success stories

On Authenticity

From Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests
National Catholic Educational Association, Washington, DC, 1995, pp. 118

Over and over again, the priests in our focus groups talked about the need to be honest with themselves and with others. These priests want to be themselves. They don’t want to just “go through the motions.” They are willing to look at themselves honestly. The see their strengths but also their weaknesses and challenges as clearly as they see anything else.

As Gene from the Midwest explained it, “Just don’t put on any pretense. Don’t be somebody other than what you are. Be yourself in liturgy. Come as you are and help other people come as they are. And, in that way we can pray better. It’s when we try to be something other than we are that I think God gets cut out sometimes.”

Effective priests are honest with themselves, with their superiors, and with those they serve in ministry. Tom from the West illustrates this concern:

I think what it comes down to and what the people look for is that they don’t really care whether Father is gay or straight. I don’t think they really do. They care: “Is Father authentic? Is Father prayerful? Is Father holy? Does Father live his life according to how he tells us to live? And that doesn’t mean now that Father is going to be perfect, you know.

The people from the pews see us better than we see ourselves. What they look to is: Is this person a person of compassion? When he celebrates Mass, is he just going through the motions? Or is he really praying? Is he praying not just for us, but also for himself? And does he realize that he needs salvation just as much as we do? That is what they are looking for.

People can recognize whether you are authentic. They can recognize that your call and your vocation and your work is true and honest and that you are doing the best you can. People can deal with human weakness, if there is honesty.

For some, authenticity involves staying close to their roots. “Never forget where you come from” is the advice offered by Fred, whose childhood as the son of working class Irish immigrants makes him feel comfortable with working-class Hispanic immigrants. Two priests from Louisiana identify themselves as “Cajuns” and take pride in their reputation for stubbornness.

Roy for the South talked about the honesty he found in a Twelve-Step recovery program: “It has been so eye-opening to me because when you are with this group of priests we are all swimming in the same illness, you just can’t escape the honesty that we call faith in one another. It’s a stark honesty, because we know all the games, all the little tricks of the trade. That has been really life-giving for me over the past three years.”

Priests find it important to be honest about their jobs and assignments. Some priests welcome the challenge of a new assignment: for example, two priests in different parts of the country talked about how much they had learned after accepting assignments in jail ministry. But another priest recalls as a major turning point in fact that he turned down an invitation to enter the Vatican diplomatic corps: “I said thanks, but no thanks. There was something in me that said I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that. That is not where my heart is.

Peter from the South recalls learning to be honest after he was removed from a parish after a clash with his new bishop.

The administration changed in our diocese and I didn’t get along with them and they didn’t get along with me. It was a mutual dissatisfaction and disagreement and I was removed from my parish ministry, which I loved dearly, and told that there was no other parish ministry for me. So there was a whole change in my pastoral way of ministering. It changed how I looked at my priesthood. It changed how I looked at Church. It changed how I looked at other priests and has affected my life since that point in terms of who I am and where I am.

Those two, three or four years were extremely difficult, he said. “But if nothing else, it taught me the value of honesty and truth. For everything else that I can find bad during that period of administration, the one good thing I keep going back to is that it freed me to be able to walk in to the bishop and say, “This is what I think of what you did.” Prior to that time I would never have been able to do that. And since that time I am a little bit freer in saying “This is where I am and who I am. I am willing to listen to you. I am willing to change, if that needs to be. But this is the truth of who I am, where I am, and where I am going.

Bill from the West describes what he learned about honesty in a difficult parish situation.

I had to send my associate away this past fall and I asked him to write a letter to the parish saying, “I am going through some emotional difficulties.” It turns out that he is dealing with some manic-depression issues. I knew again in today’s climate that if we just sent him away, people would say, “Who did he get involved with sexually and abuse?” Or the rumor right away was he has a drinking problem. But when he wrote and said “I am here for issues which I haven’t quite sorted out. The priesthood wasn’t what I expected it to be and I’m dealing with some issues of depression.” Over the course of his three months, 500 letters went to him supporting him, telling him we love him. The welcome when he got back, the joy of seeing him take some steps, and his example have given people the courage to look at their own lives and say, “I have got some issues of depression in my own life and If he could deal with it, maybe I can too.” That is life-giving.