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Posted November 4, 2003


Putting Our Priesthood Back In Order

Eugene Hemrick


A woman about to turn 100 years old was asked how it felt having lived almost a century.

"Well, when I was ninety," she said, "I would enter my home, climb a flight of steps, stop at the landing, catch my breath and continue up to my room." Now that I am a hundred I go into the same home, climb the same steps, and stop at the same landing. The only difference now is that I donít know whether I am going up or down."

We donít have to be a hundred years old in the priesthood to feel this way. Never have so many challenges confronted it, making us wonder whether we are going up or down. In the midst of this turmoil, on what should we primarily concentrate so as to keep our balance?

The heart of the Church, and our priesthood are relationships. As they go so goes their life. At this moment, four relationships in particular need immediate attention: the relationship of bishop to priests and vice versa; of priests to priests, the relationship between priests and laity, and the relationship of priest to himself.

The Relationship Between Bishop and Priests

One of the least referred to parts of ordination is that priests become the extension of the bishop. In a very true way, it encourages us to model the unity between the bishop and his priests on the Trinitarian model of dialogue between God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. This is the same dialogue and unity we daily pray for in Mass. It is also the same dialogue that Fr. Philip Murnion, the renowned church researcher, cried for on his death bed.

Today, we frequently hear irrate Catholics and the press refer to bishops as men who "donít get it." To add to the turmoil, some bishops have resigned because of irresponsible behavior, while others have acted in ways that call into question their credibility.

What is more disturbing than this are resentful priests who feel betrayed by bishops because of the way they have handled accused priests. In the study, The New Vision of the Priesthood, Dr. Dean Hoge reports 56% of priests have very much to a lot of confidence in their bishops, whereas 43% say they have little to no confidence. When the level of confidence drops so does the level of dialogue and our ability to be unified. What is most disturbing about this for the priesthood is that it leaves the door open to two of the most deadly capital sins in existence, resentment and anger. The dark clouds they generate threaten the heart of the priesthood.

If both bishops and priests are "to get it," both must realize that their relationship with each other is vital, and a sine quo non for the good of the Church, their ministry and the priesthood. Another thing both need "to get" is that if this relationship is allowed to deteriorate because of anger and grudges, our ministry also deteriorates. It makes no sense to pray for the bishop, unity in the world, and each other, if we allow anger and resentment to continue to eat away at us without resolve. Criticize, we must, when things are out of order, but always with the intention of constructive criticism, never with the motive of destroying a person out of spite. Whatever it takes, the priest as extension of the bishop needs to be revisited. We need to ask: what does this mean to the theology of the priesthood? Do priests and bishops see this relationship only in juridical terms, or does it have a sacred aspect to it? Is there a vision of what needs to be done between bishop and priests to make this come alive to create a greater sense of solidarity? How might it be portrayed so that it becomes an inspiration to the people we serve? Do parishioners have any sense of the relationship between priests and bishops other than priests are under his jurisdiction. Is there any historical understanding of the importance of this relationship?

Priests in Relationship With Each Other

As imperiled as is the relationship between bishop and priest, such ruptures arenít uncommon. Anytime one person is given authority over another, there are resentments, anger, cynicism and distrust. This goes with the territory of being in and under authority. If, however, we add to this discord fractured relationships between priests, the very solidarity of the priesthood is jeopardized.

Studies point to a gap between older and younger priests. Again, this isnít uncommon. Veteran and new priests have always had their differences, and have usually worked through them. In fact, the give and take between generations are often life-giving. Without each side challenging the other, growth and vitality is stifled.

What is of concern is a growing suspicion between older and younger priests with older priests wondering why younger priests are so rigid and trying to return to an age in the priesthood they never experienced. On the other hand, younger priests give the impression that the behavior of older priests and their Vatican II persuasions are the major reason the Church is not respected more.

Of even greater concern is a growing distance between older and younger priests in which neither invites the other to share their time, thoughts, dinner and recreation with each other.

