyteral creativity, especially in the area of getting to know each other better? At present, many of us aren’t at home with each other because of studying in different seminaries, coming from different cultures, and being of different ages and backgrounds. In the past, we were much more homogeneous. Like so much of today’s society, we live in an age that is predominately heterogeneous. Two possible fallouts that can accrue from this are the formation of selective enclaves and clicks, or becoming lone rangers because of not finding compatibility among brother priests. To curtail fallouts like this ever so little more justifies all the work that is needed to make it happen.

The sharing of our journeys is but one suggestion among many other possibilities for strengthening priestly fraternity. Other successful means have already been used in the past. I have known priests who became best of friends by taking camping trips together and bicycling across this country together. Golf outings and commiserating over our poor performance have a wonderful way of making colleagues of us. Some of us have taken classes together to keep up our education. Priests have also formed basketball teams and played in some of the toughest city tournaments known. When I worked at the Bishops’ Conference, we had cultural awareness days in which employees from various cultures had booths explaining their customs. Someone recently suggested that a clergy day be dedicated to priests sharing their culinary arts. No doubt, many other creative means are at our disposal for helping us know and better understand each other. Another year of the priest just might surface them and raise our priesthood to new heights of priestly fraternity heretofore not imagined.

Francis Bacon once said, “A prudent question is one half wisdom.” We have a priestly moment that is begging for prudent questioning that can lead to a resurgence of priestly fraternity. We need to take to heart the motto of Nike and “just do it”!