Cambridge, MA. On June 19th, feast of the Sacred Heart, Pope Benedict inaugurated a “Year for Priests,” in keeping with the 150th birth anniversary of St. John Vianney, the famed Cure d’Ars, who is the patron of parish priests. Jim Martin, SJ, mentioned all this in a recent post. The Pope is using the occasion to call the Church to reflect on the ministry of the priest in the Church, his charism and duties, and hopes that this year will renew priests in their vocations, and deepen the relationship of priests and bishops, priests and lay people, throughout the Church.
This is a fine idea. While the general thrust of the Pope’s message pertains to the diocesan priest — in the footsteps of John Vianney — even as a Jesuit I can appreciate both the need for a renewal of vocation of the priest in the Church, in many ways, and the need for us all to reflect on the very great gift we have in so many selfless and generous men who serve so well, often in increasingly stressful situations. The horrors of the abuse crisis and the systemic problems underlying and perpetuating it take nothing away from the holiness and charity of so many priests all over the world.
But as I reflect on this invitation to this Year for Priests, it seems to me that it would be excellent if there was a way for people to hear from a wide variety of priests about how they see the Church today, its strengths and weaknesses, and how the Church should move forward in the next several decades. Even more than religious order priests, the diocesan priests, in parishes and other ministries, are very much with the people on a daily basis, know their needs and desires, and how the typical Catholic is praying, understanding God, and forming attitudes toward the Church today.
So it makes sense that while we thank these men, thank God for them, etc., we also listen to them, on the great range of issues facing us today. From their own experience, and from listening to the people, what wisdom can they share with us?
The questions will vary in intensity worldwide, but here in the USA some of the key issues surely must include questions like the following (in no definite order): 1. Why are there so few vocations? 2. would it be good to allow married men to be ordained? 3. what is the best way for the Church to extend pastoral care to gay individuals and gay couples? 4. how do priests think about their celibacy in a society where our understanding of sexuality is undergoing so many changes? 5. are we fully welcoming and making use of the pastoral gifts of women in the Church? 6. how can the Church best speak out on issues of violence, poverty, racism and sexism in today’s society? 7. what was most and least valuable in seminary training? 8. what are the best theological resources that help the priest do his job? 9. if we could change three things in how the Church is organized and run, what would they be? 10. where is the piety of parishioners most alive and vital today? 11. which kinds of liturgy work best, how have recent changes in liturgical form and language affected parish worship, and how do we help people to pray better, by the way we pray on Sundays? 12. how, from the parish priest’s perspective, are the bishops doing? 13. given that John Vianney was a famed confessor, how do priests today think sin is understood in their congregations, and what might be done to rejuvenate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to revitalize its role in Church life again? 14. what if anything are priests and people angry about these days? 15. what are the best and worst things the Church does for, to, its priests? 16. What might a priest's greatest hope be in 2009?
These are just a few of the many questions on which the wisdom of diocesan priests would be very valuable. I realize that my list is a bit on the provocative side, but since we would be asking priests for their personal answers, rooted in their experience and prayer, no one should be fearful about what answers might be posted. Or, a panel of priests, selected by priest senates, could work on setting the list of questions that priests agree are worth asking and answering.
The questions I have given, and a host of others, are rather delicate. There would be no point in asking priests their views, if they would be afraid to answer honestly from their experience, thus offending those who prefer that priests not have personal views on Church matters. In many places, there is rather tight discipline governing the public views priests are allowed to profess, and it really would not be interesting to hear priests saying only what they feel they have to say in public. A certain distance and even anonymity might therefore be required, for this year-long experiment in listening to be fruitful. Perhaps various dioceses could set up safe websites where priests — only priests — could post public comments, without fear of criticism back home in the parish, diocese, or seminary setting. I am sure that if this could be done, the full graces of this year might become more memorably available for all of us, because we could then be honoring our priests — by listening to them.
Comments welcome (especially from priests)!