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Posted April 6, 2005

Some Reflections on
the Future of the Priesthood in the U.S.

Taken from an article by Sr. Katarina Schuth, OSF in the NCEA Seminary Journal, Washington, DC with comments by Fr. Gene Hemrick

. . . I believe deliberate efforts at reconciliation will be essential so that the future can be better than the past. In this period of disorientation, so many bonds of trust have been broken even as polarization and acrimony in many forms grow in some parts of the church. Both transformation and reconciliation offer some hope. Many priests live with an expectation for improvement in their lives and ministries, but it can come about only with concerted effort. The future of the priesthood will depend on the willingness of church members, especially leaders, to participate in a process of renewal.

What needs transformation? In light of some of the themes discussed here, it is essential to consider carefully and then put in place a plan to provide more adequately for parochial ministry in the future. One element of the plan should include requiring continuing education for priests so that they learn how to utilize more effectively the assistance of lay ecclesial ministers and deacons, to gain knowledge of methods to improve their pastoral service, and to be more attentive to their spiritual and personal needs. Further, priests arriving from other countries need to be given time to become acquainted with the spirituality and culture of the U.S., and bishops and priests must incorporate them more fully into the diocesan milieu. Finally, many priests believe the “unmentionables” must at a minimum be discussed, particularly the ordination of married men, but also the admission of women to the diaconate.

For these external changes to be effected, personal conversion is likewise required. This conversion is likewise required. This conversion consists essentially of taking into account the “bigger picture” of what the church is to be in the world, namely, bringing about God’s kingdom by working to end war and hatred, poverty and division. Such a magnanimous stance requires an end to culture wars, internal church squabbles, and choosing sides on non-essential issues. This conversion of heart is essential for all people, not just priests and bishops. It will come about only by pondering, praying, and preparing to act in Christ’s name. If all people are in touch with the mystery of God in their lives, they can contribute to a more positive future for priests and for the world. God loves and challenges, inspires and empowers, but if the church members are out of touch with the mystery — then their existence is shallow, their actions empty. By deepening their faith, paying attention to the pattern of God’s movement, true conversion can take place.

Commentary by Gene Hemrick

Conversion is definitely needed, not only as a once and forever happening, but as a continuing process. The big question is how to bring about conversion. What settings best encourage it?

I have found that one of the best settings for priests being open with each other and having the heart to heart talks that is needed for conversion is the retreat environment. There is a built-in expectation that a retreat is the “serious business” of opening up one’s heart. If it goes for four or more days and nights, it also tends to put priest in contact with each other in a special way. That special way is the expectation that the time on retreat is their time to be with each other. There are much fewer distractions. Most of all, there is the chapel where they are expected to go to meditate on themselves, their relation to God and their relation to their ministry. Although they have their own churches, the chapel in a retreat setting is much more inviting because it is expected that here a priest can come without the hustle-bustle of parishioners and parish responsibilities hounding him. It exudes a monastic atmosphere that invites serious contemplation.

Today’s priest retreats, however, leave much to be desired. More often than not they aren’t attended by all the priests in a diocese. Hence, the mix between younger and older priests who are to be reconciled isn’t there.

Also, they often are not structured to bring the best of religious experiences out of priests. Sometimes they are filled with distractions that militate against prayer and meditation. Priests bring cell phones, there is the television news, and secular newspapers and magazines. They don’t leave the world behind them and enter into the sacred quiet sanctuary of God’s world.

I would suggest that instead of making continuing education mandatory, diocesan retreats in which all priests are expected to attend should be highly recommended and commended. A retreat is different from a priest convocation because as serious as are convocations, they don’t call for the quiet, reflective contemplation retreats do.

I would also suggest from the experience I have had giving priest retreats that retreatants be required to undergo an exercise. The Jesuits are notorious for giving you something to reflect on and then giving you an exercise that forces you to act on that reflection. It is too easy to reflect and tell yourself you will change, but not change. When you are encouraged to reflect and then make a commitment for change, it forces you to move on your thoughts.

In light of this suggestion, I would highly recommend one or two retreat sessions in which priests tell their stories, i.e., how they decided to become a priest; who or what inspired them; the best of experiences they had and the worst; their relationships with other priests and the laity, and what they would tell a person considering the priesthood.

This exercise helps priests better know and understand each other. Knowing each other is something we take for granted. In reality, we really don’t know each other unless a priest is a personal friend with whom we share constantly. Even then, some priests aren’t all that open with a priest friend.

The exercise of telling one’s story breaks the ice in a gentle way. It is an exercise that forces one to reflect on his priesthood and to share its ups and downs with brother priests. In a very true way, it shows brother priests that as a priest, I am human with very human problems. We are together when it comes to having aspirations and having fallen.

After such sessions, it is not uncommon for other priests to jump in and share their life’s journey in the priesthood. Once the ice is broken, it is amazing how conversation and heartfelt experiences flow. There is nothing better than face to face, heart to heart sharing in a setting that encourages this and in which it is expected. If we are to clean up our act, the first place to start is coming clean, and being transparent with each other. Too many of us are living in isolation from each other. This goes double true for our relations with the laity. Our level of distance between the laity and deacons with whom we minister could be much less if only we had the means of being ourselves and being able to open up more with each other.