success stories

Posted September 30, 2003

The Heart of a Wholesome Priesthood

Eugene Hemrick

On a beautiful evening in Washington, D.C., I walked down to the Folk Festival, which was underway on the mall. The lively folk music emanating from it made me want to dance. In fact, in front of the band stand there were young people doing exactly that.

As I sat to watch them, a youth from the group approached me and asked: "Would you mind if I gave you some literature and talked with you?"

He told me his group was one of the new tribes of Israel that God had chosen. It was founded on living together in peace and love.

"The reason why we dance in circles," he pointed out, "is that a circle denotes our unity." He then told me that today's corrupt society needs his community more than ever.

I let him go on for a few minutes, and then I leveled with him.

"I am a Catholic priest — a priest of four decades", I told him.

He congratulated me and said, "Then you know what I am talking about", and continued his proselytizing.

He argued that the Catholic Church had dropped the ball, and that the Book of Revelation says God takes away his graces when a church does this and he gives them to others.

For over an hour we talked religion, and I must admit he listened as intently to me as I did to him.

As he spoke, I couldn't but think, "This person has integrity and his heart is in the right place. He reflects inspiring youthful nobility in the pursuit of a dream."

When our conversation ended, I told him, "I deeply admire your zeal. It is this same first zeal I had when entering the priesthood. Please don't lose it."

He in turn said, "Before you read the literature I gave you, I ask you this favor, pray that God makes your mind as open as that of a child."

During the time we spoke that young man never stopped trying to convert me, even though he knew who I was. As I walked home, I thought, "His zeal is exactly what our priesthood needs more of today to combat our difficult times. New rules the bishops institute, institutional restructuring, or anything else we try won't materialize until we raise our level of zeal.

Zeal in Greek means ardor, creating the image of fire. As a fireman, I have seen fire race through cornfields and homes faster than a person can run because of its ability to leap over great distances instantaneously. When it starts, it may be small and gentle, but once on the move, it becomes ferocious, and nothing can stop it.

That young man started gently with me, but once he got going there was no stopping him. Like fire that feeds on dry underbrush, every argument I raised fueled his counter arguments.

Much has happened in these last few years to dampen our ardor. Brother priests have fallen by the wayside, casting a pall over the priesthood. Anyone like myself who has been in a parish where a priest has been accused, knows the division this causes. There are parishioners who condemn the man before a trial has taken place. On the other side of the fence are those who staunchly defend him, and see the bishop, or his accusers, as the culprits. E-mails, phone calls and faxes let fly, and you literally have a parish up in arms. Worst than this, you don't know who is telling the truth.

Bishops who have acted irresponsibly have also cast a pall over the priesthood. It wasn't long ago that they were held in high esteem for their moral stances. Oh, there were some we could have done without, but on the whole, they were respected and credible.

Squabbles in the ranks of the priests are also shaking our zeal. Much emphasis is being given to the gap between older and younger priests. Homosexuality is now a constant topic of discussion, as is our celibacy. And as we become more multicultural, we wonder if the foreign priests we are importing know our culture well enough to serve the American church. Add to this, the shortage of priests, and pastors in charge of not one, but several parishes, and the very fire in us is extinguished. Our priesthood is being overloaded with side battles that are eating up energies that could be used more fruitfully. As the frustrations mount, so can undesirable neuroses.

Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychologist whose German days in a concentration camp led him to logotherapy, points to two neuroses we particularly need to guard against.

After World War II, people knew about the atom bomb and it destructiveness. This put them into a planless day-to-day attitude toward life.

Frankl writing then notes: "Today the average man says: "‘Why should I plan? Sooner or later the atom bomb will come and wipe out everything.' . . .This anticipation of atomic warfare is as dangerous as any other anticipatory anxiety, since, like all fear, it tends to make its fears come true."

Fatalism is a second neurosis that is closely related to this attitude.

Frankl observes: "The day-to-day man considers planned action unnecessary; the fatalist considers it impossible. He feels himself to be the helpless result of outer circumstances or inner conditions."

It is no exaggeration to say that the atmosphere surrounding the priesthood is ripe for fatalism and a planless attitude. Our entrepreneurial spirit and esprit de corps are being strangled by adverse publicity, caution, suspicion and divisions. In the midst of this malaise, how do we maintain our fervor, and where might we begin?

In Italian, we have the proverb: Patience is a virtue. Patience is more than enduring difficult situations. It means not letting anything break our spirit. Like that young man who wouldn't quit, it encourages us never to give up. Hence, patience is not passive, but very active. Not only does it encourage us to hold steady, it counsels us to actively finds ways of enkindling and strengthening our spirit. One very effective way to accomplish this is to embrace utopian thinking, which is considered one of the best change strategies by sociologists.

