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)!

Comments

Anonymous | 6/23/2009 - 3:29am
"The foul language directed at the gay community, and my son, goes far beyond reason and no longer represents Christ.  For years, the Church preached ''love the sinner, not the sin''.  I understood that and I do love my son, unconditionally"   "Love the sinner not the sin".  Your mistake might be in ever "understanding' this in the first place.  Loving another person is not a sin, no matter what their sexual preference is, no matter what your church tells you, it's not a choice, it is a natural condition for those born with same sex attraction.   However, just like forcing medical professionals to perform procedures they morally object to (abortion for example) forcing therapists who believe otherwise to treat people who are gay, is never a good idea.  Think about it, would you really want your son seeing a therapist who didn't understand him in the first place?   Don't be so disgusted and indignant, try to be forgiving and understand. Know  that if Jesus were to walk into Rome tomorrow, he would be pretty darn annoyed at what is taking place in his name. Some tables would be overturned for sure.   I am no longer Catholic, but I love what Jesus stood for and I have no doubt he would embrace people of all sexuality with compassion and love. That is what you need to focus on.  
Anonymous | 6/21/2009 - 9:56pm
Donna, do not despair just because of some pharisees in Nebraska. The Catholic church is a big tent, lots of different opinions, even Jesus had his Judas.  Read John, chapter 9, and may your anger turn into hope. Speaking about that type of leadership: 34To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.35Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"  38Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." 40Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, "What? Are we blind too?" 41Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. Yes, we should be asking priests' as to their opinion.  Won't happen though.  Remember the letter signed by almost half of the priests of the Diocese of Milwaukee to Bishop Dolan to allow married priests?  We already know what they think.
Anonymous | 6/21/2009 - 12:00am
previous comment was mine-forgot to use full name
Anonymous | 6/22/2009 - 7:05pm
Opinions can and should be asked, but as part of a dialog, not a monolog.  Priests (particularly the younger ones whose ordination chrism hasn’t sunk into their hearts and souls yet) need to understand that, while their lives may indeed be difficult and stressful in some cases, they are no different in that respect from the lay people to whom they are ordained to minister, not to dictate.   Married life is very stressful, as it always has been.  Single people are often overlooked in parish functions, focuses and weekly homilies.  Those who differ in their lives have to do so in the guise of not being different, i.e., leading schizophrenic, often-times paranoid lives as members of their parish church.  In this day and age, priests are surrounded by lay folk who have highly developed levels of expertise in so many areas that constitute the fabric of the local parish.  However, they do so in an environment that is way too often colored by the priestly attitude of “Father Knows Best.”  Even a Finance Council (the only parish body required by Canon Law) can only recommend; the pastor has the final say!  Some priests (particularly those of the JPII stripe) have taken this attitude to heart and behave accordingly:  “Lay persons have always been enemies of the clergy.”  Pope Boniface VIII, Clericis Laicos (1296) The church leadership has avoided in dealing with the hard facts of diminishing vocations (priests, nuns and brothers) by hoping that the Holy Spirit will answer their questions in a manner that they find fit, not in the manner that the Holy Spirit finds fit!  There is no crisis of vocations; there is only a crisis of will to recognize that looking outside of the very narrow box will produce surprising results. This problem has been recognized by outside observers for many years now.  “The Catholic leadership crisis for tomorrow is more profound that we dare think about thinking about.”  Martin E. Marty,  You're Going to Have to be Institutionalized (article), "The Critic", Summer 1989 By all means, ask priests’ opinions.  But opinions are just that, not the final word on anything.
Anonymous | 6/21/2009 - 11:25am
This is a good idea and ought to be done all around the world; in fact, isn't it sort of done around the world - don't the bishops of the world get an earful from the priests? I can imagine that the concerns would vary enormously depending on the particular situation of a parish or diocese. Many in the US would like to see opinions on the questions you listed but would these questions even be on a list if done by priests in Malaysia or China, or Saudi Arabia?
Anonymous | 6/20/2009 - 11:59pm
As a former Jesuit seminarian I am disappointed by the lack of structure and intellectual rigor of this article. The most basic question which needs to be addressed is how the role of priesthood evolved and what constituted its essentials in the beginning. Clearly this occurred before the substantive evolution of the institutional church. I believe that understanding this essence will allow us to cut to the chase of today's issues, many of which are bound up with, if not caused by, the stultifying effects of centuries of institutional and bureaucratic ossification. I cannot believe that Christ would have let his message of love be constrained by such artificial distinctions (with concomitant separation into hierarchy, clergy and laity, for notorious example) as encumber both the article and the institutional church.
Anonymous | 6/20/2009 - 5:41pm
I have been part of the Catholic Church from the day I was born.  I'm now turning 48 and I have lost all faith in the Church.  As a proud mother of a gay man, my disappointment with the Church has changed to disgust with the Church. The foul language directed at the gay community, and my son, goes far beyond reason and no longer represents Christ.  For years, the Church preached ''love the sinner, not the sin''.  I understood that and I do love my son, unconditionally. Yet, this week I see where the Nebraska Catholic Conference is asking for the right to refuse psychological help to gays from licensed therapist.  A friend of mine sent me a link to an article that stated: ''Jim Cunningham of the Nebraska Roman Catholic Conference says psychologists and other licensed therapists should be able to refuse to treat or refer clients because of the counselors’ religious or moral convictions.'' Refuse to treat?  Refuse?  I could not believe I was reading this. This ''right'' doesn't say ''love the sinner, not the sin''.  It says ''we hate gay people'', especially those in need.  I am so upset I can hardly keep typing. As I said at the beginning of this note, my disappointment with the Church has changed to disgust with the Church. Moral convictions?  No.  So, more directly related to your article, the Catholic Church needs to get back to the work of Jesus Christ and not view themselves as Gods.
Anonymous | 6/23/2009 - 11:04am
I am sorry about the woman who has experienced ''foul language'' directed at her son. However I would like to say that ''foul language '' is not a preserve of the Church alone.As a single heterosexual man I have been on the receiving end of much ''foul '' ,explicit and indeed abusive language from so called ''gay men'' who insisted on flaunting their sometimes new Gay identity in my face.In my travels around the world I have not detected too much reticence, shyness or lack of self confidence among the many gay men that I have inadvertently met.Despite this type of provocation, I have never and will never denigrate Gay men or use abusive language towards them as I will not judge all Gay men by the mindless actions of a few. I am not an expert in genetics so forgive me if my science is incorrect...if being gay is a genetic trait I would appeal to my gay brothers to speak up more vocally for their unborn gay brothers in the womb.....if the science of genetic testing ever really finds the ''gay gene'' then the only voice  speaking up for the inalienable right of that gay baby to be born may well be the Catholic Church.Some of the current friends of the gay movement may prove to be of the rather fair weathered variety.