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Posted October 30, 2005

Saving Fr. Ryan: understanding the good priest

By Eugene Kennedy

Whatever happened to the Prodigal Son’s brother, the one relegated to a supporting role in as famous a parable as we know?

This brother, it may now be told, became a priest in contemporary America where he lives out his eternal calling with an asceticism anchored in never being thanked much for being on duty all the time. He represents the taken-for-granted men who understand from their own bittersweet experience the taken-for-granted women in the church.

The Father still throws banquets for latecomers, embracing married Anglican priests by the hundreds, for example, and singing of the secret virtues of organizations such as Opus Dei. Good priests witness the coddling of such borderline characters as the prodigal inheritors of the schismatic Archbishop LeFebvre while repeated investigations are carried out on such fine and orthodox theologians as Fr. Richard McBrien.

American Catholicism is meanwhile interpreted to the pope by men such as Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus, who regard themselves as special prosecutors of what they apparently consider the criminal reforms of Vatican II, a position ambitioned if not already held by some elitist seminarians as well. The hammering in the background, as disheartening as the sounds of scaffold building, comes from the systematic dismantling of the Vatican Council II to whose implementation these priests have given their lives. Those who stick to their pastoral work every day are criticized more than congratulated, crank letters of complaint are filed instead of burned and may well be held against them, and they had better not make even a small mistake: What is this we hear, Father, about your using general absolution? In short, good priests better believe that virtue is its own reward as they feel more intensely each day the strain of their high-demand, low-reward style of life. Were contemporary American Catholicism a movie, their names would not show up in the long crawl of credits at the end, not even as best boy, the role the vanishing culture preferred them to fill.

The prime burden of our best priests is both psychological and spiritual. They are subject not only to pressures from the structures of the organized church but from the irresistible dynamics of social change that play as fiercely on them as the noonday sun.

A century ago, in a seldom-noticed prophecy, impressionist painters dropped institutions from their scenes except where their facades, as in Monet’s celebrated Cathedral series at Rouen, France, offered envelopes of shifting light. Institutions were disappearing from the artists’ view of the world in a symbolic foreshadowing of the collapse of hierarchical institutions – the containers rather than what they contained – in the century that followed. Authoritative justice, wisdom and faith were not disappearing from history but the authoritarian medium in which they had for so long been expressed no longer bore the message.

Remarkably, the Fathers of Vatican Council II anticipated the crisis in institutional housing, that is, the collapse of hierarchy as the form to express human experience, that would erupt painfully and expensively, a generation later in all other great institutions from education and the military to medicine and business. The world’s bishops restored church governance to the collegiality of its founding, putting aside the already brittle hierarchical forms that were doomed by the advent of the Space/Information Age. Far from squandering magisterial authority, the council re-invigorated it, providing new conduits, such as national conferences of bishops, through which its freshened authority would flow more swiftly throughout the church and the host world. Since then the church has blossomed through the practical labors of its priests and people in collegial reorganization that, infused with healthy authority, has transformed the most remote of its parishes.

During this time of internal renewal, good priests found their enthusiastic implementation of Vatican II could not renew and, in a sense, rewire the church’s authority without reworking the overlapping cultures in which, until that time, they had themselves lived. The world-unto-itself Catholicism in which they grew up came apart around them.

The loosening of the obsessive controls, source of great discipline but also of almost trademark ambivalent guilt and compelled rather than freely chosen callings, hastened the disintegration of the clerical culture within the larger Catholic culture. Thousands of priests and religious suddenly felt free to put aside what they had previously accepted as their inescapable divinely ordained duty.

Broken open to a suffering world, the dark paneled rectories that once echoed to the laughter and comradeship of priests gradually emptied, the Roman collared good times of its molted clericalism fading like old photographs. Caught in these enormous vectors, those remarkable priests who chose to remain, sustained the American church through the post-Vatican II work-in-progress of renewing the church, working in battlefield conditions without battlefield pay.

One cannot suppose that these priests were immune to the attractions of the non-clerical life chosen by many of their best friends. The pull was not for sex but for an end to the loneliness of the calling that was being exposed as the insulation of the once-protective cultures wore thin. They stuck it out even as they were drawn by the healthy intimacy they seldom if ever experienced with other priests despite the surface merriment of the irreversibly declining clerical culture.

There was great value and good fun in the masculine bonding of the priesthood, but did clergymen know much about each other, did anybody know much about them? As their own parents aged, many discovered that emotionally they had never left home, that they had lived out the mantra of priests’ mothers, “You never lose the son who enters the church.” To another woman, that is. Good priests examined their own psychological development, wondering if they needed to find other human relationships as deep or deeper than those established in the parental home in which, to their growing uneasiness, they were “Father Jim” or “Father Tom,” good boys in aeternum. The center of that old universe did not hold and dealing with their own growth, as we shall see, was an unanticipated but not totally unwelcome challenge, motivating priests to grow not for their own delight but to enter better relationships with the people they served. They acquired new skills, such as counseling training, which allowed them to capitalize on their own growth in expanding their pastoral effectiveness.

