success stories

Ordinary Diocesan Priests On The Church's Front Line

by George Aschenbrenner, S.J.
In Quickening the Fire in Our Midst

In his book "Pastoral Presence and Diocesan Priest, Fr. Paul Keyes relates an encounter he had with a cook in St. Paul's Passionate Monastery in Pittsburgh while he was studying at Duquesne.

Thinking he was a Passionist priest from Boston, the cook asked Fr. Keyes if he knew a number of priests from Boston. Finally, after he confessed to being a secular priest, she said, "Oh, I'm sorry . . . you are just one of those ‘ordinary' priests."

Then she became embarrassed and apologized for such a description.

Fr. Keyes came to realize that she had not insulted him but had paid him a great compliment by calling him "just an ordinary priest." As he reflected on this encounter, Fr. Keyes came to appreciate "the great dignity there is in being a priest who lives intimately in the life and concerns of common, everyday people.

The diocesan priest does not usually work with special clienteles, such as college or high school students or missionary people in foreign lands, as is often true of priests of consecrated Religious Life.

"To be an ordinary priest carries the great dignity and responsibility of being called by Christ to live or dwell near ordinary people in their common, everyday, spiritual, and temporal needs. In this way the diocesan priest lives in the midst of the great mixture workers, students, nurses, the elderly, the unemployed: right in the middle of this mix of humanity is where his priesthood inserts him. Rather than being an insult or a humiliation, being an ordinary priest in the great mix of common people in a certain locale announces the healing presence of someone who doctors people's souls by guiding them into an encounter with mystery — the mystery of the purifying fire of God's saving love.

Always on Call on the Front Line

In his book, Keyes refers to a fellow diocesan priest's comment: "We are constantly on the front line." This availability is another part of the diocesan priesthood's attraction. It also necessitates its own challenging transformation. As if equipped with a pager for the Holy Spirit, the priest resounds in the midst of the people, not with an interruptive static, but with the welcoming accessibility of God's love. Who will be on the other end of the latest ringing phone or doorbell? The answer to that question is usually unpredictable and often charged with surprise.

This availability on the front line prevents much sense of protection or shelter from all sorts of calls on the priest's time and person. This calling is balanced with the attractiveness of making God present in healing balm and power of Jesus' love for one and all in an almost infinite variety of situations. This priestly presence flickers constantly and invitingly like a candle in the window for all passersby.

Diocesan priests also learn quickly that they cannot be available twenty-four hours of every day. Setting reasonable limits will enhance and intensify the quality of their availability rather than compromise it. Because such availability is essential, the concrete expression of it must be carefully discerned when integrated with other values, such as, for example, the support of priests in a rather large area living together. To honestly weigh the support of each other against a potential availability to the ordinary people of a particular area is not easily done, but it is central to preserving this charism of diocesan priesthood.

This availability on the front line enlivens the pastoral charity that Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis sees as the priest's very identity, not just something he occasionally does. "It is not just what we do, but our gift of self, which manifests Christ's love for his flock. Pastoral charity determines our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. It makes special demands on us."

The expression of this pastoral charity runs the gamut from a prophetic stance for justice in the local community to a cheerful visit in a nursing home to a compassionate visit to a family grieving the death of a parent and on into an almost infinite variety of situations. This pastoral charity is never fulfilled in a pro form protocol. Only the genuine presence of the priest's very person, as the embodiment of the healing fire of God's love, will do.

If a priest's pastoral presence is to embody the compassion of Jesus, a basic humility must suffuse this pastoral charity. Both religious experience and basic human experience, when underdeveloped, will short-circuit the priest's pastoral effectiveness. Without a profoundly personal experience of God's unique love for him and without a profound self-knowledge and self-acceptance, the heart of the priest can unconsciously — and this is the danger — stall in an excessive need for affirmation. The dynamics of such an unconscious need often run in two directions. The priest can always be affirming himself, verging on bragging, and the people will wonder why he is always talking about himself.

Or the priest can manipulate almost everyone he encounters into complimenting and affirming him in his ministry, and then the people often wonder who is ministering to whom. Of course we all need affirmation and must learn to trust and recognize how God intends for us to receive in the midst of our ministry. When the need for affirmation becomes excessive and unconscious, however, it will forestall the priest's pastoral charity, stripping it of much genuine witness to Christ. The one who is God's faithful, constant affirmation of us all, Jesus, should be the exemplar for the priest in all his daily dealings with people. Without the requisite religious and human maturity, this charism of availability on the front line misfires and gets stuck in the clutches of the priest's own excessive neediness.