One of the most immanent yet diabolically latent threats to the priesthood is not the recent clergy sex scandals nor the alleged vocation crisis. The real, critical and urgent danger to many priests, whether young, old or middle-aged, is business. The current paradigm many parishes and dioceses use is a corporate business model in which the priest (or deacon; pastor or parochial vicar) defines his identity in what he does and not in what he is. Doing things, i.e., performing tasks, becomes the primary directive after ordination and it is the measure by which priests are evaluated by their superiors, their peers, their parishioners and even by themselves.
It is self-evidently true that a vocation to ordained ministry involves, entails and surrounds itself with service to the Church and to the People of God. Just as Our Divine Lord came not to be served, but to serve, deacons, priests and bishops are poignantly reminded at their ordination that they are called into a lifetime of self-sacrificing service. Nevertheless, there is a corresponding truth to this commitment to minister that in recent times has been overlooked, ignored or even opposed. The minister must minister unto himself as well as to his people. An effective and successful priest ministers to the spiritual needs of his people but he also takes care of his own spirituality, too.
Every cleric knows the importance and the obligation of prayer. The problem is when prayer becomes another ‘task’ to be performed. The canonical duty of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is morally binding on all in Holy Orders. All too often, though, the temptation arises to see and to do the Breviary as another job that needs to be done: celebrate Mass, hear confessions, visit and anoint the sick, teach RCIA and/or CCD, prepare a couple for marriage, prepare the Sunday homily, attend the Parish Council meeting (and the Finance Committee, and the Parents and Teachers Association and the Council of Catholic Women, etc.), and of course, get ready for the next parish fundraising event.
Most parish priests have the same routine day after day, i.e., they balance catechesis with sacred liturgy with administrative duties. Important work, by all means. Doing priestly things is very important but so is being priestly. Why do some priests burn out and leave active ministry after ten, twenty or more years? Why is priestly morale low in many dioceses? Why do some clergy seek artificial relief in escaping into sex, alcohol, gambling, etc.? The reason for many is that they never took good care of their own spiritual health.
Unless one is an workaholic, most priests faithfully take their weekly day off and their annual vacation. Many, though, cheat themselves and do not take the full day off (24 hours) and will only go away for half a day or skip a few weeks entirely. Some almost never take time to relax and unwind and their parish office staff often suffer for it. Irritable pastors are usually ones who rarely get away and without healthy leisure and regular relaxation, anyone can become a cranky bear who growls at everyone over anything.
The other phenomenon is the dearth of spirituality among the priesthood in general. Yes, most of us pray the Office each day, celebrate Mass reverently and attend to the myriad and plethora of needs of our parishioners while simultaneously trying to keep up with diocesan policies, regulations and other bureaucratic requirements that seem to multiply geometrically. But how many of us take and make time for quality prayer? The American Bishops issued an excellent document in 2001 entitled The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests which was based on the mandates of the Second Vatican Council (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 1965) which called for ongoing post-ordination formation of the clergy. Pope John Paul the Great reiterated this in his Pastores Dabo Vobis and spelled out precisely by the Congregation of the Clergy in The Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (1994).
Ongoing spiritual, theological, pastoral and human formation of the clergy is no option. It pertains and applies to the clergy since it enables the clergy to become better clergy and thus better minister to the People of God. Without ongoing formation, clergy become mere functionaries who perform tasks and who ‘do their job’ and know well what they do while slowly forgetting who they are. A priest is an alter-Christus who acts in Persona Christi. He can only act in the Person of Christ by virtue of his sacred ordination that ontologically changes him.
The corporate business model is no better than a mediaeval feudal model. The Church is more than a corporation and even in her role as institution, she always remains the Bride of Christ. Part of the horror of the clergy sex scandal was the way in which some bishops handled (or rather mishandled) the situation. Administrators can transfer personnel but a spiritual father must confront wayward children, both the victim and culprit. Justice tempered by mercy and motivated by charity would have spared many a nightmare whereas bureaucrats who seek merely to avoid legal liability are not serving the common good. When bishops and priests acts like the Church is truly a family of faith by acting like family themselves, the people respond tremendously. When clergy act like coporate officials and make decisions based on fiscal rather than pastoral needs; when pastors are treated and act more like lower middle management instead of local leaders of the faith community; then trouble is not far behind.
