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Posted February 21, 2008

The biggest challenge facing the priesthood in 2008

By Father Eugene Hemrick

Last year I met with priests from a large diocese to discuss the challenges they face in 2008. We began with the problem of fewer priests, pastors responsible for several parishes, and how to stay healthy in these situations.

Several pointed to the need to cluster priests, allowing them to live together for support while ministering at various parishes. To my surprise, they also said the time has come to let go of "my" pet parish and "my" individual needs -- to think of serving the universal church as a team.

I say "to my surprise" because priests are parochial and normally consider the parish the "be-all" and "end-all" of their life.

Also discussed was the need to understand how best to minister in a multicultural parish. Some priests complained they already had too much on their plate and didn't need all the paperwork that comes from diocesan offices. Others wanted more personal communication with the bishop in addressing future challenges.

Suddenly one priest asked, "What are we really all about? Isn't it about Christ as the center of our work and of our people?"

His question turned the discussion from "What about us?" to "What about who we are supposed to be?"

That priest hit the nail on the head in determining where to begin in responding to the 2008 challenges facing the priesthood: How can the priesthood make Christ better known? Where does the priesthood start to accomplish this?

Is it not with the liturgy where priests and people come in contact the most? Isn't the priesthood's biggest challenge celebrating liturgies that reflect that God is among us?

We live in a wired, overstimulated, hyperactive age that makes the practice of stillness extremely difficult. Peaceful stillness is at the heart of prayer and union with God. It is also at the heart of wholesome sanity.

Our overstimulated culture, and its need for prayerful stillness, raises major questions: What more must we priests do to create a sacred hush at Mass that gives the sense of being in a holy temple? When people enter the church, its doors symbolize shutting out the distractions of the world. How might we better celebrate the liturgy so that it is truly other-worldly?

What more needs to be achieved to create sacred liturgical music that doesn't mimic secular music?

How do we better sanctify the symbols of the Mass -- its processions, gestures and handling of sacred vessels -- so that they are truly symbolic of the divine?

What more needs to be done to the spoken word so that it connotes heartfelt union with God?

What more needs to be accomplished to create a wholesome spirit of being part of a faith community in which we share each other's joys and sorrows?

Whenever we speak of a myriad of challenges, it's always wise to start with the challenge that most speaks to our meaning. For the priesthood, that challenge is sacredly celebrating the liturgy