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Posted September 19, 2007

Priests of Integrity

By Carol M. Lackie

As a Catholic that spent most of my adult life estranged from the Church, the invitation to write this inaugural article to a series on Priests of Integrity was unexpected – to say the least. I accepted the challenge immediately and then, almost as quickly, I began to question the wisdom of selecting me for this task. My childhood and young adult years encompassed that intoxicated period of religious reform following Vatican II. What began as an exciting, hopeful period of rebirth and renewal for the Catholic Church, ground to a halt even before it reached toddler-hood and in 1975, I executed two momentous leave-takings, one from the University of Notre Dame the other from the Catholic Church. At the time, I told myself that at least my experience at Notre Dame resulted in a marketable degree – I couldn’t say what my experience as a Catholic had netted me. What followed were thirty years of career, marriage, children– and a spiritual search that landed my family and me at Willow Creek Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I spent over a dozen years at Willow, enjoying services that were energized by gifted musicians, dancers, and actors dedicated to bringing the gospel to life, making it exciting and relevant. I was entranced by Scriptural teachers who, week after week, delivered sermons that were intelligent, thought provoking and addressed real life struggles from a practical, Christian perspective. More than anything, though, what I found engaging about Willow was its dedication to lay ministry. I vividly recall one sermon in which Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow, boldly challenged everyone in the 4500 seat auditorium declaring, “If you’re not working in one of our ministries, you do not belong in that seat!”

The other aspect of Willow Creek that made me feel so comfortable was that I found myself surrounded by similarly lapsed Catholics.

A series of events beyond the scope of this article propelled me back to the Catholic Church in late 2004. What I experienced upon returning was an intellectual and spiritual depth to my faith that I never imagined existed. To my adult sensibilities, the ecumenical possibilities of Catholicism and our tradition’s call to Social Justice infused a sense of urgency into what I understood as our challenge to live the faith preached by Jesus two thousand years ago. A brilliant teacher/priest, Patrick Brennan, was my guide through those early months of my return. I went to him seeking answers to some complex faith questions. His response was usually a thoughtful, “I don’t know. What do you think?” or, another favorite, when I inquired as to the primacy of Catholic theology in all matters of faith, he would only comment, “This Church is a big tent with many rooms.” Patrick was the perfect mentor for someone like me, seeking an unembellished perspective on the Catholic Church in the 21st Century.

Through Patrick, who also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, I was introduced to another bright light in today’s Church, Holy Family Parish in Inverness – the church where he serves as Pastor. You will recall that the purpose of this series is to raise up ordained priests of integrity – to shine a light on those men who, despite the many challenges they face, lead their congregations respectful of the tradition of sensus fidelium, the Catholic belief that just as the Holy Spirit guides the magisterium in matters of faith, so does it inspire the larger body of the faithful, infusing them with an instinct for recognizing when a pronounced teaching is in line with the principles of our faith. The truth is, these priests cannot exist without their congregations. Without Holy Family, Patrick Brennan would just be another renegade priest attempting to “fly beneath the Cardinal’s radar” – as the popular saying goes – trying to promote change in a vacuum and periodically being subjected to “silencing” by his bishop. The bond between Patrick and Holy Family stands as a perfect example of what it means to live as Christians in loving relationship. As pastor, Patrick gladly shares the governing responsibility of the parish with the Parish Council, a group of approximately 13 parishioners and staff members empowered to entertain and decide most major initiatives impacting the parish. He also shares his immediate pastoral responsibilities with two pastoral associates – both non-ordained, one of whom is a woman. The generous way in which he invites collaboration in matters of governance among members of the church from a variety of backgrounds serves as a model to parishioners in living their own lives and also in handling the many ministries carried out under the umbrella of Holy Family.

I arrived at Holy Family very familiar with the concept of ministry and service -the corner stone of Willow Creek is community involvement. I was not aware, however, that this tradition was also very much alive in Catholic parishes. Holy Family currently has 150 ministries headed up by lay people dedicated to the same style of collaborative engagement as Patrick is in his role as Pastor. He refers to this as lateral ministry – empowerment of the laity to serve the needs of the community. Considering the shortage of priests in the U.S. church, this awakening of the faithful to their responsibility of service makes perfect sense. Holy Family is a parish of over 3800 families and Patrick is the only priest assigned full time to care for them. Without the collaborative effort of his staff and carefully trained lay leaders, Holy Family would neither be able to celebrate its sacramental heritage, nor would it have the resources to expand its evangelical spirit into the many areas of adult formation, education of children and families, youth activities, pastoral care and justice and peace for which it is renowned.

