Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Priests are Happy and Sometimes Not

Recently, I attended a symposium on the priesthood at Catholic University of America. The keynote speaker was Msgr. Stephen Rossetti. He spoke on the data he included in his recent book “Why Priests Are Happy: A study of the psychological and spiritual health of priests.”  The evidence speaks for itself. Most priests are in fact happy BEING priests. A few, in fact a very small minority, are unhappy and regret making promises of celibacy and obedience. These fellows are much like their lay counterparts who regret either their choice of spouse or even being married at all. There will always be a few who did not choose properly and perhaps were too immature at the time or were pressured to make such an important and lifelong decision. Nevertheless, the commitment to one’s spouse, be it a woman or the Church, is a decision for life. That is told to men before they make it and it is reiterated throughout their lives. Society on the other hand, tells these guys that no decision is forever. Modern culture thrives on the supremacy of the ego, hence, some people disregard solemn oaths ‘until death do us part.’ Priesthood (in the Latin Rite) is a marriage of the ordained man to his spouse, the Church. And like all married men, that marital bond is intended for life even if one later realizes he made a mistake. The time to change your mind is BEFORE saying ‘I do’ whether to a bride or to a bishop.

Where I take variance with Monsignor Rossetti is that while most priests are happy being priests, which includes celibacy and obedience, not all enjoy how priests are treated. A very few may resent getting up in three in the morning to anoint a dying person at the nursing home or may regret sacrificing a wife and kids to comfort them in late middle age and beyond. Those kind of priests who fortunately few and far between. Most priests know it comes with the job and they offer it up for a higher purpose. What many priests dislike, however, is when they feel like they work for a corporation more than for a family of faith.

The corporate business model some bishops and dioceses espouse make pastors feel like middle management and not as spiritual shepherds of the local, neighborhood flock. Most priests do love the priesthood. Most love being priests and doing priestly work. Most are willing to sacrifice time, opportunity and reward for the higher good of saving souls. What most priests do NOT like is the often oppressive bureaucracy emanating from diocesan headquarters. Canon law and liturgical rubrics are not the problem, but often the plethora of diocesan regulations and policies that go well beyond micromanagement. Vatican II spoke of subsidiarity, yet most times even legitimate options afforded priests are being transformed into mandatory rules as if Father is not qualified to decide for himself.

No one is saying that we should change the priority of study at the seminary. Philosophy and Theology must remain first and foremost. Perhaps, one semester on management would help so that a new pastor would be confident in hiring or firing employees; in knowing when replacing the boiler takes a back seat to replacing the roof; in balancing a budget for an average size parish with a school and CCD program three or four times as large as the school; should he try to keep and/or get new religious sisters to teach or go all lay.

Mundane as the business of running a parish can get, even that is doable if you have some competent parishioners to advise and guide you on parish council and finance committee alike. What really makes priests unhappy, however, is the injustice done to brother priests by their own kind. There will always a few parishioners who misunderstand or just dislike you for no reason whatsoever. Some personalities will spread rumor and gossip about the priests of the parish from time to time but many will quietly approve and appreciate what you do.

Professional jealousy and clerical sycophants are what discourage priests. When their bishops do not treat them as sons of the church but as lower level managers whose task is to be a company man at all times, then you get some unhappy priests on your hands. When the same guys have been on Personnel Board for the past 20 to 30 years; when assignments are made not based on qualifications but on church politics and ‘who you know rather than what you know;’ when special treatment is given to those who went to the bishop’s alma mater while those who had to fight tooth and nail to preserve their orthodoxy and virtue while in the seminary are made to feel like misfits after ordination; these make for disillusioned clergy to be sure.

Foibles of parish life are like family life. Any husband and father realizes that no family is perfect and that every day has its challenges. Likewise, every priest knows that no parish is perfect (and no pastor or parochial vicar is perfect either). There are good days and bad days. Many challenges and many opportunities for grace and conversion. What deflates priests, is not celibacy or Magisterium, but subterfuge, duplicity and deceit from their own ordained brethren. When church ceases to be about faith and more about solvency, then priestly zeal can drop dramatically. Yes, bills must be paid and responsible financial procedures and policies be in operation. On the other hand, bishops do not need ‘yes’ men, they need honest, courageous, and un-ambitious advisors to give them reliable and responsible counsel. Sometimes, you wonder if the old Soviet Union did not reincarnate or morph itself into a diocesan bureaucracy.

