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Posted November 25, 2003

Retrieving a Filed-Away Document: Priests' Morale

By Father Eugene Hemrick

During a radio program known for its little factual tidbits, an announcer reported that 70 percent of documents that are filed away are never read again.

This may be true. Nonetheless, there is a "filed way" document that I think people should read again. It is titled "Reflections on the Morale of Priests," and it was published by the U.S. bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry in 1988.

I have several reasons for recommending that this document be revisited.

-- First, the document is more relevant now than when it was first published. The problems it spoke to have grown immensely since it addressed them.

-- The document is also one of the frankest discussions of morale ever to issue from the bishops. It raised certain eyebrows when it was first published. Some people wanted it hushed up because they thought it rocked the boat too much and would only lead to more morale problems.

What makes the document especially valuable today is its sensitivity to the grass roots and its incisiveness. It knows where priests are at in their ministry, and it minces no words about the exact causes of poor morale on the grass-roots level.

Let's look at an excerpt from the document's "Profile of the Problem of Morale." It says:

"Role expectations among clergy leave many feeling trapped, overworked, frustrated and with the sense of little or no time for themselves. The continuing shortage of clergy casts its shadow on both present ministry and future hopes. Official directives which focus on duties 'only the priest can do' tend to increase the workload and make for less effective ministry."

With the recent sex-abuse scandal, the clergy shortage not only has continued to escalate but also has meant that numerous pastors who each had responsibility for one parish now have responsibility for several.

Utilizing lay people and deacons to the best of our capacity would greatly help relieve this problem. But as yet, there's still that uncomfortable feeling among some officials that if the laity take on more responsibility, do a good job and enjoy it, the attractiveness of being a lay minister -- or deacon -- might detract from the priesthood's attractiveness.

And too, many officials argue that they do not want to see the lines between the office of the priesthood and the office of the laity blurred.

The 1988 document went on to say that there were a significant number of priests who had settled for "a part-time presence to their priesthood. Many feel they have worked hard and long to implement, or at least adjust to, the practical consequences of Vatican II. They sense that much of that effort is now being blunted or even betrayed, and they elect to drop out quietly."

This candid statement couldn't be truer today with the divisions that have occurred between those wishing to lead the church back to the past and those who want to enter the third millennium employing post-modern methods of coping with its challenges.

Perhaps with these few examples of a bishops' committee squarely addressing crucial problems of the priesthood you can see why I say that certain documents should never be filed away for good.