Many of the nation’s finest priests, adjusting to this shift from an authoritarian to a collegial mode, encountered a life that required constant adjustments. Some separated from the past by moving psychologically, if not physically, out of their rectories into what they termed “real life.” They located themselves emotionally with their people or, often, with supportive sisters, sisters-in-law, or other members of their suddenly vastly extended families.

Visit today a rectory that not so long ago was warmed by gatherings of laughing and chatting priest confreres at the breakfast table. That room aches with museum silence because the lives of priests no longer center on rectory life but on separate destinations for each day, on tasks and relationships with others that at the same moment symbolize both the problem of living in a de-centered culture and their solution for it.

Ask a good priest what he looks for in an assignment change and high on the list of specifications would be “community,” a healthy response that tells us what is missing or so rarely found in the de-clericalized universe. This fundamental search for friends parallels the problem of the larger culture as well. Its deeper meaning is that good priests, like the impressionists, no longer see institutions as central to lives they must now largely fashion on their own.

This de-centering of priests’ lives is therefore both gain and loss for them. But they could not have survived had they not made healthy adaptations after the clerical life began to collapse. At the same time, they also had to work and sometimes fight for a living wage, a pension plan and the other standard conditions of ordinary American adult existence.

Already de-centered American priests found that they were also being radically de-mystified, in part by the unintended effects of the liturgical changes of Vatican II that undeniably removed a measure of mystery from the liturgy and its celebrant. The priest found himself, in a collapsed hierarchy, on the same level with everyone else. Is it an accident or an inevitability that some priests unconsciously acknowledge their de-mystification by wearing clearly visible casual clothes and shoes beneath their vestments? Look at us, call us by our first names, there’s nothing special about us or what we do, we’re just like you. This from a group that, in the high hierarchical culture, was celebrated as ontologically different, that is, different in their being, from their brothers and sisters, from their parishioners, from the big-city cops who would wink, close their traffic ticket books and wave them on.

The functions once reserved to the priest – such as bringing the Eucharist to the sick behind fluttering candle flame in a silence broken by heralding bells – that in 1950s Catholic communities defined his otherness – have for some time been routinely performed by lay persons, many of whom are now as theologically sophisticated as the priests they assist. Good priests have accepted these changes as aspects of Vatican II renewal, recognizing what, like growth, has no remedy, the de-mystification inherent in the leveling and equalizing effects of collegiality.

While the Catholic church rightly defines itself as primarily sacramental, a community whose native tongue is that of symbols rather than logic, many factors have come together to blur this identity. This has not been easy and, for many priests, as for many Catholics, it has been estranging. The impact, for these priests and believers, resembles that of the overconfident restorers on the windows of Chartres. In cleaning them, they destroyed their optics, their eyes, we might say, that received the light of the sun, a constant symbol of eternity, and focused it in time. Although the light now falls through them as sharp and clean as a dagger stroke, their capacity to diffuse it sacramentally has been weakened. So, too, many Catholic churches, their sacramental atmosphere cleansed by reform, seem the same as they were and yet radically different. Spare and gleaming as the scoured windows of Chartres, they are all but indistinguishable from most Protestant houses of worship.

Pope John Paul II, the “man of the century” as one biographer called him because of his extraordinary influence on the world, may be making the mistake of the millennium in his insistence on the restoration of hierarchical authority within the church. Catholics would not deny him the full measure of his authority but they cannot and do not respond to it when he expresses it in the authoritarian language of a closed era.

Unfortunately, the side effect of this determined papal restoration has been to lessen the dynamic authority of both this truly remarkable pope and the largely unremarkable majority of bishops that he has appointed. The spirit of this restoration has been to return to a period, as the nostalgic see it, when religion was harder and life was better. We can bring it back, they promise, with more rigorous church discipline and a more concrete religious teaching program. Both these outcomes ignore or naively beggar what many priests understand: The essential mystery of religion is communicated in sacramental symbols rather than in decrees, penalties or fundamentalist literalism.

A crucial example is found in the pope’s efforts to suggest that an all-male priesthood is an infallible church teaching and that any discussion of women becoming priests should therefore come to an end. The form of this unilateral communication was essentially hierarchical and subtly authoritarian. The true test of the authority with which the statement was invested is found in its failure to close down the theological discussion of ordaining women. People do not reject this because they do not like the pope, deny him authority or because they are closet heretics. The argument against women priests lacks efficacious authority in its thesis and presentation. In the long run, such documents spend down magisterial authority by transmitting it on an authoritarian network whose lines were long ago shorted out by history.

