Commentary on the study: A Survey of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years
Rev. Richard W. Burton
The ceremony of ordination employs symbols which say a great deal about the identity of the diocesan priest. He is first a communal man. The community gives its assent to his choice by the bishop. The ordinand prostrates while the community prays over him. Secondly, he has a unique relationship with his bishop. With his hands clasped by the hands of the bishop he promises respect and obedience to the bishop and his successors. Thirdly, he is a member of the local presbyterate. The presbyters present at the ordination lay hands on him and welcome him into their company with a kiss of peace.
The identity of the priest is forged not only in a seminary, but also at ordination and through ministry. Also his friendships will most probably be forged in ministry as well. There needs to be some way for the threefold relationship of the priest which forges his identity with the community, the presbyterate and the bishop to be taken seriously in the early stages of formation and ordination.
There is, I believe, an undercurrent in the study: A Survey of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years that religious clergy are to live in community while the diocesan clergy are not called to a communal lifestyle. This question of the charism of the diocesan clergy needs to be addressed. Religious have worked on this and the study shows it. As a result, religious are more focused than the diocesan clergy.
I believe the charism question of the diocesan priest lies at the core of some of the findings of the study, namely, the tilt toward feeling more priestly in sacramental settings, the leaning toward an institutional model of the church, a desire for a closed seminary -- one without non-ordination candidates -- and a feeling of being less than comfortable working with women religious. I am not going to attempt an analysis of the charism of the diocesan clergy. However, I do believe that to set the diocesan priesthood outside the concept of community is a grave mistake.
Community is fundamental to the identity of the diocesan clergy. The priest is ordained to serve and build up a local church; he is ordained to build up community. Isn't this the radical shift of the Second Vatican Council?
Regardless of whether we view the church from an institutional aspect rather than a communal aspect, the preferred stance of the diocesan participants of this study, the church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God. We are talking about a communal experience. The diocesan priest can never be a "man apart" in the sense that he is apart from the people. The question, then, is not whether one views the priestly role as institutional and set apart or as a communal role, but rather how does one envision himself building up the community?
Parishes that are most healthy are ones that do a lot of community building. Whether this is in the form of small groups, development of lay ministries, using the RCIA as a model for the parish, etc., these parishes do a lot to energize people. These parishes help the people to hear each other and to do for each other. The parish priest becomes an "orchestra leader," directing the building up of the community of faith.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the church's power flows (#10)." The spiritual life of the diocesan priest is liturgical at its core. To live in union with the liturgy day in and day out is to have a liturgical spirituality, a communal spirituality. Liturgical spirituality is a radical commitment to community.
To prayerfully celebrate the Eucharist on Sundays and during the week demands a liturgically based spirituality. To preach daily as the church suggests demands an extraordinary attention to the lectionary and the spirit of the liturgical season. The priest must at times be a "man apart," to spend time with the Word so that he can share it with the community. But the spirituality of the diocesan priest is liturgical and communal at its roots.
Paragraph #7 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy suggests that Christ is truly present when the people gather to pray and sing. Community isn't magic; it doesn't just happen. The quality of worship depends on the sense of community and vice versa. Community building is essential. And the diocesan priest is right in the middle of it. There he finds his Lord.
The study shows an ambivalence toward the celebration of the Hours. Only 38% of the priests responded to praying the Liturgy of the Hours on a daily basis. This seems to indicate that the whole notion of the "office" for the diocesan clergy needs to be re-thought.
The current reform of the office is a hodgepodge based on compromise. It neither reflects a monastic office nor the ancient and all but unknown cathedral office. Anyone who has experienced the genuine monastic office or the cathedral office knows what a dismal experience it is to recite or even sing the hours as presented in our current books.
The church envisions these hours for everyone, but the format is an entanglement of ribbons! The office remains the most unreformed of the reformed liturgy. The "office" question will require radical surgery if it is ever to find its place in the practical prayer life of the clergy and the laity alike.
The diocesan clergy and the laity deserve a cathedral/parish celebration of the hours. 1 don't believe that this suggestion to rediscover the cathedral office for the diocesan clergy is too far fetched; no more so than the liturgy in the vernacular was during the 1950s.
