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Posted November 16, 2005

President of Bishops' Conference gives
heavy emphasis to state of today's priesthood

Presidential Address At The Bishops’ Conference in Washington DC
Bishop William Skystad, DD

My Dear Brother Bishops,

Once again, we in solidarity and fraternity gather in plenary session to carry on the work and mission of the Church. I begin with a word of heartfelt thanks to you for the opportunity you gave me last November to serve as your president of our episcopal conference. Though the responsibilities of the president are indeed daunting, especially when they are added to the ministry of a Diocesan Bishop, I consider it a singular privilege and a joy to coordinate our common work at the national level and to represent you around the country, as well as throughout the world to our sister episcopal conferences and to the Holy See. From my early days as a Bishop I have considered it a blessing to be a member of this Conference, and I have taken great pride and consolation in the way in which our Conference so effectively assists us Bishops in the ministry God has given us as teachers, sanctifiers and shepherds.

I am also very grateful to Cardinal Francis George, our vice president, for his assistance in the work you have given me. Cardinal George and I enjoy a friendship that was born more than fifteen years ago when we served together as young Bishops in Washington State. The uncommon wisdom and prudence that he brings to the work of the Conference has been a source of great benefit to our common work. I am delighted, Francis, that God has given us this opportunity to work so closely together on behalf of our brothers.

This year as your president has afforded me many wonderful moments, but there are two that have been quite extraordinary. The first involved my presence in Rome in April during the time of the death and funeral of our beloved Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. By a beautiful coincidence, I arrived on the morning of April 2nd, the morning of the Holy Father’s death. I wish words were able to describe adequately what I witnessed in the outpouring of affection and tribute to our late Holy Father during those days. From the moment of the announcement of the Holy Father’s death to a filled square at St. Peter’s to the moment at the end of the Pope’s Funeral Mass when the casket was held high on the steps of St. Peter’s before entering the Basilica for burial, the millions of people in Rome were one family united in prayer for the repose of the soul of Pope John Paul and in gratitude to God for the extraordinary gift that he was to the Church and to the world. It was indeed a grace that so many people around the world were able to participate in those events through the miracle of modern means of communication. I congratulate the media, especially in our country, for the very fine and extensive coverage they gave to the funeral of Pope John Paul II, as well as to the election and the inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI. You provided the world a wonderful opportunity to see the depth of the faith of the Catholic community and we are grateful to you.

Just two weeks ago I returned from Rome again at the conclusion of the 11th Ordinary Synod of Bishops. Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Bishop Donald Wuerl and I were privileged to represent you with more than 250 Bishops from around the world in addressing “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” What a blessing it was to participate in a Synod led by our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and focused upon the central act of our lives as Catholics, the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The days were long and demanding beginning at 9:00 in the morning and often ending after 7:00 in the evening. But they were just as rich in the frank and lively interchange we had and especially in the profound insight into the mystery of the Eucharist and the Church that was manifested again and again by Bishops representing the Church in every part of the world.

While the focus of the Synod was on the Eucharist, the priesthood – precisely because of its inextricable link to the Eucharist – was also very much on the minds of the Synodal Fathers. In our formal discussions we addressed issues and concerns about the Priesthood that face the Church on the global level: the proper place and role of the priest at the Eucharist; the shortage of priests in many places in the world; the need for us to look at ways to provide a more equitable distribution of priests; and the importance of developing stronger vocation programs to ensure that the Church has the priests she needs to keep us the Eucharistic community that we are. During our more informal times together, I was taken by how often the Bishops would talk and inquire of one another about how their own priests were doing before the many challenges that priests – in every part of the world – face today. Those informal conversations revolved around the priests we know, and I sensed that other Bishops, like me, always had individual priests in mind when they were describing the current situation of their own local prebyterates or telling a story to highlight a point.