Our best priests live between a layer of bishops, some of whom have lost their nerve and initiative, and a laity that is rich in both characteristics. Operationally and imaginatively, the American bishops have functionally merged with the pope. Few of them realize that, despite the fact that they are on the “A” list for civic and ceremonial events in their dioceses, they have ceded a significant measure of their own rightful collegial authority by becoming incorporated into the grandiose model of papal authority that John Paul II has so vigorously re-instated.

Bishops may not question their role, but their good priests do. They want to be loyal to the pope and the bishops but they identify with the church as a people rather than as a hierarchical organization. This places them in a truly impossible position for, in the Internet Age, they no longer relay papal teaching but are receivers and reactors on the same plane with well-educated Catholics. The pope talks past them and the bishops in an array of languages. There “is no there, there” for intermediaries.

Good priests, traditionally defined as mediators, now find themselves in the middle in a church that has no middle anymore. The reduction in the number of individual confessions heard and the rise in the use of communal penance services are predictable outcomes in a leveled hierarchy in which ordinary people feel that they can represent themselves well in the court in which their sinfulness is judged. Sensible shepherds work to shape a richer identity for priests as collegial leaders while stewards of the administrative church call them back to authoritarian forms dubbed communio, the code word for noncollegial. But these structures, like pyramids, house the dead more than the living.

The pedophilia crisis exploded like an anti-personnel mine in the mid-80s as heavily publicized stories documented the renting of the temple veil that once shrouded incidents of the sexual abuse of boys by priests. Mothers who had rejoiced as they watched their sons celebrate their first Masses wept in this new era as they watched these once-pure offerings corrupted, and, like late century Oscar Wildes, manacled, shamed and imprisoned. The clerical culture was as dead as Wilde’s Victorian era.

During these dark times, good priests kept at their pastoral tasks although many found themselves rendered suspect. Some restrained their own healthy spontaneity for fear that an embrace or a pat on the back of a boy or girl might be interpreted as a sign of ominous desires barely controlled. Some who were falsely accused found little support from their bishops who tended to follow the advice of their insurance companies and their lawyers rather than the possibilities of their own pastoral instincts.

No history of the awkward handling of the pedophile crisis – the bishops still lack a truly uniform national policy on this matter – can recapitulate its impact on the good priests who remained on line and unrelieved during these troubles. Wearing the Roman collar suddenly acquired an ambivalent character. Today, even in predominantly Catholic cities such as Chicago, a keen observer must be near the diocesan offices to find a priest dressed in clerical garb.

As the great door of the century slowly closes, fine priests find themselves wearing out despite themselves. They are often alone in very large and successful post-Vatican II parishes. I recently lectured in a not untypical suburban parish in which there were 3,500 families, one priest with dark circles under his eyes, and 100 ministries being carried out by lay people well aware that they are the church. What is life like for priests who live in what is becoming the model for the 21st century parish?

Today’s good priests often live by themselves, sometimes in a house or apartment near the parish that they maintain, sometimes more in the manner of Oscar than Felix of “The Odd Couple.” TV dinners cram the freezer as unwashed laundry does the hamper, and the phone rings all the time.

Wonderful priests live in this fashion, the demands of their work leaving them alone and yet with little time for themselves. When they do talk about themselves it is less with self-pity than with self-doubt about how long they can keep working at such a pace in such conditions. Their bishop may be very understanding, but he is often removed and, since the latter’s own life has not changed as much as that of his priests, remains unaware of the incredible stress under which these men work. The leadership of the church on the practical, day-to-day, collegial level is largely in the hands of these pastors. But how long can we expect so much from them?

Such priests read the new culture of the priesthood realistically. They see themselves as the Vatican II generation and they understand that the church is a people more than as a place, a mystery rather than a series of measurements. Who, however, will succeed them? And how can they guarantee the sacramental life of the church when its bishops substitute scripture services for the celebration of the Eucharist, a plan that deals with the scarcity of the sacrament by making it even scarcer. They think that the bishops have not thought through the importation of priests from the Third World, as if anybody from anywhere could be plugged into American culture successfully.

Many of our finest priests are, therefore, frustrated and often angry at the cadre of administrators who, in a real sense, represent the last stand of classic clerics. The latter naturally defend the system that defines their careers although many are tempered by their experiences in helping out in parishes. Officials in general, however, do not seem keenly aware of their own diminished impact on post-Vatican II Catholic communities.

This theological independence of many laity disturbs those bishops who do not understand that such moral confidence is a signal of the success of Catholicism in America. This misreading of the church is daily increasing the psychological separation of the administrative church from the people. Their people have grown up, grown past them in many ways.

