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Posted June 10, 2009

The Year of the Priesthood

By John Allen
The National Catholic Reporter

On Tuesday, I spoke to a day-long gathering of priests in the Chicago archdiocese. The event was held in a big dining hall, and I was feeling fairly good about the turnout until someone showed me a letter of invitation the priests had received from their boss, Cardinal Francis George.

"Your presence and participation are very important," George had written, "and I expect that you will make every effort to attend."

Alas, the crowd size thus probably had more to do with George's not-too-subtle exhortation than my meager star power.

For the record, the priests couldn't have been more gracious, whatever they may have thought privately about giving up a morning to listen to me pontificate. While the bulk of my presentation was devoted to a review of major trends shaping the Catholic future, I began with a note I always try to strike when speaking to priests, and which I'll repeat here.

It's no secret that these are not the easiest of times to be a Roman Catholic priest. Clergy shortages mean priests are pulled in a thousand different directions, the sexual abuse crisis has given the priesthood a black eye, and on and on. Despite all that, what I pick up repeatedly as I move around the Catholic world is a deep sense of gratitude for the service and sacrifice that so many good priests provide. People know that despite all the challenges, the vast majority of priests still get out of bed every morning and try to do God's work, and they're more grateful than they sometimes are able to articulate.

George's remarks at the end of the day were off the record, but I don't think I'm betraying any confidences by relaying one point he made: Most activism in the church, including all the ways that Catholics contribute to building a better world, begins with a good foundation in the parish. The parish priest may not always be the star of the show, but without good pastors none of the rest of it is possible.

Pope Benedict has announced a Year of Priests to begin on June 17, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. To mark the occasion, I'd like to offer a simple two-word message to all the priests out there, two words I suspect most of them don't hear often enough: "Thank you."

It may not be especially profound, but at least it has the virtue of sincerity.