The priest himself, however, can be his greatest ally or his worse enemy. No matter how orthodox and pastoral the local bishop may be, the priest himself must minister to himself before he can effectively minister to his people. Bishops and Dioceses are beginning to recognize the necessity of ongoing formation of the clergy but the priest himself must also see and pursue it. If a priest is ‘too busy’ with parish work to make sure he himself gets quality time for daily private prayer, for regular confession, for monthly spiritual direction, and for an annual workshop, then his priorities are askew. A husband and father who functions as head of the family needs to take care of himself in order to best provide for his loved ones. That means that dear old dad must take care of his own physical and spiritual health and not just attend to financial matters by working longer hours and getting more pay. Likewise, a spiritually healthy pastor is more effective pastor.
This is why JP2 wrote Pastores Dabo Vobis in 1992. The priest is not an employee of the diocese nor is he branch manager or local sales representative. He is the loving spouse of his bride, the Church. His parishioners are not customers or clients, rather, they are his beloved family. Corporate business models do not fulfill the spiritual reality of authentic ecclesiology. Fiscal solvency may look good on paper, but a good pastor is doing a good job when souls are being saved. Many pastors easily fall into the temptation of evaluating themselves on the basis of how many parishioners did they gain or lose; did the weekly collection go up or down; is the parochial school enrollment increasing or decreasing; is the parish in the red or in the black; are parishioners happy or dissatisfied? All these can eclipse the real mission of a pastor, to preach and teach the unadulterated truth as authentically taught by the Magisterium and to reverently and properly celebrate the sacred sacraments so as to fully dispense the divine graces needed by the People of God. Eight to twelve years of seminary formation are designed around the latter while the former often become the primary directive of many pastors.
Despite the efforts of local bishops and dioceses as well as national and regional priestly associations to foster ongoing formation and sacerdotal fraternity, too many priests of all ages get caught up in the administratrive treadmill or they fool themselves into thinking that doing priestly things is more important than being a priest. Being a priest involves sacrifice. Sometimes it means the sacrifice of failure insofar as a plan, a project, a program, etc., despite the good intentions, just flops. No one attends. No support. Since we live a secular society which divinizes success, no wonder then it spills over into spirituality. Even priests seek to be successful but it cannot be as the world defines success. A successful priest is not the one who gets the best assignment, or is the bishop’s confidant. He may not be the one who is on any diocesan committee, board or council. He may not have been named a Monsignor or Papal Knight. He may get an occasional letter of complaint from some irate parishioner who is ignorant of canon law and tried to get a non-practicing divorced and invalidly married Catholic to be godparent to their newborn child. The truly successful priest will from time to time make some enemies if he preaches and teaches the truth and nothing but the truth. He will not be the favorite of the Chancery nor the most popular of parishioners. He will, however, be kind and compassionate and yet will also defend the teachings and the honor of Holy Mother Church.
Wordly success in the ministerial life is illusionary. Being pastor of the most enviable parish in the diocese or having great influence and connections with diocesan officials is not the real measure. Balancing the checkbook, lowering the debt, increasing enrollment are not bad things in and of themselves, for they show good stewardship for sure, yet, they should not become the priority of pastoral concern. Saving souls for Christ is what we will be judged on when we die, not the fiscal solvency or the number of buildings we erected during our tenure.
There is a new phenomenon where many good, solid, orthodox priests are still getting lost. They are not preaching heresy nor teaching dissident theology. They celebrate reverent Masses and follow the rubrics. They follow the rules of canon law and diocesan policy. They attend to the spiritual needs of their parishioners any day and any time. The problem lies in that many of them feel abandoned. Since the clergy sex scandals, people are more suspicious and some are just downright more rude and certainly less polite. Parishioners who rarely come to Mass and who barely support the church with their time or treasure often are obnoxious and beligerent in their demands especially when they cannot be fulfilled. It can be disheartening and disenchanting when unfounded rumors and gossip fly through the parish merely because a mediocre or lapsed Catholic has a grudge against the pastor when he upholds the disciplines or teachings of the Church. “No good deed goes unpunished” is often a colloquialism felt by many a parish priest when day in and day out the struggle is made to do the best you can do for others only to have them show disdain and contempt for your every effort. That could be tolerated if a two front war were not in play.
Frequently, priests must battle with foes inside the parish and outside. One or two squeaky wheels will get a response from downtown which is to be expected, of course. What is not anticipated, however, is the unconditional acceptance of their side of the story. Often, the priest, especially if he is the pastor, is considered guilty until proven innocent. While any and all credible allegations of abuse must be investigated, petty complaints which do not involve faith or morals, are sometimes treated as if the priest were a criminal before he even hears what he is accused of doing. Real instances of liturgical abuse go unfettered, real examples of heterodox teaching being proliferated and real occurences of immoral behavior among the clergy and yet who is called on the carpet by diocesan officials? Not those guilty of serious offenses, rather, the poor pastor or priest who stepped on the toes of an influential person of the parish or diocese.
