Wednesday, March 19, 1997

Renewing the Priesthood

(from an article in Priest, March 1997)

During the 10th century, the Holy Spirit blessed the Catholic Church with Pope St. Gregory VII (Hildebrand) and the Abbey of Cluny, which precipitated a much needed renewal and internal reform. A thousand years later, we are now blessed with a saintly Pope John Paul II and the Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests. Promulgated in 1994, this document from the Congregation of the Clergy is the logical conclusion and practical extension of the Second Vatican Council (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 1965) and Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) of John Paul II.

As the Church and the world prepare for the end of the 20th century and the advent of the third millennium, the priesthood, especially at the parochial and diocesan level, is in need of a true spiritual renaissance. Plagued by declining vocations, disgraced by the sexual scandals of a few of its members, often discouraged by onerous bureaucracies and saturated with stress and anxiety of never-ending pastoral needs, the average parish priest desperately requires fundamental rejuvenation.

The evangelization of the 21st century is contingent on the spiritual renewal of the local church, first begun with the universal Church at Vatican II. As dioceses and parishes around the globe initiate programs to effect a revitalization of ecclesiastical life at the local level, the Church herself recognizes the fundamental role of the parish priest in any and all renewal. As Trent and the Counter-Reformation did for the priesthood with the seminary system, Pope John Paul and the Directory now hope to achieve in our own time.

Ongoing formation is the Rosetta Stone, so to speak, whereby that which was begun in the seminary is further cultivated, nurtured and enriched. Today, more than ever, priests need perennial support throughout their whole lives as ordained ministers configured to Christ.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua aptly described the present milieu in which the contemporary priest and seminarian (as a future priest) find themselves. In an address in October 1995 at Rome, for the synod on the 30th anniversary of Presbyterorum Ordinis, Cardinal Bevilacqua pointed out the following realities, previously nonexistent, or at least not as pronounced as in the time and climate before Vatican II.

Rampant divorce, increase of single-parent households, urban violence, epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and an evaporation of cultural moral values (particularly in the areas of human life and sexuality) — all of these factors "have compounded the need for seminary formation programs that engage candidates on a deeply emotional and relational level as well as attending to their spiritual maturity and theological education. Many of those same candidates and recently ordained priests enjoy little family and community support for their vocational journey and often enough stand against family and relatives in their pursuit of faithful Christian living, let alone a life of priestly service."[1]

The cardinal went on to say that, unfortunately, some newly ordained are still not adequately prepared for priestly ministry even after five to nine years of seminary formation, no matter how well-designed a program. Why? Because "more of our candidates and then priests come from families with little active practice of the faith, they bring with them seriously underdeveloped catechetical and spiritual backgrounds, and they have much less familiarity with ordinary parish and church life than could frequently be assumed in past years."[2]

Concurrent with these phenomena is the sharp shift in the public's attitude regarding the priesthood in general, from respect to distrust: "Problems and scandals involving priests are not reported with a sense of sadness at human failure so much as with a kind of glee at having finally learned 'the terrible truth.'"[3]

The priesthood as a career, let alone as a vocation, is not as esteemed nor as honorable in the eyes of the secular culture. Sacrifice, truth, obedience and simplicity — which the priesthood offers the world — are now rejected and refused, often with hostility and venom. The obvious factors of a decreasing number of priests and an increase of demands on fewer healthy and active clergy further compound the situation. As the cardinal put it:

Pope John Paul II addresses not only the scarcity of priests, but other critical factors as well. Among these he includes the lack of knowledge of the faith among many believers; an incorrectly understood pluralism in theology, culture and pastoral teaching; an attitude of indifference toward the magisterium; and the phenomenon of subjectivism in matters of faith. He concludes that we now face a situation which "gives rise to the phenomenon of belonging to the Church in ways which are ever more partial and conditional, with a resulting negative influence on the birth of new vocations to the priesthood, on the priest's own self-awareness and on his ministry within the community" (Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 7).[4]

The shadow, however, can be conquered by means of renewing the clergy so as to foster and promote healthier (mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically) and happier priests. Although demoralized and disenchanted priests deter many potential seminarians from pursuing their call, enthusiastic and vibrant ones engender zeal and attract more recruits.

The archbishop of Philadelphia frequently refers to the Directory as a source and inspiration for viable priestly renewal.