Utopian thinking urges us to dream and be visionary; to be youthful at heart; imagine ideals; and to venture out in pursuit of them. It is the direct antithesis of fatalism that sees nothing but impossibilities, or no light beyond the tunnel. It is the opposite of the planless who have given up on the future. Rather, it sees new horizons to explore, and mountains to be conquered, and sets a course for accomplishing this.

The renowned theologian and liturgist Romano Guardini would liken utopian thinking to courage which he describes as: "The confidence requisite for living with a view to the future, for acting, building, assuming responsibilities and forming ties. For, in spite of our cautions, the future is in each case the unknown. But living means advancing into this unknown region, which may lie before us like a chaos into which we must venture."

"Here everyone must take the venture in the confidence that the future is not chaos or a totally strange thing. Rather, his own character, the ordering power within him, will make a way so that it is really his own future into which he moves."

Utopian thinking is the essence of enthusiasm, which in Greek means being filled with the spirit of God — a God whose spirit is forever creating anew, desires unity, forgives, and wants the best for us. When we apply utopian thinking to the liturgical life of our priesthood, note its vigor.

Utopian thinking energizes us with thoughts like: "When parishioners come to Mass, especially those with teenagers, they hope for good homilies. Give them this and you will not only draw them closer to God, but take greater pride in your priesthood. In the words of the renowned preacher Fr. Walter Burghardt, preach with ‘fire in your belly!' Dream of becoming a revered homilist known for carefully thinking through your homilies. Pray over them as a saint would, and deliver them from the heart. Treat each one as if it were a masterpiece. Struggle as great artists do to find the exact word that best expresses God's Word. Endure the frustration of searching for uniqueness and know that this is the price of excellence. Don't ever fall into the planless syndrome and wing them! Don't ever tell yourself that you don't have it as a homilist! That's fatalism!"

The same holds true for the celebration of the Mass. Unless we carefully plan and feel that each Mass is unique in itself, it can become mechanical, lose its mystique and end up a frustration rather than a joy. This is especially true when we are forced to celebrate several Masses in a day. It is also equally true that it takes a very thoughtful and deliberate priest to be able to make each Mass special under these circumstances. Without a doubt, celebrating the sacredness of Mass challenges our patience and fervor to the maximum. Even celebrating one Mass with all our best intentions is difficult. Just listen to what Romano Guardini would encourage us to do to achieve this.

To celebrate Mass reverently, he would tell us, we need Wahrnehmen, the German word for reception-of-truth. It means to receive into oneself, to submit to the influence of the mysteries we are celebrating, to place our self within their grasp. Ultimately, it means being all there. Oh the beauty we could generate if we were forever perfecting our celebration of the Mass in this way! Not only would our parishioners be awed and God pleased, but more so would we.

Utopian thinking would have us picturing ourselves as God's tool for opening up hearts that cry to be released of their guilt in the sacrament of reconciliation. Here again it would encourage us, "Dream of being a revered confessor like St. John Vianney who is forever improving the role of comforter and reconciler. Strive to become a confessor people will go to great distances to find."

Although the priesthood is about a variety of ministries other than the liturgy, liturgical life is core to its essence. To the degree we are constantly perfecting it, it is to that degree our ardor will flourish and carry us through our troubled times.

Some might object to this line of thinking and say it's too simplistic. Regaining the confidence of our people, and shoring up our own confidence is much more complex. Getting lost in the liturgy and our homilies isn't realistic when you are short handed and racing around from one parish to another; being confronted by angry parishioners, bashed in the press, and hearing disparaging stories about our bishops.

Although these are realities that need immediate attention, our liturgical life contains the very life that is being threatened in us, namely, our faith in who we are. It is here we must focus first because liturgical life is closest to our heart, to our priesthood, and who we are. It is true that this sounds simplistic, but as we shall see, there is more to simplicity than meets the eye.

In the Old Testament, simplicity is closely related to perfection, integrity and purity of the heart. When we speak of becoming more fervent in our liturgical life, what we are actually saying is that we make it more perfect, raise its integrity and ennoble it.

Even though I couldn't agree with the religious principles of the young man who attempted to convert me, I did respect his fervor and integrity. He mirrored a beautiful purity of heart in wanting to make the world more perfect.

If we are to withstand fatalism and living a feverish daily existence that takes the heart out of planning, we needn't go outside of our churches to accomplish this. Our greatest ally is raising our fervor to a new degree. And where better to start then in our liturgical life which reflects the best in our priesthood.