In the course of my own quiet time in Rome – in moments of prayer and meditation – I found myself returning often to a reflection on the priesthood and especially on the current state of our own priests. I would like to share a few thoughts this morning on what I see as I look out at our brother priests in the many different places they find themselves in the vineyard of the Church in the United States.

The priesthood in this country has suffered through a very difficult time. A handful of our brother priests have caused all priests to have to endure an avalanche of negative public attention. Perhaps never so much as during the scandals of the past four years has so much attention been focused on the priesthood, not for all of its wonder, commitment, dedication and perseverance, but for the darkness and sin which overwhelmed some. It has been a personally painful time for the vast majority of priests who did nothing to deserve that pain. However, that is not the only story of the past four years. My own experience as a Bishop, the experiences of other Bishops who have shared them with me, and even the results of research give every indication that the Catholic people appreciate their priests. I saw one recent statistic that more than 9 in 10 Catholics agree that parish priests do a good job.[1]

What a magnificent tribute this is both to the strength of the priesthood and the dedicated service of individual priests that in the midst of the most scathing kind of coverage that any single group could imagine receiving, the Catholic people, by an overwhelming majority, can still say that they appreciate the job their priests are doing for them. This is a reassuring reminder that our Catholic people think of the priesthood in terms of the many faithful men whom they have encountered in their lives and do not judge all by the unfaithfulness, as terribly damaging as it has been, of a few.

What is equally reassuring is something else I find in my own experience of priests and know to be true in the experience of other bishops with their priests; something which is also supported by research. That is the high level of morale among priests. Three different and recent studies confirm that more than 90% of our priests report satisfaction with their lives as priests. What’s more, that high level of morale is confirmed by the fact that 90% of the priests interviewed for those studies say that they would make the choice of priesthood again, if they had it to do all over.[2]

There are many reasons why these facts seem contradictory to the popular impression about priests’ morale. Certainly the crisis of the last few years is something that one would expect to be a morale-sapping experience. In addition, fewer priests today means that the priests we have must work harder and, in many cases, wait longer for retirement from the administrative burdens that priesthood carries with it.

The principal reason why these and other challenges have not brought down priestly morale is surely the faith and hope that nourishes and supports the life and ministry of priests. A man is not long a priest when the words he heard at his ordination resonate as prophetic and real: “Model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” Precisely because he has been configured by the grace of Holy Orders to be and to act in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, the priest knows that the cross is and will be an intimate part of his life experience and that in the end the cross brings life and hope, and not death and despair. It is that knowledge in faith, strengthened by grace, that allows every priest the courage to embrace St. Paul’s conviction that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8.38-39).

Faith and God's grace are the main energy behind our priests' good morale and their sense of service. The priest, however, is also a man of the Church, a man who lives in and for the community of disciples of the Lord Jesus. Within that home, there are three groups that need to support and sustain the morale of our priests if their priestly service to the People of God is to remain strong.

The first group is we Bishops. Our Catholic teaching consistently speaks of priests as our closest collaborators and co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. Yet we Bishops need to recognize honestly that many priests do not sense that this is true. In the studies that I have been referencing, more than half of the priests interviewed said that the way in which the crisis of the past few years has been handled has affected their view of Church leadership negatively. Only 42% believe they will be dealt with fairly if they are accused; 58% do not. Only 27% believe that accused priests have been treated fairly; the vast majority does not.[3]

Since priests are our primary co-workers, we need to ensure that our collaboration is true and is experienced as true by the priests of our dioceses. Certainly there are the canonical means to accomplish this. The Church has given us instruments of consultation and collaboration; but these instruments do need care and tending and evaluation to make sure they are doing what they are intended to do. Besides these organizational means, there needs to be personal contact between a Bishop and his priests that demonstrates unequivocally that Bishops and priests share in the same mission and are united sacramentally in one priesthood. That may be easier done with a small presbyterate than a larger one; but whatever the circumstances, once we accept the call to the episcopacy we take on a unique responsibility to the priests who serve with us, and they to us. In the end, Bishops and priests together have the responsibility for the health and well-being of the priesthood. Though we Bishops have a primary and solemn responsibility in providing for the spiritual and material well-being of our priests, we should not forget that our priests are co-workers with us in ensuring the health and vitality of the priesthood in the life of the Church as well.