Another concern at present is the growth of the subculture of homosexuals in the priesthood. The most recent reports by Dr. Dean Hoge and his colleagues state: "Our conclusion, based on these data and on our focus groups, is that homosexual subcultures (in seminaries) increased in visibility, and probably also in numbers, in recent decades."

From focus group findings, these researchers reported that "no priests described negative impacts in their diocese or institute from homosexual subcultures. But we heard numerous negative reports about homosexual subcultures in seminaries," they added.

One priest called it "extremely corrosive." Another described some seminarians as "kind of predators to other people in the seminary community." A third priest said that it "categorized everyone in that if you want to be a priest, you have to be sexual." As can be seen from the comments above, the new attention given to this subculture when added to reservations older and younger priests have about each other creates an atmosphere of suspicion, which often leads to a distancing from each other. All of a sudden, we donít have one priesthood, but several subcultures, which divides us.

If the priesthood is to maintain high morale, it might look to the age-old principle St. Augustine applied to his order. A first principle of Augustinian community living is that before you go out into the world to spread love, you start with loving your own. In the words of Fr. Phil Murnion, we need to dialogue, dialogue, dialogue! Young priests and older priests need to share their stories on what drew them to the priesthood; the ups and downs of their journey in it, and their hope for its future. They need to openly debate their theologies, how they see modern day ministry, what they most like in it, and also most dislike. Most important of all, they must work at spending leisure time together where spontaneity and laughter abound.

The Relationship Between Priests and the laity

As supportive as the laity have been of priests during the recent scandals, the openness between them and priests has been imperiled. Priests by nature are friendly. Not only this, friendliness, which in Italian is amicitia come from amare, to love. Love is vital for creating collaboration and unity between priests and the laity. With some priests having misused their friendliness, there is now a hesitancy about being too friendly. On one hand, friendly priests donít want to be mistaken for using their friendliness for devious purposes. This has made some become more reserved, distant, and less open. On the other hand, some lay persons now have second thoughts about priests who are too outwardly friendly.

When we add to this lay persons who feel the main reason for the churchís problems are it being too liberal or conservative, or who feel the Church is not sufficiently empowering them, unrest in the Church quadruples.

When we look at the recent media stories on the priesthood through the eyes of healthy relationships, we see the portrait it creates has changed dramatically. The level of reverence we once had for each other has fallen, and with it we have lost a good degree of unity. It is true that no portrait of the priesthood has been perfect. Bishops, priests and the laity now find that vital relationships to the Churchís unity are much more contentious. Credibility, the strength of every wholesome relationship, has been weakened. The question facing us now is what needs to be done to rejuvenate the relationship between priest and the laity?

One place to start is to revisit Pope Paul VIís Ecclesiam Suam and its profound treatment of dialogue as a means of creating renewal. We need to come to the round table and to be much more clear with each other with the language we use. Humility and the absence of being a know it all must be apparent, as should be the feeling of being well disposed to each other. Finally, there must be an earnest effort to enter into the world of the other person and try so see where he or she is coming from. This means leaving our world with its preconceived ideas and comfort zone.

The principles of clarity, humility, kindness and pedagogic prudence are the heart of dialogue, which if practiced, have the power to once again have laity, priests and bishops talking to each other as human beings who are in earnest to best serve God.

The Relationship Of Priest To Himself

Years ago, the famous psychologist, Fr. Charles Curran who taught at Loyola in Chicago used to remind us students that Christ commanded that we "love our neighbor as our self." He would pound home that before we priests try to help others, we must first put our own house in order. We must know who we are as a priest; what we like and dislike about our self, the church and our ministry. Most important of all, we must know our charism. In his book, Thick of His Ministry, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini defines the power this had in the life of St. Paul to help him keep things together when everything was falling apart.