When I came back to the Church, after my long absence, I made a desperate attempt to play catch-up with all the changes I saw at Holy Family. In my research, I came across a book by Paul Wilkes, published in 2001, called Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to the Best Places and Practices. Wilkes and his team looked at Catholic parishes throughout the country in an attempt to uncover what makes a great parish work. Holy Family was one of the eight parishes he chose to highlight in his final analysis. His brief summary at the outset took note of the amazing fact that Holy Family has “ten thousand parishioners, one priest, but incredible lay participation.” The book purports to debunk the popular notion that “a lack of priests is what holds parishes back from excellence.” One commentary offers this insight, that the “three keys of success (to a thriving, relevant congregation) are vision, energy and hope.” He asserts that these qualities are “within reach of every parish.”

For me, the story of Patrick Brennan and Holy Family is intensely personal. My journey back to this faith initiated huge changes in my life. It is safe to say that it has forever altered my perception regarding a great many things. A perfect example is relevant to share at this juncture. In one of my first conversations with Patrick, he stated that he feared the Catholic Church would not change until the last priest like himself was dead. I didn’t understand him at the time. I have come closer to appreciating his comment these last several months – enough to say that I believe the priesthood is a dying profession – at least in the U.S. church. By any measure of corporate viability – and I spent 25 years in corporate America, enough to be familiar with such concepts – it is an institution on life support with no hope of ever regaining consciousness. The average age of diocesan priests in the U.S. is 57. The average age of religious order priests is 63. In 2007, fully one third of the priests being ordained in U.S seminaries are foreign born. The sex scandal plaguing the reputation and treasury of the Catholic Church in the U.S. would lead us to conclude that for some years now, the priesthood has been a preferred vocation for pedophiles and sexual deviants. Stories abound of young seminarians cavorting on seminary grounds dressed in cassocks sporting birettas. Every indication is that the young men being attracted to the priesthood in the U.S. today are of a character that would gladly sink that final nail into the coffin of any hopes for the reforms promised by Vatican II.

I have heard on more than one occasion that while vocations seem to be drying up in the U.S. they are flourishing in developing countries and it will be easy enough to fill U.S. parishes with foreign born priests as the need arises. I just returned from five months of working in Africa where I lived with approximately 150 African Catholic priests and seminarians. One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Africa was that celibacy was not a valued charism among the African clergy – or any ordained, vowed religious for that matter. This fact was confirmed for me time and again throughout my stay as I encountered priests with mistresses, children and AIDS. Some of these priests respect their relationships with their women and try to care for their children, more often than not, though, the women and children hold as little worth to them as they do to the rest of African society. This is a disturbing fact that the U.S. Bishops omit when promising to fill empty U.S. rectories with priests culturally different from us especially in areas of crucial concern such as women’s rights. Money is another attraction to the priesthood in developing countries. An Asian priest admitted to me that if he hadn’t gone into the priesthood, he would have had to work on a cruise ship like his grandfather, father and brothers before him – this while he kept insisting that I not think of him as a priest.

There is a point to my digression. We intend in this series of articles to hold up priests of integrity. We must acknowledge, as Catholics, that even as we do so, we are witness to a dying breed. This must not stop us though from pursuing our mission as a Church. As St. Paul put it, the Church is the body of Christ. We are all the Church and each one of us is ordained into a sacred priesthood by baptism. Patrick Brennan is right when he says we will not change until one of the last vestiges of the old Church, its ordained priests, is gone. Then, the laity will be obliged to take up the responsibility for this faith as was imagined from the beginning. In his book, Reconstructing Catholicism for a New Generation, Robert Ludwig, Director of the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University advocates turning away from the death watch we have visited upon the Church. He espouses a positive, constructive, life-giving approach that places responsibility for the future of the Church in the hands of all of us – not just our battle weary priests. He says, “The reform agenda in contemporary Catholicism is intent on structural change: full equality for women and minorities, selection of leaders by the people, more democratic decision-making, small faith communities with greater involvement and participation by all who claim membership, recognition of diversity and pluralism as legitimate, greater commitment to the poor, to social justice, and to ecology, a clear focus on evangelism, spirituality, and community, a returning to origins (Jesus and the dynamic communities of the New Testament) for direction, and a greater openness and willingness to collaborate with persons of other denominations or faiths.”

As U.S. Catholics, we must push for this agenda and celebrate those parishes that even now are living the reformation. By doing this, we will honor those priests of integrity that have humbly lived their lives as shepherds to these flocks.