Because no reward system now exists in the priesthood, except for the occasional bright rash of monsignors, good priests shoulder on, largely on their own faith, and because of the successful human relationships they have developed with their people. That is a healthy achievement. Some bishops, however, continue to observe the term limits for pastors that were set up two generations ago to meet a totally different situation, the haphazard tyranny of many pastors in the pre-Vatican II church. To ask men in their 60s to break away from the human relationships that sustain them and to move to another parish is clerical capital punishment. Although the priests in some dioceses, such as Milwaukee, have voted to retain these norms, many dioceses have sensibly abandoned these terms of pastoral office.

Experienced priests are concerned about some young priests who refuse sick call or other duties that interfere with their schedules. Are we in, they wonder, for a Boomer priesthood of self-regard more than self-sacrifice? Their greatest reservations, however, center on those seminarians who, as described by Sr. Katarina Schuh in her recent study of theologates and seminaries “have a rigid understanding of their faith” and create a climate of distrust and defensiveness, publicly questioning the orthodoxy of professors and fellow students.

As described in a New York Times Magazine cover story, such candidates see themselves as counter-cultural saviors with a mission to get sin back into sex in order to denounce it from the pulpit. They are being groomed for a world that no longer exists. Without considerable maturing, they will find it difficult to serve in a collegial church when their hearts are in an authoritarian one. Their conversations about themselves bring up a question that, like the last fire of the night, has been temporarily banked but not extinguished. That concerns sexuality.

As the average age for American priests climbs toward 70, many good priests are eager for retirement, for a way out, at last, from a life they have loved but can live no longer. Largely unexamined or discussed are the personal adjustments that these men have made in order to stay alive. In this aging population of priests, there are men in their 70s who are just beginning to feel how lonely and isolated they are after keeping faith with their vows of celibacy all through their lives. Now, with family and friends dying, with the environment of the church transformed, they experience the irreparably burned-out feelings of having dutifully forsaken intimacy with another human being. Retired or on a diminished schedule, they are good men suddenly assailed by longings and fantasies they were convinced that they had conquered like desert fathers many years before. The resurgence of these longings and fantasies is disturbing in itself and disorganizing in its effects.

These are not returning tides of temptation as much as they are the understandable human overflow from the flood held off for so long and so valiantly but at a cost they had never quite understood before. And to what end, some ask, now that I can do nothing about the way I have lived, to what end, all this obsessive worry and denial, what have we done to ourselves? They have kept the faith, they are finishing the course, but they are still working hard at adjusting themselves to times that are far different from the way they expected they would be.

It may be said that good priests adjust to celibacy rather than live it as some energizing virtue. In a previous era, their humanly understandable adjustments, such as having large cars, costly hobbies and taking expensive vacations, brought them some criticism. In more recent years, good priests have found less time for such recreations and have had to deal with celibacy in different ways. Their adjustments now range from workloads that squeeze out rumination to deepened prayer to strengthen their grasp on the meaning of celibacy in and to a community.

Many priests, sensitized by their pastoral experience to the puzzlement, wonder and pain that surround sexuality in a supposedly knowing world, have thought deeply about their roles as teachers, confessors and as sexual beings themselves. Still others, difficult to number, have incorporated celibacy into their lives in choices about which they, and their bishops, have made pacts of peace and quiet. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

In this post-clerical, de-centered priesthood, the adjustments to celibacy are as varied as the new relationships into which priests enter in their pastoral labors. Many of these relationships are highly supportive of their work in the priesthood. Without friends, often without the love and understanding of a specific woman or, in some cases, a certain man, these priests would not be able to function. Their energy comes from these relationships, and their spirituality is inseparable from them. Where priests flourish, it is because they import healthiness into their pastoral work from that place, different for each, at which the center of their lives may truly be found.

Any examination of the true human north in the lives of American priests would lead, therefore, to relationships outside the now-outmoded hierarchical structures. Within these relationships, many priests have had to review their convictions about human sexuality, that great area always marked off as posted territory, forever off limits to them. To say that many priests have changed their once-strict ideas about sexuality would be an oversimplification of a reality about which little has been asked and little has been told. The real world of the priests that keep the church going is, however, profoundly human. And nothing human can ever, they feel, be intrinsically alien to them.

Some of these relationships are sexual, according to such observers as Terry Dosh, editor of the church reform newsletter Bread Rising, but, in fact, and despite varied wonders, assertions and denials, we have a surfeit of anecdote and a lack of data about this matter. What we do know is that these relationships, from friendship to profound loves, are far better for the church than the quirky asexual adjustments that could be found within, and at times characterized, a lost and gone clerical structure.

The adjustments to celibacy in the contemporary American priesthood are, for the most part, healthy and they are also a sign of how greatly transformed is the priesthood beneath the surface. It is also testimony to what good men must do to stay alive when they are living lives that are as pressured and largely unrewarded as theirs.

These men are true brothers to the Prodigal Son. It is time we killed the calf and lighted the candles for a feast to honor them.

Eugene Kennedy, a former Maryknoll priest, is a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000