Priestly people skills

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Article Parish Life
Many consider fervent “JPII priests” a clear byproduct of today’s seminaries—which leads them to wonder what kind of social training seminarians receive.

For all their enthusiasm and idealism, newly ordained priests can forget that most of their parishioners are older and wiser—at least in terms of life experience. “It’s a little off-putting,” says Father Donald Cozzens, 70. The reaction, he says, is often: “You’re acting like a little prince. We respect you, Father, but the Holy Spirit is loose in the world, and the Holy Spirit isn’t just working through the ordained.”

The heartening news is there are prudent, pastoral rectors like Msgr. Jeffrey Monforton at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit guiding future priests to become gracious pastors.

For starters, he understands where they’re coming from: They are older than previous generations of seminarians, better traveled, and they’re yearning to combat the problems they’ve seen in the world.

“They’re looking for a foothold and some sort of common ground by which to live their lives,” he says. “They come with a lot of energy and zeal; they want to be people to help their brothers and sisters who are looking themselves for compass readings, especially in matters of morals and ethics. Sometimes we have to direct them in the proper, healthy way. The guys want to go out there and take the bull by the horns, and I admire them, but how you go about taking the bull by the horns is as important as taking the bull by the horns.”

Once a young priest arrives at an old parish, Monforton says, “The jury is out for about six months, and they want to see who this whippersnapper is.”

That’s why he coaches his seminarians to exercise humility—and to befriend and seek the wisdom of older priests. To encourage priestly fellowship, every May Sacred Heart hosts a barbecue in a nearby village for the seminarians, the diocese’s active priests, and the retired clergy so they can bond over beer and brats.

“I’m trying to establish a healthy balance or chemistry between the seminarians and those priests whom they will serve alongside one day,” Monforton says. It takes initiatives like the picnic to remind priests that, like a football team, they’re all on the same side, he adds. ”Some of them are defensive men, some are receivers, some are kickers, and we all have to do our job as faithfully and joyfully as possible.”

This article appears in the May 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 5, page 15).