We know now more than ever that our responsibility as Bishops includes calling to account those who misuse their sacred gift as priests. In exercising the responsibility of calling to account, we need always to act fairly and justly. We need to exercise the God-given authority we have in a way that does not place Bishop and priests on either side of a divide. The challenge, of course, is to succeed in being both father and brother to our priests.

Over the last three years, some actions we Bishops have taken have been interpreted as signaling a lack of concern for priests. I want to affirm that this Conference's goal of protecting children and young people is a goal we want to work toward with our priests and not against them. Clearly, the Bishops are required by law and in conscience to respond vigorously to allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and to take the necessary action in those cases where such abuse has been admitted or established. That having been said, the presumption of innocence – and not guilt – should follow an accused priest until the facts of the case indicate otherwise. All the other steps we have put in place for the protection of children and young people, such as codes of conduct and background checks, should be clearly seen as having the aim of sustaining the kind of presbyterate in which the Catholic people, we Bishops, and our priests themselves can have confidence. Moreover, in associating ourselves with the goal of protecting children and young people and taking active steps to make that goal a reality, Bishops and priests together will sense not only that we are dealing with a crisis that has afflicted the Church alone but that we are also helping society face up to a problem, too often hidden, that afflicts far too many children and young people and which we must work to eradicate wherever it occurs whether that be the church, the school, or the home.

The second group within the Church that needs to support and keep strong the morale of our priests is the priests themselves. I am amazed and grateful to God at the ways in which priests have sustained one another in this time of crisis. Several movements that encourage priestly fraternity for spiritual sharing and mutual support have united priests to one another and have contributed to helping priests face the difficulties of the present time. Along with my brother Bishops, I encourage this mutual support as an essential element in the life of priests today. I am very gratified to learn from the recent studies about priests that 54% of our priests have participated in a support group for priests in the past two years and that a larger number of 63% of priests have met with a spiritual director in the past year.[4] Those means of support, especially spiritual direction, are essential for a healthy priestly life and for the priest’s own growth in his particular call to holiness.

I think the responses to the problems of the present time can contain elements of their own solution. The challenge of fewer priests is a reminder of how important it is to encourage vocations. Who can more surely invite another man to be a priest than a man who is a priest? And what priest is a more attractive inviter than a man who appreciates his own gift of priesthood? The "Fishers of Men" program is inviting priests to reflect on the meaning of their own experience of priesthood as a source of renewal and inspiration. I think this is a great insight, and I urge priests to consider that in encouraging vocations – in seeking to give as a gift the gift that they have received – they will find that they will discover one more way in which Christ is acting through them and that other men will respond generously to the call that they themselves are now receiving from the Lord.

The third group essential for the support and sustenance of priestly morale is the laity who have remained so constant in their support and appreciation of their priests. It is the laity, after all, who have the firsthand experience of our priests as they selflessly and day-after-day give themselves to visits to the hospitals, counseling to the grieving and the dying, Masses in prisons, nursing homes and schools, hours in the confessional, and meeting with couples preparing for marriage or who are experiencing troubles in marriage. Our priests are with their people at their happiest moments and at their saddest, and their presence is deeply felt and appreciated by those whom they serve.

Despite the difficulties that arise on occasion, I believe that where pastors have been energetic in seeking their people's advice and active assistance, that collaboration has contributed in very healthy ways to the priests' morale. The means exist canonically and non-canonically for this contact between pastor and people: parish pastoral councils, parish finance councils, school boards, and a myriad number of ministerial boards and committees. While getting these means to work may be frustrating at times, the achievement of this kind of collaboration provides the pastor with inestimable support. I strongly encourage this kind of collaboration between priests and people, because in working together in this way priests come to experience not only the importance of appropriate means of accountability to the communities they serve but also the realization that not every burden rests entirely on their shoulders. The laity are extraordinarily generous in offering their assistance; we should meet that generosity with gratitude and with a generosity of our own in accepting it.

