Sherlock Holmes had Doctor Watson, Batman had Robin, the Green Hornet had Kato, and the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Boyhood heroes were certainly fictional but the idea of not going it alone was and still remains a powerful idea. Even Captain Kirk acknowledged he needed Mr. Spock. Unfortunately, many good people today feel as though they must or need to do it by themselves. We Americans pride ourselves for rugged individualism yet history will not let us forget Lewis and Clark.
What I am beating around the bush is that there is an immanent danger of good and well intentioned people of faith falling into the trap of 'solo or no go'. While it is true that a very few have been authentically called by the Lord to embrace the life of a hermit or anchorite, most men and women, be they clergy or laity, married or single, or consecrated religious, need some connection and interaction with community. Our Divine Lord Himself had companions and friends, from James and John to Martha and Mary. Judas, however, seemed conspicuously solitary. While one of the Twelve Apostles, he appears a loner (as well as thief). He does not consult with anyone before he betrays Christ for thirty pieces of silver.
Other than the instances where a priest has been defrocked, suspended and laicized for sexual misconduct and other heinous crimes, there are some ordained clergy who leave or go off the deep end for more benign reasons. Over the past 24 years of priesthood and being the president of a national association of priests and deacons, I have known many good men who sadly have left their post and are either on leave of absence or are considered AWOL by their bishops or superiors. Don't get me wrong, vows and promises of obedience are very important and are as sacred as wedding vows between a husband and wife. That is why it is difficult for me to personally identify with classmates and friends who have left active priesthood since it is no different than a spouse calling it quits on his marriage. Commitment is supposed to be permanent.
Nevertheless, I can empathize to a degree with my brothers who feel discouraged, disillusioned and demoralized due to bureaucrats, politicians and sycophants in Roman Collars who abuse their office for self-serving needs and personal agendas. When a priest feels more like a business manager than a pastor or when the diocese operates like a corporation and the parish is told to run like a branch office, it can tarnish some of the zeal that led the man to the altar in the first place.
The last canon in the Code of Canon Law #1752 concludes with "the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church" (SALUS ANIMARUM EST SUPREMA LEX). That is why I got ordained. Saving souls by hearing confessions, anointing the sick, teaching/preaching/defending the faith, celebrating the sacraments and offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; these are the primary raison d'être for the priesthood. Yet, when the corporate paradigm is used and imposed upon your pastoral work, many priests can get discouraged. Responsible stewardship is important but balancing the checkbook has to secondary to saving souls. Fundraising pays the bills but celebrating reverent worship and preaching orthodox doctrine is what people need and deserve FIRST and FOREMOST.
Worse yet is the nepotism and cronyism often infecting ecclesiastical life. Incompetence is frequently tolerated and political maneuvering encouraged. The usual suspects are always on the Personnel Board, Presbyteral Council, et al. Even good and orthodox bishops are often surrounded by middle management bureaucrats reminiscent of the old Soviet Union. These men buffer what the bishop knows and how his policies are implemented. They filter information coming in and going out. Local loyalty is more cherished and rewarded than loyalty to Rome. Hence, when priests see cronies being made knights or monsignors it can be disappointing but honors and recognition are not why we became men of the cloth. What truly hurts is persecution, isolation, ostracization, ridicule, banishment and disrespect coming from your colleagues and even your boss. When the enemies of the Church attack us, we feel honored to share in a form of dry martyrdom for the sake of Christ. When it comes from your own kind, from your own brethren, it not only stings, it wounds deeply. Play the game and succeed is not only the modus operandi for many businesses, it is the strategy of some ecclesiastics as well.
That results in one of two results. The first is the surrender to discouragement and that inevitably leads to destructiveness. Priests can become bitter, angry, melancholic, strange, weird, or worse. Dangerous and addictive behavior can manifest itself via prescription drug abuse, alcohol abuse, addictive gambling or shopping, and finally sex (from pornography on down). Parishioners wonder why the crotchety old cleric ever became a priest if he did not like people. Little do they know that he did have a love for the faithful but something or someone soured that and he never realized it. Sometimes people see their priest practicing his craft as if only a job. He does what he must, no more and no less.
The second option is better. If a priest maintains not only a solid, healthy and daily prayer life but ALSO cultivates sacerdotal fraternity, i.e., has some good priest friends to support and encourage him, then he does not have to turn to the dark side. He can and will remain a loyal son of the Church and still be a beloved man of the cloth. NO, NOT POPULARITY. Popular priests often tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need and ought to hear. BELOVED priests are not showered with presents and invitations to parties but they are respected and endeared long after they are gone (either by transfer or death). Beloved priests are remembered in the heart. Popular priests are courted and wooed. My childhood pastor was not popular but he was beloved. His decisions were not always popular but the fruit of his labor were vocations to priesthood, diaconate and religious life. His work did not merit the accolades of the bishop nor warrant promotion in the diocese, but many, many souls were saved. Many good marriages and many good God-fearing Christian lives came from that parish.
We priests need the prayers and support of our people but we also need the prayers and support from our brother priests. Priests and deacons and bishops share in Holy Orders and there is an Order of Deacons, an Order of Priests and an Order of Bishops, hence the plural use Holy ORDERS. Fraternity among the Order is essential. Bishops get together once or twice a year as a nation and regionally from time to time. Priests and deacons need to do the same. Our Confraternity of Catholic Clergy allows priests and deacons from around the country to get together for an annual conference. Prayer, study and fraternity. We also promote monthly chapter meetings which are essentially an afternoon of recollection (theological discussion and/or spiritual conference, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, opportunity for confession, and a friendly informal meal shared together). We even have a five year international gathering in Rome where priests and deacons from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain and Ireland meet for a few days in the Eternal City.
