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Service, Compassion, Empowerment in the Priesthood

From Grace Under Pressure


As these effective priests draw strength from being with and listening to people at the key moments of their lives, they feel a duty to turn to be kind and compassionate to the people they serve. Priesthood is not something for the priest; priesthood is for the Church --- the People of God. These priests seem to share an underlying assumption that all Christians are called to ministry by baptism and that the priests’ real service to a congregation is to help the people realize that. To that end the priest is really serving the movement of the Spirit in the Church. Being in on this movement gives these men life. Leadership for these men involves listening, animating, bringing life the gifts of the baptized, and helping people realize their power. They lead by serving. That style of leadership energizes them.

Jim from the Midwest illustrates this view. “In my chancery experience,” he said, “one of the things that I found quickly, because I dealt with complaints, was that a lot of people have been away from the Church because a priest or a religious sister in the past did something to them and it has stuck in their minds. Starting my first pastorate, I was determined and am still determined to not be that type of agent to somebody else. I am determined to try to be helpful and compassionate to them.”

Fred, a Western chancery official, said, “So often what I’ve been exposed to are the horror stories, the things that people have been de-energized and turned off with and angered by in the Church. And for me, being full of life is to turn that around to provide them a really good experience.”

Eric, 43, a Southern pastor, said, “I know in myself that when it comes to dealing with controversy, often it seems to be a choice between principles or people. I’ll try to go for both. I won’t go just for principle. Again, I’ve learned over the years that there is very little worth driving someone out of the Church over. Very little.”

Bill from the West looks to the Catholics who come to church only on Christmas and Easter: “For years I have heard priests just berate people who only came to church on Christmas and Easter. And what I’ve adopted now is what I heard a priest say a long time ago, ‘Thank you for coming. All of you who don’t regularly come here, know how less a Church we are without you. We need you. And how much better, how much easier the load of the whole Church would be, if all of you participated.”

Dick from the south said, “Looking back on my life now, I realize that another thing that has given me life is a desire not only to be proud of the talents God has given me, but to realize He has given them to me to put them into service.”

The need to be kind and the sense of service that priests feel are expressed in a way they work to empower and animate the people they serve. Phil from the Midwest talked about the themes or coats of arms for his pastorates. Te theme for the first pastorate was “Let my people go!”; the theme for the second was, “Remember, they were here first. And they are going to be here a long time after you go!”

Jack from the Midwest said, "Part of the challenge of this era in history is calling people to their own rightful ministry and their rightful ownership of their part of the Gospel. I love to see people blossom. Empowerment is telling people that they have the right and the gift. Enablement is giving them the skills to realize it. Nothing makes me happier than when someone discovers that, ‘Gee, I can do this. I can get involved in this ministry. I can make this presentation. I can lead a group.’ The Lord is there. They have the experience of the Lord empowering them. They get excited and to me that is satisfying."

Pat from the West works with Spanish-speaking immigrants. He talked about how life-giving it was to watch them grow and become a part of the community and the Church. He said it is life-giving to observe “ordinary working-people start to realize that they have power and they have a lot of potential.”

Fred from the West described his view of the priesthood: “I don’t want the people to just focus on me so that when I leave, everything falls apart. But when we can build and can see a community that is built authentically by their being in touch with each other and the lives the live, to me that is very life-giving.”

Don from the Midwest talked about beginning his pastorate and doing a lot of listening, so he could join the parish before leading it. He talked about spiritual renewal emerging as a theme and priority of the parish. Talking about the staff he said: “We have organized to try to say, ‘What helps you come alive? What can this parish do to help you live more deeply?”

Priests cannot be understood apart from the support they receive from the people they serve. While the priests in our study have held an amazingly broad range of jobs, they talk most about their life in parishes and their contact with people. They see people who “keep the faith,” even during life’s most difficult moments, and it gives meaning to their own lives as priests. That in turn, makes priests more sensitive to people’s lives, more willing to listen, more compassionate, more empowering. And that in turn makes them better priests who are better able to serve the people of God. It’s a circle of giving life.