St. Paul faced many of the same difficulties priests are facing today. Many of the relationships he had soured and become his cross. The majority of his Jewish brothers and sisters rejected him. He ran into internal disputes with the communities he served, and he speaks of an internal trial that caused him great suffering. "How," Martini asks, "does he maintain his balance and keep going?"

Martini answers: "I was struck by the extreme confidence he has in his own charisma. . . .We find a man who is absolutely certain that everything around him may crack but not his own charisma. Even when he vents his sufferings most forcefully, he emerges absolutely certain of the charisma that has been given to him . . . "

Simply put Paul not only knows his gifts, but loves them so that they are his main source of strength.

When we examine this insight, it gives us the answer on how a priest can maintain his inner unity of spirit. It echos Bernard Lonerganís transcendental method which he says is a "heightening of consciousness . . . and thereby leads to the basic question: What do I know when I do it? This question goes to the heart of our priesthood and asks us: how deep is our realization of the awesome charisma with which God has blessed us? Do we realize there are phases to this realization? At what phase are we? Letís translate this into our daily pastoral practices and sees how it creates inner solidarity within us.

We as priests are forever experiencing the woes of young people who come to us because of broken relationships with persons they love. And too, we experience the woes of married couples whose love has grown cold. We sit and listen, give sympathy and sometimes advice. Here Lonergan and St. Paul would ask: How much do we realize we are ultimately healing broken hearts? Do we realize in these moments of listening and counseling that we are truly doctors in the process of curing? The medicine we provide these broken hearted people doesnít come from a pharmacy. It comes from the spirituality expected of a priest, and especially his gifts of priesthood. The healing that follows is more than psychosomatic, it is spiritual and the deepest known healing to humankind.

Most of us have applied moral theology to world problems in the pulpit, at an adult education class, or in lectures. Lonergan and St. Paul would ask: Do you realize that in these situations, we are lawyers in the true sense of the word? But instead of appealing to civil law, we appeal to the highest law of the land, moral law. Just as the word law comes from the Latin word "to bond," so too, we, as lawyers, are mending broken bonds, and reconstituting unity and community.

We heard confessions in which a person weeps tears of joy because he or she has finally opened up their heart to God. In moments like this, Lonergan and St. Paul would remark, you become the greatest liberator ever known to history, one who unburdens the conscience.

Most of us are forever reaching out to the poor or marginalized. This is caring in its deepest sense of the word. And since the word for cure means to heal, it is also healing at its deepest spiritual sense.

Day after day we celebrate Mass. Usually those who attend are the same congregation we have known for years. Here Lonerganís transcendental method would counsel, note how we become a familiar voice, much like the familiar voices of our favorite radio announcers or movies stars, to these people. But it is not just a voice, it is a spirit that cheers hearts, encourages hope and consoles. The ritual of your voice and its spirit are part of your charisma. Do you realize the impact this has on the spirit of those you serve?

We could go on forever pointing out the gift of being a priest, but this is not our primary concern. Rather, it is to grow in awareness of who we are when we ministry and to re-enkindle our love for our ministry. The more we do this, the more we love our selves, and become a better instrument of Godís service.

Some might object to this line of thinking and say, "We have serious problems out there that need immediate attention, and you point us to self reflection.

In every sport, top athletes often go off alone to recollect themselves. They do this to sharpen their concentration, and put themselves into the best frame of mind for maximum performance.

Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the powers of inner concentration and coined the quote: "The secret of power is concentration." Saints throughout history have lauded the powers of contemplation because they knew it was the secret behind their success.

By reflecting on and appreciating our charisms, we create inner strength. This internal solidification is necessary to position us so that we are working from our greatest strength. The greatest strength of the priesthood is prayer, which translates into being a reflective person who strives to know who he is, who God is, how God has blessed him, and what role God has for him.

If the church of the new millennium is to have the strength it needs to meet the mammoth challenges it faces, it must look to its fundamental relationships ó relationships between bishops and priests, priests and laity, and the relationship between priest and his priesthood.