Priests are happy being priests and doing priestly things, like celebrating the Sacraments, teaching the faith, visiting the sick, and helping parents form their children into Christian men and women. What makes us unhappy is being treated like we’re guilty before we even know what the accusation is. What kills priestly zeal is corporate red tape and extreme micromanagement. I promised respect and obedience to my bishop and his successors but not to a committee or board advising him on numerous matters.  That is not to say most priests who work in chanceries and central administration are not devout, sincere, hard working or competent men. Most are. But there are places where the tenure has been so long and the cronyism so pronounced that middle management makes itself indispensible and necessary. During the worst of the clergy sex scandals, it was not just the perverts who misbehaved and a few bishops who swept things under the carpet, it was also a few middle management clergy giving bad advice and a few becoming a buffer between priest and bishop. When that happens, good priests are unable to communicate important information to their chief shepherd because someone in between has blocked or intercepted the message. Access to the bishop for any priest has to be unfettered as any son would be to his dad. When the corporate model is enshrined, however, it feels like only the vice presidents and board members have access and lower level employees just do their work and keep quiet.

I have been ordained 23½ years and can truthfully say I would not be happy doing or being anything else in the world. I love being a priest and love doing priestly things. What disheartens me and my colleagues is not the human element but the dark side of human nature which can tarnish any human heart, be it clergy or laity, priest, deacon or bishop.

When priests are told they need to get anger management treatment merely because they preached a homily in support of Humanae Vitae and in condemnation of birth control and abortion; when priests are admonished for enforcing canon law and requiring sponsors for baptism and confirmation to be Catholics in good standing; when priests are reprimanded for exercising their legitimate liturgical options as stated in universal law; when pastors spend sleepless nights over meeting diocesan assessments; when assignments and transfers are arbitrary and haphazard rather than based on experience, history and qualifications; then zeal begins to erode and evaporate.

On the other hand, when priests feel like they actually belong and work in a family of faith rather than in a corporate business, they are willing to endure any hardship, obstacle or inconvenience. When priests feel that their bishops see them as spiritual sons rather than ordained employees, they will love them in return and serve them to the best of their abilities.  Most priests ARE happy but they can be even happier. Does not mean more pay or more vacation. Does not mean eliminating celibacy or the hierarchy. It means ditching the corporate model once and for all. Bishops are more than Vice Presidents and corporate executives. They are SHEPHERDS and priests and deacons are there to serve and assist them.

It helps when church authority is employed to discipline all instances of misbehavior (like teaching heterodoxy or committing liturgical abuse) and not just when it involves personally disagreeing with one’s superiors or their prudential judgments. Stepping one someone’s toes is not the same gravity as denying a revealed truth or committing sacrilege, yet often those crimes go unnoticed or unpunished while minor infractions of diocesan policy are punished with severity and swiftness.

The aftermath of the scandals has made some of the faithful suspicious but most still trust and love their priests. The excessive and over-the-top sacrosanct respect given to the clergy until the end of the 1950’s has gone and rightfully so. Sadly, some parishioners have become more bellicose, contentious and disrespectful especially when a priest is merely defending church doctrine or enforcing church discipline. Yet, even these burdens can be borne as long as the priest feels he is supported downtown as well. Priests expect to be called on the carpet if we are guilty of misbehaving in any way but we also presume to be backed up when we defend Holy Mother Church by those lukewarm Catholics who seek to make her irrelevant in matters of faith and morals.

A good and holy priest, like Father Robert Levis, who just turned 90 this summer, is now living in a nursing home. He was very active until two years ago when he fell and suffered a concussion to the head and later broke his hip. Yet, he spent 65 years of priesthood faithfully serving the Church. Most of his time was spent teaching at Gannon University especially as Director of the Pontifical Center for Catechetical Studies. Staunchly defending the Magisterium in a time when there was no universal catechism (before 1992) and when most religion texts for children had butterflies and clouds rather than Commandments and Seven Sacraments, he valiantly fought for orthodoxy from pre-K to Grade 12. He championed Catholic colleges and universities to return to their Catholic roots and embrace Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Ridiculed by some but loved by so many more, Father Levis not only exemplified defensor fidei, he also personified priesthood. Offering Mass every day of his priesthood, he served in local parishes every weekend, sometimes driving many miles in horrible snowy weather.