When an apparent double-standard exists within the diocese, a good priest can easily get discouraged. He can tolerate the persecution of those who hate the Church and vehemently seek her ruin and demise. He can even bare wrongs patiently and remain obedient and respectful as long as there is no sign of duplicity or treachery. Yet, when it sems that being a loyal son of the Church gets you in hot water even with some officials in the Church, it can be very disconcerting to say the least. Only a solid, well grounded and bedrock spirituality will help these priests.
This is why all priests must aggressively take charge of their own spiritual health. The Bishop and Diocese can and ought to help by making it more convenient to get to regular confession and monthly direction just as they do for annual retreat. Days or even mornings or afternoons of reflection or recollection are most beneficial but they require proper planning.
A priest friend of mine sponsors a monthly afternoon of recollection for priests and deacons. Each month, a visiting priest (from the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei) comes for two to three hours. He gives a spiritual meditation/conference based on Scripture, Papal or Conciliar document. There is time and opportunity to go to confession. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration. The rosary and evening prayer are prayed before Benediction. Then there is some time alloted for fraternity, be it a small snack or perhaps a few guys going out to supper. Just an informal gathering once a month. Sadly, in a densely populated area where many orthodox and devout priests are less than an hour to forty five minutes away by car, many parish priests do not attend. Their reason? I am too busy. I have parish commitments. When your tooth aches, do you not make time to get to the dentist even though you still have plenty to do in the parish? If Father is sick in bed, he cannot do his parochial duties. Hence, priests need to tend to their physical health and well being. Likewise, our spiritual health is even more important.
Too many priests have fooled themselves into thinking that doing priestly things compensates for being a priest by taking care of my own spiritual needs. Canon Law mandates an annual retreat. Dioceses have mandatory workshops. What is wrong with making time for a monthly day or even just a morning or afternoon of recollection? A few hours with brother priests and deacons spent in prayer, study and fraternity will revive and revitalize our apostolate. The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has continued its more than thirty year history of sponsoring an annual convocation where well known and reputable speakers, both ordained and laity alike, have given excellent talks on timely topics suitable for the typical parish priest. This organization has over six hundred members from across the USA and Canada. Less than fifty attend the annual conference. Whether East Coast or West Coast, whether Saint Louis or Chicago, the venue and the speaker roster, even the cost do not become the primary reason more do not attend. Bottom line is that most guys are too busy.
What is frightening is that many believe that. Catholic Clergy, be they deacons, priests or bishops NEED to take care of their spiritual needs. Daily prayer we usually do faithfully as we were trained to do so in the seminary. Many priests have not gone to spiritual direction, however, since they left the seminary. Many priests only rely on the annual penance service during Holy Week (usually on the same day of the diocesan Chrism Mass) to get to confession themselves. We hear confessions of our parishioners week after week. We, too, need to avail ourselves of the graces of this awesome sacrament. Since we are in the confessional hearing other people’s confessions, it is logistically difficult for parish priests to get to confession, no doubt about it.
This is why it is most urgent and helpful were the local diocese to take ongoing spiritual, theological, pastoral and human formation of the clergy as serious as possible. Next to vocations, it should be of utmost importance. Diocesan workshops are indeed helpful but so, too, are the many offered year round by priestly associations, organizations, etc. Ironically, even dioceses that do not have mandatory workshops still budget funds so that any and every priest can theoretically attend a conference somewhere sometime during the calendar year in addition to his annual reatreat. Though the money and time are guaranteed, too many clergy say they are ‘too busy’ to get away. Here is where the Bishop and diocese can help. Not only in providing the financial means to go, but to ensure coverage so the pastor can get away. One week annual retreat and one week annual workshop (conference or convocation) can be achieved if the Chancery Office made the promise to find adequate sacramental coverage.
Monthly spiritual direction after seminary is rare but it can and ought to be done. While in seminary, the spiritual directors are in house and it is easy to accomplish. Post ordination, the seminary and the director are often far away and not conveniently located. Those who can drive to a nearby seminary may find a spiritual director available but the majority of priests are not so lucky. Again, the local bishop and diocese can help by recruiting several reputable spiritual directors and providing for their transportation, and at least make the opportunity available for monthly direction. Imagine, flying in five or six spiritual directors once a month and staggering it over a few days each month. While not everyone will or can participate, at least some will and some is better than none. Knowing that a spiritual director is available once a month or at least every two months is encouraging to a priest who lives too far to get to his old seminary.