In the meantime Morning and Evening Prayer can be recited in the parish church. My experience is that a few of the faithful will come. With some "tinkering," the experience can become quite good. If the priest is the leader of morning and evening prayer in the parish church then his role as leader of prayer and his prayer life would be simultaneously enhanced.
The "lifestyle" and celibacy question is also a question about community. The American rectory in days not too far past was really modeled on a religious house, or was an extension of the seminary. While no prayer was shared, common meals and dress were mandated, common recreation expected. "The fathers gather for a drink before dinner," or "The fathers always watch the evening news together." This lifestyle, complete with curfews for the young, no doubt, had something to do with the myth that life in a rectory preserves celibacy.
The basic insight was sound. Celibacy without community makes no sense or perhaps is not possible. But is community for the diocesan clergy found in the rectory or in a cronyism that no longer exists -- the 40-hours circuit -- or principally in the parish?
I believe that celibacy is often "endangered in a rectory setting." Frustrations of rectory life simply add to sexual tension and the man hits the streets. Traditional rectory living with its pressures, lack of privacy, and unfulfilled expectations only make celibacy burdensome. Most often priests "go out" to find their sanity,
If the priest is at heart a community builder, then his communal needs and expectations are met in a fuller but different way in the parish at large. The lifestyle question takes on a different skin. His residence becomes secondary. He might live alone or with others of his own choosing away from "the plant." Modern communication would ensure service to the people. Based on my experience, the financial cost for such arrangements would be no greater than the rectory arrangement.
Some wag a few years ago suggested that the identity problem of the priest lay in the identity question of the bishops and the laity. Priests according to the Second Vatican Council are extensions of the bishop and servants of the laity. According to the wag priests are extensions of men who don't know who they are, sent to serve people who do not know what they want!
I would suggest that the good news of this study concerning the priestly identity has something to do with the role of the bishop being clarified in the last 20 years as well as the laity being able to better identify their needs. However, the frustration which seems to be sadly present among the parish clergy needs to be examined. The fact that priests serving in ministries outside of the parish are more content should tell us something.
The parish priest I believe is the "middle child" of the clergy. He is clearly present, greatly loved, but often overlooked. Placed in middle management the parish priest is often neglected when it comes to his personal and ministerial well-being. Bishops most often pay attention only when there is a crisis. The personal relationship with the bishop so clearly symbolized at ordination often becomes a matter of words thereafter. Diocesan bishops often do not "walk the talk."
Bishops most frequently have had a good relationship with their own bishops and little experience in parish work prior to their episcopal ordination. The church has not often raised middle management to the top. As a result the bishop is often not in an experiential position to understand the parish and the frustration of the parish priest.
Priests need bishops and bishops need priests; it is the relationship envisioned by the Second Vatican Council. I believe the primary role of the diocesan bishop is to foster his relationship with his priests and the relationship among the men in his presbyterate.
If the bishop fails to do this, then a certain "congregational" attitude sets in; other priests are seen as professionals which do not effect one's own ministry and the bishop is seen as a necessary evil in a sacramental church: "He needs me more than I need him!" If these relationships are not taken seriously by the priest and by the bishop, then as the man matures in ministry he will become a lone ranger at best and at worst angry and frustrated.
A Survey of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years was undertaken to assist seminaries to be most effective. A formation program which does not include active and formal participation in parish ministry is going to be less than effective. I am not suggesting sending the man to a parish to hang around. I am suggesting that a formal structure be established which would ensure adequate feedback to the seminary from the clergy and laity alike. The laity often know best who will be a good parish priest.
The skills of building a parish community can best be learned in a parish actively building such a community. The skill of parish organization, of running a meeting, of understanding the RCIA, in fact, all of the non-theological skills so essential for the parish priest can best be learned experientially under the guidance of a pastor/mentor and a competent lay committee. This system would also seem to open the way for parishes and pastors to have ongoing and needed input into seminary programs.
A Survey of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years has shown that much good has been accomplished since the Second Vatican Council in the formation programs of seminaries. We are better off today. As the church looks at priestly formation, we are in a good place to further expand formation programs so that parish life can become a significant and formal part of seminary formation.
Rev. Richard W. Burton is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
Back to Magazine Articles