In a diocese where I was giving a retreat a few years ago, several priests asked me at lunch about the declining number of priests in the United States. They asked me whether the bishops were really planning for this accelerating decline. I said that there has been discussion about how to promote vocations, but as far as I was aware there has not been any real planning at the national level for meeting this. The priests were disappointed by this response. But one said to me, “This is very discouraging to us priests, but we are going to stay there with the people serving them anyway.”
This is the spirit I have seen everywhere. American priests are quietly and faithfully carrying out their priestly ministry to the best of their ability. Many priests are living heroic lives. They are not seeking recognition. They base their lives on prayer and faith. They trust in God. And they have a deep and genuine concern for the people. One fruit of their contemplative, apostolic life is the ability to see the whole Christ, the head and the body, the Lord and his people. Their spirituality is not a matter of taking refuge in Christ and forgetting about the people, as if their own personal spirituality were all that counted. These priests are helped, enriched and find strength in their sharing with lay people and living among them. They find Christ in their people as well as in their personal prayer. They have at a deep level appropriated the ideal set forth in the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
Wherever I go, even when I am with priests on vacation, I find that a prominent topic of conversation among priests is their parish. They talk about the programs they find helpful or not helpful for the people and their feelings about events and policies in the life of the church. In other words, these men are strongly centered in their service to and concern for their people and for the church. Their priesthood is neither an avocation nor a job. It is their life. They remind me of the way I was once struck when a prominent, nationally known political figure came to my house for dinner. From the moment he sat down in my living room until he left after dinner he talked politics. Politics was his meat and drink. I have found that for many priests a concern for the people is their constant preoccupation. They not only function as pastors. Their meat and drink is the church, the parish and their people. Pastoral service is central to their lives.
I know that a number of priests make a regular day of recollection, make a directed silent retreat at regular intervals, seek spiritual direction and go to confession at planned intervals. I find it not unusual to drive with a priest who has a rosary dangling from a knob on the dashboard or resting in a dish between the seats. On the table in many priest’s living rooms is an obviously used copy of the Bible and on the shelves are Scripture commentaries, spiritual books and resources for homilies. In the car trunks of these spiritual priests, there are, of course, golf clubs and skiing or hunting gear. After all, these priests are centered, focused men and they have not lost sight of the fact that they need to live a balanced human life. John Henry Newman, for instance, for all his great pastoral involvement and his extensive writing, loved the zoo. From time to time, even as an old man and a cardinal, he would take the train to London to spend the day at the zoo. To the dismay of his fellow cardinal, Henry Edward Manning, he would on occasion stay overnight with the Anglican Dean Church and his wife at St. Paul’s.
The current clergy abuse scandals are a cause of intense suffering to priests today. In California, the financial and sexual problems in the Diocese of Santa Rosa are very much on our minds. Not long ago, The Kansas City Star reported a disproportionate incidence of AIDS among priests. Criticism of that story pointed out that the article and the survey it reported were seriously defective and highly inaccurate. Even so, while there is great goodness among priests, these scandals show that not all priests are well integrated or emotionally and psychologically mature. Some of these problems have roots in early childhood experiences or in a dysfunctional family. For many older priests especially, the problems also derived from or were intensified by the isolation of seminary formation as it existed until some years after the Second Vatican Council.
Many priests, like other public figures even today, shrink from getting help or seeking therapy because they fear being labeled or even giving scandal. “If people know that I am getting therapy, they will think I have some terrible problem of a scandalous nature.” Some priests are afraid of being blackballed if they get the therapy they need. As a consequence their problems quietly but insistently grow until there is a catastrophe. Repression is a recipe for disaster.
What is the answer to all this? In the first place, we have to dispose of the illusion that there was a time in the past when these behaviors did not occur and that there will be some future time when these behaviors will cease to occur. As long as there is human nature these problems will occur, and they have always occurred. In the past they were not properly understood.
Today bishops are vigorously blamed for not having treated issues of pedophilia or ephebophilia appropriately. The fact is that until recently bishops did not know the nature of these behaviors. How could they have known, when even professionals knew nothing or almost nothing about such matters? There was no question on the qualifying exams for state boards for psychologists or psychiatrists about pedophilia until a little more than 15 years ago. A psychiatrist told me that in his training there had been one lecture of possibly two hours duration on pedophilia.
The emphasis given by the media to clergy abuse is also a cause of deep suffering for priests. When a San Francisco priest was being widely and repeatedly written about for sexual offenses, a high official in the police department told me that in that calendar year they had handled 1,100 cases of child abuse involving people of all walks of life and that among them there was only one priest. But the public heard only about the priest.
Studies and other indicators seem to show that by and large priests love their ministry, that their lives are in fact centered in faith, and that the majority of them find a deep, quiet joy and satisfaction in the celebration of the Eucharist. Somehow, in face of all the challenges, these priests are finding a way to cope with the serious problems that worry them, demoralize them at times and weigh them down. Many priests say they experience strong support and love from their people, and they do not feel they are carrying the burdens of their life in isolation. The picture is not all dark.
I believe, in fact, that this is the best time in the history of the church to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason for being a priest or for remaining a priest—that is, to “be with” Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other worldly gain or advantage. Those things either no longer exist or are swiftly passing. The priest of today is forced to choose whether he wants to give himself to the real Christ, who embraced poverty, including the poverty of the commonplace, rejection, misrepresentation—the real Christ of the Gospels—or whether, with the mistaken throngs of Jesus’ time, he wants an earthly, worldly messiah for whom success follows upon success.
The priest, for whom Christ Jesus is the true and living center of his heart and life, is the one who can bring the church and the world what they need more than anything else today—hope. The church needs teachers. Yes. But more than ever it needs witnesses to hope. The world, cynical as it may be, wants to touch God and to see the face of God.