I offer these thoughts because of the profound respect and affection I have for the priests that I know and continue to come to know. They are the treasures who safeguard the Church as a Eucharistic community by their daily celebration of the Mass with their communities. They keep the Church faithful to the Lord’s commandment of love of God and neighbor by their selfless dedication to the administration of the Sacraments, the Prayer of the Church, the governance of their parishes and communities, and endless everyday and often heroic works of charity. Our priests deserve our deepest gratitude. They also need and deserve our continuing support and esteem.

As I offer these thoughts about our priests, I am keenly aware that work needs to be done to support and sustain the fraternity and the morale of the Bishops. There is no question, Brothers, that these past few years have taken a great toll on us. We need to give more attention to our relationships with and support of one another. In that regard, I was delighted to hear that Bishop Brom and the Ad Hoc Committee on Bishops Life and Ministry met yesterday with the retired and soon-to-be-retired Bishops to listen and to explore ways in which we can be more helpful and supportive to our Senior Bishops.

One major challenge still before us – as I have heard other Bishops name it and as I see it – is for us to strengthen our affective collegiality in such a way that we come to a better balance between the proper exercise of authority and governance in our own dioceses and the need we have to work and support each other more effectively when it comes to those pastoral responsibilities that we must fulfill collectively. I strongly encourage the Ad Hoc Committee on Bishops Life and Ministry, as well as the regional and provincial meetings, to explore this area of our common life for insight and for suggestions.

I began my remarks this morning with a word of thanks. I want to conclude in the same way with a word of sincere thanks to our staff in Washington and Miami and New York and Rome. Like ourselves, the men and women who serve us come from every corner of our country and beyond, and they represent beautifully the very diverse mix of races, nationalities and cultures that make us the immigrant Church and the nation that we are. Though they come from such different backgrounds and experiences, the members of our staff are united in their desire to serve the Bishops and the Church in the United States to the best of their abilities. The grace that works through them to our good has been a tremendous gift to our ministry. In my own name and in the name of all of the Bishops I offer our staff our deepest gratitude for the selfless and expert way in which they contribute to the mission of the Church in the United States.

In a particular way I want to single out for special recognition and gratitude our general secretary, Monsignor William Fay. He completes his five year term this coming February 2nd. Over these past years during very challenging times for our Conference, he has accomplished his service with great skill, competence, dedication and always with a sense of joy and good humor. For me personally this past year, his assistance has been invaluable. Bill, on behalf of all of us, thank you and may God bless you richly.

My brother Bishops, as we begin the work of our General Assembly, may God grant us a renewed outpouring of his Holy Spirit so that everything we do may begin with his inspiration, unite us more closely to Jesus the Lord, and always be for the good of the Church we love and to the glory of God the Father. Amen.


1. [1] “More than nine in 10 [Catholics] agree that, on the whole, parish priests do a good job, and more than half strongly agree with that statement.” Mary L. Gautier, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, CARA, “Lay Catholics firmly committed to parish life,” NCR, Sept. 30, 2005, reporting on the results of surveys carried out by the Gallup Organization.

[2] In addition to the survey reported in NCR, reference is made to surveys by: 1) the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) entitled “Priests in the United States: Satisfaction, Work Load, and Support Structures,” prepared in September 2002, based on CARA Priest Polls in 2001, 2002; 2) the Los Angeles Times survey of priests published in the October 20 and 21, 2002 editions; and 3) the study by Rev. Stephen Rossetti published in The Priest, October 2005.

[3] Rossetti survey.

[4] CARA surveys.