Father Levis regularly came to my home to anoint, bring Holy Communion and hear my brother’s confession. Michael had been suffering from Muscular Dystrophy all his life and was in a wheelchair as a teenager and bedridden in his early 20’s. He died at the age of 26 but looked forward to Father Levis’ monthly pastoral visits. And there were hundreds of people Father Levis visited and thousands he counseled and gave spiritual direction. Many conversions and reversions are owed to his effort. Writing software and then books to teach the faith to youngsters and teens alike, Father Bob is most famous for being the primary host of WEB OF FAITH on EWTN.

Despite all his achievements and successes, he was never elevated to any papal honor. Many of his contemporaries were made Monsignors but not Father Levis. He would never seek it nor expect it. But no one on this earth can deny that if anyone ever deserved it, it was Levis. In other dioceses outgoing bishops often get some purple for their loyal supporters. Being made a Monsignor does not make a priest happy nor does denying the honor make him unhappy. Seeing a political use of the papal honor, however, leaves a bad taste among many. Father Levis despite his confinement has always been a happy priest. He LOVES his priesthood. I and many others think all honors, be they papal knighthood or being made a chaplain to his Holiness, they should go to priests who earned it by going over and beyond what is already and normally expected in every priest. Happiness would be knowing that a dear beloved friend and mentor was finally given the honor and recognition he was due BEFORE he left this earth.

I have other priest friends who are of Levis’ ilk. They, too, personify priestly piety and holiness. They are parish priests, seminary faculty and hospital and prison chaplains. They are devout, orthodox, reverent and deeply in love with the Church, the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Mother and totally loyal to the Roman Pontiff. But they are not political nor are they company men. It is unlikely any of them will receive formal honors or recognition. That will not make them unhappy but it will make those of us who appreciate and revere them most unhappy. When I was a child in Catholic grade school, I remember the pastor, Monsignor Connelly giving a shiny silver dollar to the student who made the most improvement, who attended the most school days, who got the best grades. That recognition made many of us aspire to do better and try harder. If the pastor had given awards to his favorites, on the other hand, no one would have been encouraged in the least bit. Yes, there are many happy priests who are happy being priests and happy doing priestly work. The few who go beyond the required and who show courage in time of adversity, honor and integrity in time of opposition and heroic virtue day in and day out should be recognized so as to show the rest it can be done. Excellence is not a fantasy. Celibacy and obedience are not seeds of unhappiness, either. Sacrifice, self-denial and perseverance help fighting the good fight and finishing the race.

When the human element of the Church is fair and just, that enables the rank and file to busy themselves with the pastoral work that has to be done. When there is cronyism, politics, skullduggery and intrigue among the clergy (upper and lower), then the zeal can be robbed from those who find it distasteful and inappropriate. Happiness is the natural object of the human person that is why we seek eternal happiness in the next life. Happiness is like joy. It comes from having inner peace which is tranquility of order. When our will conforms to the Divine Will, there is harmony and peace in our soul and that creates a sense of happiness. Knowing you are doing what the Lord wants you to do makes you happy. But human beings can also bring unhappiness when they distort the truth and when they deny justice to fellow human beings. A former bishop told me that he loved to get letters of support for his priests since most people only write their bishop when they want to complain about a priest and rarely to compliment him. We have all had the experience of the nasty letter from the irate parishioner who feels mistreated. Whenever a positive letter came in, this bishop made the same effort to call the priest in and share the contents. If more parishioners wrote supportive letters before their pastor got transferred or before he leaves this earth, it might help keep more guys happy on the job. When you doubt that your efforts have any effect, that there may be no fruit to your labor, it can be discouraging. Hence, I always tell people when I visit other parishes that they need to express their satisfaction from time to time, to their priest and to their bishop. No need to remind them to complain when he is not doing what he is supposed to do, people react immediately and rightfully so. Jesus often gave encouragement and so should all of us.    

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