Those primarily responsible for this new evangelization of the third millennium are the priests, who, however, in order to realize their mission, need to nourish themselves a life which is a pure reflection of their identity, and to live in a union of love with Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest, Head and Master, Spouse and Pastor of His Church. They should strengthen their own spirituality and ministry with a continuous and complete formation.[5]

Cardinal Bevilacqua cited four essential dimensions of ongoing formation by which priests of the 21st century can meet such challenges — namely, human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral:

If we are to be faithful to the vision of Pastores Dabo Vobis and the Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests, the program of continuing formation designed in each diocese needs to include and harmonize these four. . . . The integration of these aspects of formation must be carried out in such a way as to assist each priest in the development of a full human personality matured in the spirit of service to others, intellectually prepared in the theological and human sciences, spiritually nourished by his communion with Jesus Christ and his love for the Church, and engaged with zeal and dedication in the pastoral ministry to which he is assigned [cf. Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests, no. 74].[6]

Consequently, just as the Cluniac Reform called for a new strategy to address new problems, likewise this current era requires some innovative solutions. The "house of clerics," mentioned in the Directory (no. 84), is but one of these. This would optimally be a centrally located place in the diocese whereby the local clergy could avail themselves of ongoing formation at the human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral levels. "Institutes of study and research centers of spirituality . . . constitute many reference points for theological and pastoral updating, oases of silence, prayer, sacramental confession and spiritual direction, healthy rest including physical relaxation and moments of priestly fraternity."[7]

A place to go for these necessary activities within the diocese warrants that some location be found or established. Although many local churches and dioceses are downsizing like the rest of corporate America, the overall benefit in the long term to the presbyterate and to the diocese outweighs and eclipses the minimal cost of beginning and sustaining such an enterprise.

"Associations of priests," as suggested by Vatican II,[8] "priestly secular institutes"[9] and "clerical associations of the faithful"[10] are a few vehicles by which a house of clerics could be maintained. A few diocesan priests living in community, for example, could fulfill the mandates of Presbyterorum Ordinis, Pastores Dabo Vobis and the Directory, while assisting the local bishop in his ministry to his own local clergy.

In such a place, opportunities for regular and frequent sacramental confession and spiritual direction, especially for the typical parish priest, could be offered. Monthly days of recollection, Eucharistic Holy Hours, communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, Marian devotions, silent mental prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, etc., could all be made convenient for the average diocesan parish priest.

Unlike his religious counterpart, the diocesan priest does not have the intrinsic support of community life and the rule to guide and sustain him. Rectory life is not the same as life in community, nor should it be. While not called to solemnly profess the evangelical counsels and live in community, the diocesan parish priest nevertheless needs to emulate the religious treasure and heritage in his own way. Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law allow and encourage parish priests to associate with other priests for their mutual sanctification, to enhance their sacerdotal ministry and to further strengthen their bond of obedience and respect to their bishop.

Theologically, parish priests need to continue their intellectual formation — as in medicine, law and science. The evolution of personal computers and the Internet now permit access to material formerly available only in large college and university libraries. Papal encyclicals, conciliar decrees, curial and episcopal-conference letters — not to mention selections from the patristics, Summa Theologiae, Catholic Encyclopedia, Catechism of the Catholic Church and other resources — are now available to anyone with a computer and modern. Were a diocese to provide a few computers for use by local clergy, this area of formation could be approached quite easily. Monthly or bimonthly lectures, periodic seminars and workshops, etc., could also be done by such an association, and at times most convenient for the parish priest. Sacramental and other pastoral duties often fill up a priest's entire morning and evening. Afternoons, generally speaking, are more suitable for brief but convenient and frequent encounters with other priests to discuss and learn and study. Lastly, parish priests are in need of strong fraternal support. Colleagues leaving or getting involved in scandal; constant telephone calls and growing demands from parishioners; bureaucratic blizzards of mail from various diocesan offices and committees — all of these things (in addition to the increasing number of one-man assignments, lack of affirmation and low public appreciation) make fraternity an invaluable commodity. Successful projects like the Emmaus Program, the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy and others have shown the fruit of healthy "networking" between brother priests.

Were a diocese to provide a place where local clergy can gather for social, spiritual or intellectual needs, that would be of great benefit to the entire presbyterate. Knowing that there is a place nearby where a priest would not have to eat alone or could spend some time relaxing and experiencing fraternal kindness, a place where he could spend the afternoon or evening or even a day or two, might preclude some from total exhaustion, frustration and depression.

All of the means mentioned of providing ongoing human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation can be done in every diocese with a little effort and small investment. The final outcome, of course, is the revitalization and renewal of the parish priesthood, so as to make it as dynamic and as attractive as possible for this and the next generation.

The unknown demands of the third millennium can only be met by a robust presbyterate. As stated in the Directory: "Ongoing formation is a right-duty of the priest and imparting it is a right-duty of the Church. . . . [It] can never be considered finished, neither on the part of the Church which imparts it, nor on the part of the minister who receives it."[11]

As this profound document described the necessity of priestly devotion to the Virgin Mary[12] and closes with a prayer to the Mother of Priests, how can any priest or diocese not have recourse to her at this time of need? As she helped usher in the beginning of the first millennium of Christianity, she will certainly be there as we cross into the third.

Father John Trigilio, Jr., PhD, ThD

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