Having a few, from one or two to a half dozen of more, good priest friends are crucial for priestly life. Jesus sent His disciples out, not alone, but two by two. He chose Twelve Apostles to be the foundation of His Church. That is why the spiritual, emotional and psychological health of priests depends on having some good friends. QUALITY matters more the QUANTITY. Popular people have lots of acquaintances but you can usually count on one hand your real, good friends.
There will always be temptations in every vocation and because priests influence so many people and can potentially save many souls, Satan goes out of his way to discourage, disappoint and demoralize Christ's ordained ministers. The Devil wants us to envy each other. He wants us to be resentful rather than grateful. Daily prayer and annual retreat are necessary and obligatory. But very helpful is cultivating priestly FRATERNITY. The priests who have left, who have gone off the deep end, who have become recluses or eccentrics are the ones who have no good priest friends. When priests stay to themselves we can become idiosyncratic to say the least. Being odd is not good.
Let it be said that every priest and deacon needs some private time to himself. Some time for inner reflection and just to unwind and relax. Catching an occasional movie, playing a round of golf or a game of bowling, going to a concert or play, having a day off, are all wonderful safety valves. When a priest spends all of his free time alone, though, it can be dangerous. He needs someone to encourage but also someone who can, when needed, give fraternal correction. He needs another voice and opinion to help give him balance. A brother priest knows the struggles and challenges. A lay friend is good to have and several are even better but a priest NEEDS some, one or more, GOOD and SOLID priest friends. Not someone who will commiserate and entice even more complaining and disdain, but someone who can provide healthy PERSPECTIVE and at times needed distraction.
I am blessed to have a few good priest friends. First and foremost is my classmate and best friend, Father Ken Brighenti. We have been ordained 24 years and have been friends since we met in the seminary in 1983. With the untimely deaths of my two younger brothers and having no nieces or nephews as to date, I depend and rely on this friendship more than ever. He has helped me before and after ordination, during difficult assignments and in handling disappointments. He has helped me keep perspective and maintain balance. That is what friends are supposed to do. I have other friends, not as close but still important nonetheless. My priest friends from the CCC like Msgr. Sal Pilato, Fr. Marcos Gonzalez, Fr. Vince Rigdon, my diocesan buddy and friend Fr. Dennis Dalessandro and of course my mentor and spiritual director Father Bob Levis; these and many other priests help me want to and help me strive to become a better priest. Lay friends like Thomas McKenna and Michael Drake, Drs. Tina and Keith Burkhart, Dr. Liz Burkhart, Lou Falconieri, et al. are close to my heart as well. Deacon friends like Tom Lang, Joe Wrabel, Jim Rush, Joe Gorini and Russ Swim are big helps, too.
I exhort all my brother priests to spend some QUALITY time with other priests. Get and maintain at least one or two VERY GOOD priest friends. Try to socialize and pray with brother priests and deacons once a month and make a serious effort to attend a priest conference or workshop besides the mandatory one your diocese imposes. We can become our own worst enemies if we allow the Devil to sow the seeds of discouragement and discontent. We can conquer that by cultivating FRATERNAL SUPPORT for each other.
Dear Laity, encourage your pastor, your parochial vicar, the newly ordained and the jubilarians to make time for themselves. Workaholic priests are as in much danger as lazy couch potato ones. Keeping balance as did Our Lord, Who prayed, worked and relaxed. Scripture shows us Jesus in the desert and at the home of Martha and Mary; He ate at Zacchias' house and with His disciples; He worked miracles, preached sermons, cast out demons, healed the sick and took time to take a nap. He also had some close FRIENDS.
Newly ordained priests and us middle agers need the benefit of the wisdom of our senior priests. The old bucks have experience, stories and a sense of humor in that they do not take themselves too seriously nor do they lack the proper seriousness and decorum when needed. New priests can be tempted right out of seminary to let loose and shoot from the hips. I've been there, done that. Prudence is not selling out. Discretion is the better part of valor. Yet, we need the freshness and zeal of youth and the excitement of possibility. Middle age can get you in a rut just from routine.
Within the last few years, two dear friends died, Father Anthony Dandry and Father Michael Scott. We all were in seminary together along with Father Brighenti. They died well before anyone expected. Both served God, the Church and their people to the best of their abilities. Both were superb priests and we have some fond and funny memories of both of them. Several years ago, a very young friend, Father James Pilsner died tragically and I often think of him. His short life and priesthood was still a blessing for the people he served. I am grateful for our friendship, brief as it was. Then I see some of my diocesan brethren get together with classmates and friends from seminary going back more than half a century or more. Those guys have remained priests and they are beloved by their people.
Priests who serve in the parish, in hospitals or prisons, teach in schools, work in seminaries or work in the chancery affect many lives and influence many souls. Whatever ministry any priest does, he must do it well and do it diligently. He may not get much affirmation or appreciation in this life, but what matters is what the Good Lord thinks. Having good priest friends and making time for personal prayer, study and priestly fraternity are not OPTIONS or even RECOMMENDATIONS, they are ESSENTIALS to every priest who has ever been ordained.
If you see or know of a priest who appears to be getting more and more solitary, PRAY for him and if you are a priest, VISIT or at least COMMUNICATE with him from time to time. Encourage him to spend time with other priests and deacons on a regular basis. Mention the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy and WorldPriest.com and other orthodox associations. The dissident groups get plenty of publicity but they feed on themselves. Those groups loyal to Rome may not be as exotic but believe me you will never regret getting involved with them.
Christological well… not quite… Edulcorated Goldfinch Alert! - Long time readers here have seen my shots of Christological Goldfinches from Medieval and Renaissance paintings and statues snapped during my museum visits...
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