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Posted April 16, 2005

When Priests Listen

Taken from the book:
Faith That Dare To Speak with a commentary by Fr. Gene Hemrick
This book is already cited on our web page
Commentary by Fr. Gene Hemrick

When it comes to listening, priests confront the same forces that challenge bishops — perhaps only to a lesser degree. With their average age in the early to mid-sixties, most priests have been trained in pre-Vatican II seminaries where they were instructed to embrace a static, ahistorical understanding of the nature of the church. When individuals are convinced they possess the fullness of revealed truth, it affects the way they listen. So, like their bishops, they too have been trained to listen for questions to be answered and for problems to be solved. This kind of listening, we have already noted, is at the heart of their ministry as priests. Our most successful pastors, I am convinced, have learned to listen not only for the questions and problems of their parishioners but also for the voice of God, the “rumors of angels,” that regularly can be discerned in the thicket of the joys and sorrows, the successes and sufferings, the fidelities and betrayals of the faithful to whom they minister.

Priest hold front row seats to the multiple dramas of grace unfolding in the lives of the children, women, and men that make up their parish. They are entrusted with secrets and stories told to no one else. They witness, often daily, in the lives of ordinary people a wide spectrum of human suffering; crippling depressions, crushing anxieties, confusing doubts, broken hearts, as well as heroic courage, enduring faith, and unflagging hope. Few priests, perhaps only those steeped in clericalism, fail to be moved — and informed and transformed — by these encounters with grace. Sometimes they know they have been instruments of healing and grace, “earthen vessels” of God’s love, and the realization humbles, always humbles them. For these priests, listening has become a matter of the heart, even a sacred art.

Yet there is no denying that priests must own their own failures to listen. Some, along with a number of bishops, have failed to listen nondefensively to the reports of sexual abuse at the hands of their brother priests, to the anguish of parents and siblings of the violated and betrayed. Others may listen well to their parishioners but fail to listen to the veiled calls for help from family, friends, and brother priests. What may be the most difficult form of listening for many priests is related to the tending of their own souls. It is a form of self-pastoral care easily overlooked as their work hours expand and their ranks thin. Listening, as care of one’s soul, requires the ability to sit still long enough to hear what is rising up from one’s own depths.

By way of example, from my work with priests I have come to se that many of them are grieving without being explicitly aware that the restlessness and emptiness they feel is grief. With the rest of the human family, priests grieve the passages of life — the loss of their youth, their middle years, the health they once enjoyed as younger men. Some grieve the subtle loss of their integrity, the small treasons occasioned by fear or cowardice. Others grieve the wife and family sacrificed to mandatory celibacy. Most today grieve the loss of trust and confidence which followed the sexual betrayal of countless children and young people. With the lay faithful, they lament the failed leadership of American bishops whose inability to listen to the anguished voices of women has impoverished the church.

Priests today speak of the discouragement and loss of morale that occur when their bishops fail to listen to them. While numerous bishops have complained about the growing centralization of authority in the church in recent years and their own frustrations at not being heard by Vatican congregations, their priests question whether these same bishops are really listening to them. Overworked and misunderstood, their concerns about the dramatic drop in the number of priests and seminarians is met with a rejoinder from their bishop to pray for vocations to the priesthood and to recruit more actively. Their requests for discussion and review of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests of the Latin rite are blithely deflected with paternalistic cliches.

Especially since the latest eruption of clergy sexual abuse that marked the first days of 2002, priests are now listening with a new openness to each other and to their parishioners. As they listen, a considerable number have discovered a long-dormant strength and courage to “speak their truth in love” to their ecclesial superiors. These brave priests take hope in the words of Hans Kung: “One parish priest does not count in the diocese, five are given attention, 50 are invincible.” At the troubled beginning of the new millennium, priests acknowledge their need to listen carefully to the wisdom of the gospel, to the lessons of their pastoral experience, to the experience of their parishioners, and indeed to the voice of their bishops.


Overworked Priests

One has to wonder, with priests being overworked, the truth of Vince Lombardy’s words: “Fatigue makes cowards of us.” How much do priests know their fatigue level and what causes them to go beyond it? Do they know how to cut out space that allows them to breath? Saying “no” does not mean one is a coward, but has arrived at wisdom.

Whatever happened to the discussion on “delegation”as a means of lowering blood pressure and lightening works loads? In the Old Testament, Yahweh pulls aside Moses and tells him not to take on everything, but to create counselors to help him. When we hear of priests being overworked, becoming fatigued and sick, could it be that the principle of delegation is malfunctioning? Could it be imprudence in not knowing how to space out the day and responsibilities of parish life?

The Need for On-Going Dialogue

With priests and bishops feeling like ships passing in the night, it might be wise to return to the beautiful meaning and qualities of dialogue that Pope Paul VI gives us in Ecclesiam Suam. In fact, it might be very advantageous for clergy and bishops to carve out a day together to ponder the principles of dialogue and how Paul VI’s rules spell out in everyday life.


Listening and silence are sine qua nons to each other. You can’t have listening if you aren’t silent. Silence means being “all there.” But like all virtues it needs formation. How can we get our priests better formed in the virtue of silence so that they truly listen? What skills in silence are needed to cultivate true listening? Are some people by nature better listeners than others? Can listening be taught? To be listened to creates a sense of worth. At the moment, the criticism about priests and bishops not being good listeners is really a commentary on how much worth each feels he is receiving from the other. What needs to be done to produce a deeper sense of worthiness among priests and bishops? Should there be overnight sessions at retreats houses in which bishops and priest make a concerted effort to listen to each other? Do they need to be “thrown together” in some out-of-the-way place, alone with each other in order to get into the mode of listening?