Days, mornings or afternoons of recollection can be done easily. What it takes, though, is perserverance. Perhaps, if the Bishop initiated a few or advertized several in diocesan mailings, more fellows would attend. Two or three hours a month is nothing to ask in comparison to the nearly 700 hours a month that are spent on other things we priests do. We find time for the dentist, to get our auto’s oil changed, to get to the barber, to grab a bite to eat, etc. We need to make time for our spiritual life and get to confession reguarly (once a month), monthly or bi-monthly spiritual direction and annual retreat and annual workshop or conference.
If priests knew and saw the bishop doing these same things, he would get the notion that they are important essentials to spirital life. Private prayer, rosary, Liturgy of the Hours and annual retreat are already being done by many priests. The few who do not, do so at their own risk. What is needed besides wonderful documents from Pope and the Bishops, is an all out campaign at the national and local level to reawaken the clergy as to the importance of all these spiritual exercises. Optimally, if several diocesan priests could live in community as a Clerical Association of the Faithful, they could hopefully provide the occasional sacramental coverage so their brother priests in the diocese could take time away for retreat, spiritual direction and workshops. This same community could also be the focus point where any and all priests are welcome to spend some time in fraternal prayer, meals, study, or just relaxation.
When many priests are now in one man assignments, it is imperative for parish priests to have some avenue of fraternity which is obviously in-built with those in religious life who live in common. Most priests live, work and eat alone as priests even though they have very busy and hectic schedules. Here is where priestly fraternity is even more beneficial. If every diocese had what the Directory recommends (a house of clerics) where any priest could crash for an afternoon or evening, spend a day or overnight, share a meal with brother priests, watch a game on television, pray one one of the Hours together, engage in a stimulating theological discussion, etc., it would not have to be elaborate, fancy or luxurious. Just a friendly place where brother clergy can be brothers to one another.
It is too important to just hope and pray that individuals will take care of all the details themselves. We need the support and encouragement of the episcopal conference, the local bishop, and the diocesan presbyterate itself. National associations like the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, the Fraternity of Priests, and projects sponsored by the Prelature of Opus Dei and others can provide some viable avenues. If too many of us become too busy doing things and do not spend quality time being priests and being priests to and for one another, we will see more guys burn out, get discouraged and see morale decline over time.
While no one seeks public approval, what priest does not internally want at least the implied support of his bishop? When politics determines who becomes a Monsignor or who is made a Papal Knight, those outside the loop get no enouragement. There does not have to be an award dinner, either, where someone gets ‘pastor of the year’ award, yet some vehicle of affirmation would help morale if it were completely sincere and authentic. Once I suggested to my previous bishop that he take a young and an old priest along with him every time he went on his ad limina to Rome. No Chancery personnel, but just a parish priest, be he a pastor, parochial vicar or retired priest. Spending a few days with the boss in the Eternal City is more than an employee recognition opportunity. The bond between bishop and priest is special and when a priest experiences the acknowledgement that his bishop appreciates his work, it will help him in the weeks, months and years to come when he may feel alone or get a angry letter or phone call from a dissatisfied parishioner. If the bishop regularly spent one meal a month with a different priest, just man to man, priest to priest, would not the morale be strong?
All too often the parish priest only hears from his superiors when someone has written or phoned a complaint. Obviously, serious concerns and issues need to examined for the common good of Mother Church. At the same time, if a phone call or e-mail from His Excellency comes to the priest occasionally expressing personal approval and support, the esprit de corps of the presbyterate will be high. Even the annual Bishops’ meetings in November, if the local bishop brought along a different priest (not just to carry his luggage) each and every time, not only to see how things work at the national level but to just spend time with spiritual leader of the diocese, I think better relations would exist throughout the diocese. If only cronies and syncophants are part of the inner sanctum and if only the politically astute get promotions, then a different attitude permeates the diocese.
Priests are called to serve and to love their people. He can do so only if he himself is taking care of his own spiritual needs. Prayer, study, priestly fraternity, support and encouragement from his peers and his superiors, will all help. Ongoing formation of the clergy entails exposure and discussion on recent Vatican documents and statements, attending workshops and conferences, and having access to keen minds faithful to the Magisterium. It also entails solid spirituality grounded in daily private prayer, regular confession, monthly direction and annual retreat. Having places and opportunities to spend some time just being and enjoying being priests with brother priests might prevent some of the sad incidents where a few brethren have gone astray. Perhaps some would have avoided dangerous and ill advised behavior had there been a better alternative accessible. If we priests do not take care our ourselves and of our brethren in Holy Orders, we will not be at our best to serve the faithful we pledged and committed ourselves to for the rest of our lives the day we were ordained. The People of God deserve nothing less than the best we have to offer, not just in the work we do but also in the person and the priest we are.
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