It takes great courage to speak candidly in the midst of a crisis. To speak serenely when surrounded by mayhem requires wisdom and tact. To speak at all these days to the members of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors requires fortitude. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, the coadjutor bishop of Tucson, Ariz., has taken on that task, not once but twice. Last September he addressed the national group in Orlando, Fla., and he returned last month to their gathering in Boston. Before moving to Tucson, Bishop Kicanas had been an auxiliary bishop of Chicago, his home diocese, and had served as a theology professor and as rector at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary. He is uniquely qualified to offer rational analysis and valuable advice to those who promote vocations to the diocesan priesthood.
In his speech in Orlando in 2001, Bishop Kicanas identified three problem areas for the diocesan priesthood: loneliness, polarization and continuing formation. His advice sparkled with literary references and personal experiences, but abbreviated it came to this: sharing of one’s deepest thoughts and holy desires, willingness to enter into dialogue, openness to learning and growth.
The bishop recognized that some say the church and the priesthood will not be the same after the sexual abuse crisis in the United States. Refusing to despair, he reflected on the resilience of the church and expressed confidence that by bravely, honestly and directly facing the concerns and by embracing the vision of a church and priesthood characterized by mission and holiness, the church will grow stronger. “We believe the Lord entrusted his Spirit to the church, he said; “we trust in that renewing Spirit.” He provided examples from the history of the church, especially from the 10th and 11th centuries, and from the 16th, when a reforming spirit gradually pervaded the church in those troubled times. And he observed that in times of crisis, the need for reform becomes all too painfully obvious before actual reform is instituted. But he cautioned that it takes time for reform to have effects.
Bishop Kicanas provided a wonderful theological insight into the difference between optimism and hope. “By nature, we are optimists,” he writes. “We like to paint a rosy picture [about vocations].... Not to worry!” But optimism is not hope, he argued; it is quite the opposite. Optimism can distort reality and make it look better than it is. Hope is the assurance of God’s fidelity even in the most troubled of times. He insisted that we must face down reality by asking questions and gathering data in order to understand better what we are facing. And we must face that reality in hope.
The bishop proposed a meditation on the Last Supper and the vision of service it provides. “You must wash one another’s feet.” Priesthood is not about power, prestige or privilege. That pedestal has been struck down. With the removal of much that was peripheral, the bishop turned to the heart and core of the diocesan priesthood. He suggested that there are several characteristics fundamental to the call to diocesan priesthood. Diocesan priests are in the midst of the people, sharing a bond with their bishop and serving within a presbyterate in communion with religious, deacons and laity. “There is no place in the priesthood for those who will reprimand and belittle, insult or look down upon people, treat them as inferior,” he said. But sadly, “some priests would rather do anything but join brother priests for prayer or for learning or just for fun.”
He recognized that these days of crisis can put a strain on the bond between the bishops and priests, and he encouraged dialogue and concern for the pain that many priests now feel. The pope, speaking to 120 bishops at Castel Gandolfo on Sept. 23, made the same point. “Another of your priorities is attention to your priests, who are the closest collaborators of your ministry. The spiritual care of the priest is a primary duty of every diocesan bishop. The gesture of the priest, who on the day of priestly ordination puts his own hands in the hands of the bishop, professing to him ‘filial respect and obedience,’ can at first sight seem like a gesture in only one sense. The gesture, in reality, commits both the priest and the bishop. A priest must be able to feel, especially in moments of difficulty, of loneliness, that his hands are held tightly by the bishop’s.”
The kind of care and trust of which the pope speaks will have the effect of building a climate of hope for the whole church. Bishop Kicanas and many others have spoken about the broad context and culture in which vocations arise and are nurtured.
Trust, openness and ministerial concern are seen to matter. A genuine cleansing is taking place, the bishop argued, painful and difficult though it be. What is peripheral has been stripped away. Our true hope is that reform will come, as it always has. He prayed that “reform will find diocesan priests at home in the midst of their people, deeply invested in their lives and in their journey to holiness.”