Priests off the pedestal

By Bryan Cones| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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A holy-card priest is not the best patron to lead 21st-century ministers into the future.

Father Albert Henkel was a good priest. Though gruff and grumbly on the outside, he was a kind and gentle pastor. The threat of a call to Father Henkel-never Father Al-was enough to strike fear into the heart of the most hardened misbehaver at the parish school. Yet when push came to shove, our pastor always offered a stay of execution. (Believe me, I know.) Over his 38 years at the helm of our parish, he treated us to weekly homilies against abortion and cohabitation regardless of the readings, but he never talked about himself. He had his faults, but "the bishop of Hinton Street" was nothing if not a disciple at the service of others.

I thought of my first pastor when Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed a year for priests beginning on June 19. Father Henkel certainly never would have asked for it, but if there's one thing that priests in general deserve today, it's a morale boost. After the victims themselves, it is priests who have borne the brunt of the sex abuse crisis, from crass jokes about altar boys to having the diocesan budget balanced on the backs of their salaries and benefits. All the while parishes grow larger and larger, and fewer and fewer priests are doing the work that drew them to ordained ministry in the first place.

One might have hoped that the pope, in his letter opening the year, would have referred to these challenges of 21st-century priestly ministry, which stretch around the globe in myriad forms. Instead priests were treated to a lengthy reflection on St. John Vianney, the Curé d'Ars, a 19th-century pastor who, as might be expected, had a decidedly non-21st-century attitude toward the priesthood.

"O, how great is the priest!" Vianney wrote, as quoted by the pope. "God obeys him: He utters a few words, and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host. . . . After God, the priest is everything!" Benedict acknowledged that the humble John may have become a bit "excessive" on that point, and too right. But even more, appealing to Vianney as a model for today's priests doesn't reflect a complete understanding of parish life today.

The Curé d'Ars was sent to a parish of 230 souls; a pastor today is lucky if he has a mere 10 times that in his care. Ars was hardly a metropolis, and St. John was free to devote himself solely to its spiritual care; few priests today enjoy such luxury. Our 19th-century pastor spent hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Many of his modern brothers struggle to squeeze out a Glory Be between sunup and sundown.

Father Kenneth Doyle of the Diocese of Albany, New York made this very point on the Catholic News Service blog. One of Doyle's Thursday "days off" included a hospital board meeting, work on a plan for parish consolidation, and final arrangements for a wedding. He concludes that "a monastic spirituality, with a large dose of quiet built in, just doesn't work for today's parish priest," and proposes that his brothers try to set aside 10 minutes in the morning to check in with God. Ten minutes a day, it seems, is about the best a modern priest can hope for.

With apologies to the Holy Father, what priests need is not a pious exhortation on the ideal priest but a dialogue about the reality of priestly ministry and the toll it's taking on the men who live it. That conversation would have to acknowledge some hard realities. The next decade will see a massive reduction in the number of U.S. priests. In the global South, the shortage of priests is so acute that Catholics in droves are abandoning ship for Pentecostal and evangelical churches.

There can also be no doubt that it is long past time to have a truly open discussion about mandatory celibacy, one long requested by the bishops of the developing world and by many priests who are questioning the direct link between their ministry and that 1,000-year-old discipline.

 Above all, any conversation must begin with an acknowledgment of the tireless service of so many. Week after week, they show up to lead us in praise and thanksgiving. Day in, day out, they accompany us in the critical moments of life. Season to season, in parish picnics and potlucks, bingo nights and fish fries, they try to bring us together as a body.

What priests deserve is not only thanks but listening ears. Perhaps if everyone quit telling them what they should be, they might tell us what they need in order to be successful and healthy. Only then might we come to a more realistic vision of priestly ministry than that of sainted John, one in which we together find a new way to be God's people.