US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Picturing the perfect priest

By Heather Grennan Gary | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Our readers have some strong ideas about how to build a better clergy--from training to ordination requirements to personal traits that make a priest great.

All you priests, seminarians, and those consid-ering the ordained life out there may want to sit down, put your feet up, and take a deep breath before you read any further. The results of our special survey, "What do you want in a priest?" are in. More than 800 readers and other Catholics weighed in with their opinions, and many of their wish lists make the Easter Vigil look short in comparison.

So what exactly are U.S. Catholic readers looking for? Overwhelmingly the most frequently mentioned quality people want in a priest is spiritual depth. Being able to provide spiritual inspiration and guidance is essential, says Norma Minneman of Clayton, Ohio. "They should take time to pray every day."

"If their personal spirituality is well developed, the other necessary traits should flow from it," writes Laurel Wilson from Ocala, Florida.

Of course, spiritual depth isn't the only thing on people's lists. Other traits that rank high are, in order, kindness and sensitivity, the ability to communicate well, and a collaborative style of management. The least important qualities respondents cite are a gift for hearing Confessions, devotion to Catholic schools and religious education, and, at the very bottom of the list, strong administrative skills.
"Focus less on being CEO," suggests a reader from Casper, Wyoming. "Church employees and other laypeople have the education and ability to manage finances, but they can't hear Confessions or say Mass."

Still, it's a tricky balancing act. All parishioners want "Father" to have some level of understanding, skill, or talent in theology, spirituality, scripture,
management, communication, leadership, compassion,
and sociability. And seminary training is only so long and can only do so much.

Richard Siefer of DuBois, Pennsylvania, himself a priest for 31 years, says the next generation of priests would be wise to concentrate on honing their pastoral and preaching skills as well as recognizing the importance of the role of women.

Father Jack Arlotta of Highland Falls, New York says the most important area for new priests to focus on is "the need to work collaboratively and deal with people sensitively. Too often the recently ordained don't have a team approach and tend to be a bit arrogant, believing they know much more than they do."

Liam Seaton of Quakertown, Pennsylvania says he'd like to see priests focus on continuing education. "Priests, like all adults, need lifelong learning in many areas-not just about church rules and regulations."

Although we didn't specifically ask, dozens of respondents comment that they want ordination opened to women and married men. "This discussion is incomplete until the church is willing to open the definition of priesthood to recognize the gifts and contributions of women and married men," says Joan Finder of St. Louis, Missouri. Julie Marie Totsch of Racine, Wisconsin says that without taking this step, "there probably won't be much of a church in the next 50 years or so."

Part of the appeal of opening up the priesthood is to have clergy who understand the complexities of married and family life-something many readers feel is too often missing. Essie Reilly of New Albany, Indiana wants priests to know the importance of "knowing their parishioners-married, divorced, wealthy, poor-and what their real concerns are."

Despite all the expectations we have for our priests-that they be spiritual, collaborative, eloquent, dynamic, even superhuman-a strong majority of respondents, 76 percent, report that they're satisfied with their parish priests. Still that doesn't mean everyone is just lucky enough to have a great priest assigned to their church. "In the last five years we have tried three Catholic parishes so we could find the most charismatic, sincere, spiritual uniter of the congregation," reports Donald Zolandz of Germantown, Wisconsin.

Many readers recognize the heavy demands placed on priests, especially those who serve in large parishes or are assigned to two or more parishes. In order to fight the potential for burnout, Debra Jones of West Jordan, Utah has a short list of events that require a priest: "Mass. Can't do it without him!" Eveything else, she says, can be run by other community members. "Parishioners can lead RCIA, religious education, and Bible study. There is so much talent available. If the priest encourages participation and leadership, I believe we will all be better off."

But E. M. Stropnicky of Dalton, Georgia raises one concern. "I know priests are only required for Penance and Eucharist, but how else do they get to know their parishioners other than by being there for the joy of welcoming a child at Baptism or joining a couple in Matrimony? I wish a priest had come to visit me in the hospital."

While many respondents agree that the presence of a priest isn't necessary at most parish activities, they also make clear that it would be nice to see him at least at large events, and at least occasionally. Others want more, mainly so that priests get to know and build up the community.

"A priest should make home visits," says Isaac Calicchio of Meriden, Connecticut. "He should spend the time to chat, eat, and meet all family members whether they're Catholic or not. He should be available to all-at old age homes, First Communion classes, the school if the parish has one."

Perhaps readers' expectations of priests are so high because most have encountered at least one who proves those expectations can be met or even surpassed. A reader from Rochester, New York remembers a priest who "believed in people, called forth their gifts in an empowering way, and modeled Jesus-like wisdom and behavior. He was also prayerful, preached relevant homilies, was reliable, well-read, and concerned about justice issues."

Donna L. Davis of Hartwood, Virginia says the priest who most influenced her "never forgot the dignity and value of each person, nor did he exalt himself. He portrayed Christ for us through the beauty of his daily life."

A reader in Albert Lea, Minnesota remembers the priest who "was kind and listened to me. But not just me-he was kind and respectful to everyone, young and old. In him I understood Jesus as my brother."

That, perhaps, is the best and shortest description of the ideal priest. Fathers, bishops, and seminaries, take note.

This article appeared in the April 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 71, No. 4, pages 12-17).