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Editor's note: This article recently appeared in the July 2004 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, edited by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. © 2004.


A recent study of clergy trends shows that while Catholic clergy numbers are declining, clergy in other denominations are on the rise (Davidson, J.D., 2003). Of late a sizable number of priests from various U.S. Dioceses, e.g., Milwaukee, New Ulm and Albany, have asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin a discussion on optional celibacy. While some see the admission of married men to the priesthood as a solution to the priest shortage others just hope that it will alleviate their loneliness. Recently, a 66-year-old Chicago priest, highly regarded by clergy and laity alike, married saying that the system no longer gave him the support he needed to remain emotionally healthy. He put it this way: "At a certain point I realized my parents were gone, my brothers and sisters were off in their own lives, and at the end of the day when I returned at night to a dark rectory, who did I have that belonged to me?" He said that if being married were an option he would still love to be a priest today (Marin, C., 2003).

It is perhaps this older gent’s comments that touch the heart of the problem of the vocation dearth and the present discontent among priests. The priesthood as we knew it prior to Vatican II has undergone a systemic breakdown. Although the traditional theology seems to have remained the same, certain structures that provided for its maintenance have crumbled. Abraham Maslow has posited–and research has corroborated his thesis–that after people’s primary physiological needs, such as food, water and shelter are met, secondary needs, such as the need for security, love and belongingness, emerge as necessary for human well-being (Simmons, J.A. et al. 1987). It is my contention that these next two levels of need are missing from the present structure of priestly life in the United States. I believe that this is the cause of the vocation crisis and the continuing exodus of clergy from the active ministry.

The Church has always recognized the importance of marriage as an institution uniquely geared to provide the aforementioned human needs. The model of family had been virtually emulated for priesthood prior to Vatican II. Even the title "Father" lent itself to the family model. However, enamored with a naïve optimism regarding the modern world, the bishops after the Council decided to imitate the techniques of contemporary business for human resource management. In doing so they created structures whereby the bishops became CEOs and their priests employees. This surreptitiously eroded the priest’s sense of security, belongingness and love, and eventually began to change his identity. Sociologists tell us that structures do shape reality. Theologians are also well aware that polity goes hand in hand with belief (Pelikan, J., 2003). The new structures began to undermine the traditional theology of the priesthood. They particularly affected the system that supported a celibate priesthood. Pious words and protestations of support for celibacy are not enough.

If bishops are serious about promoting vocations and desirous of maintaining a celibate clergy, the following changes should be made to certain policies affecting the lives of their priests.

1. Get rid of the priest personnel board

Any priest can attest to the widening gulf that exists between priests and bishops. Although many would like to attribute this to the recent pedophile scandals, which have caused bishops to act like Assistant District Attorneys instead of pastors, "fathers, brothers and friends" (The Bishop Servant of the Gospel, 2001, #9), the separation actually began when bishops placed a personnel board and personnel director between themselves and the priests. In my own diocese, a layman now holds the position.

The theology of Holy Orders demands an intimate relationship between a bishop and his priests. After all, the priest shares in his bish-op’s priesthood. All the Vatican documents on the priesthood up to the most recent on the role of bishops reminds them that they are to be a father to their priests and responsible for their welfare. In an "Address to the Bishops Attending a Formation Course Sponsored by the Congregation For Bishops" (September 18, 2003), Pope John Paul II noted that "Bishops should treat priests with a special love; they should show concern for the spiritual, intellectual and material conditions. It is certainly a blessing for a diocese when every member of its presbyterate can rejoice to have found in the Bishop his best friend and father." How many bishops act this way toward their priests? How many priests feel this way about their bishop?

When assignments are made, they are more often than not due to the deliberations of the board and are usually given to the bishop for his approval. The sense of closeness, concern, relationship–family–has been lost. The organization has made a decision that "it" thinks is best for the priest and the parish. The question is often asked by priests what is behind the move? Is this move prompted by my friends or enemies? Or am I just a moveable part? Does the bishop really care about me or know my situation? Am I just filling a slot or is there a genuine pastoral need for my talents? Does anyone care about my needs?

All psychological studies and sociological data indicate that people will take a challenge and overcome great adversity if they feel particularly needed, recognized and called upon by a respected authority to fulfill a task. Contact, concern and a sharing of a common vision with a genuine father figure will move people to do extraordinary things. Throughout the history of the Church, leadership exercised through personal relationships, not human resources management has been the key to promoting the Church’s mission.

A recent situation in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York emerged as a good example of the current breakdown between priests and their bishops. Bishop William Murphy finally agreed, according to newspaper reports, to meet with the 400 priests of the diocese after a grassroots request from the priests for a meeting. In a long letter to the bishop signed by scores of priests they stated that they were not confident with the bishop’s leadership and were unhappy with the way he related to other priests. The letter cited a "sadness and sense of desperation" among the priests of Long Island. This is only one example of what is felt in many other dioceses throughout the country (Healy, P., 2003).

Why would one want to become a priest in this type of environment? What normal man would want to entrust his life to another man with whom he has little or no relationship? Since we are not usually ordaining ascetics or saints, wouldn’t marriage at least offer some security, a sense of belongingness and love vis à vis the impersonal control and loneliness created by an alienating bureaucrat and his bureaucracy?

2. Abandon terms for pastors

It has been the long tradition of the Church that a pastor should hold that office for life, barring resignation or some grave problem. If there is a grave problem, canonical mechanisms are in place for a bishop to remove a priest. However, many American bishops have requested an indult from Rome, which is always granted, to establish terms of office for pastors. Usually these are renewable every six years. Renewal depends once again on the personnel board, or on the whim of the bishop. Oftentimes the renewal is one time only at the same parish. In the renewal process the priest is usually subjected to the evaluation of his parishioners regarding their pastor’s suitability.

If the priest is supposed to be the "pater familias," the father of the parish family,– after all, doesn’t his title connote as much–is it right to vote dad out of the family? It happens! Once again the family model has been sacrificed replacing a father with a manager. Furthermore, sometimes a good father has to do unpopular things for the welfare of his family. Under this scenario, who would dare to make the tough decisions knowing that he may be removed if he becomes unpopular?

It takes a secure man to do what needs to be done in any situation. Sometimes six years are necessary just to establish the respect and authority over a parish that a priest needs to be effective. Often simply getting used to a priest leads to love and acceptance, enabling people to overlook some of his weaknesses, failures and eccentricities. Knowing parish families, being with them during life’s good times and bad, and presiding over baptisms, weddings and funerals creates bonds that no managerial skills can ever attain. Even if the priest is a little kooky, I have heard it said, "Well he is our kook, we want to keep him." Most people get used to their priests and love them for who they are and not for what some parish council survey–often a few people with gripes–say or what personnel board members think about them.

The greatest damage caused by terms of office is the instability it has caused in the life of a priest. Most priests are not missionaries. Their parish becomes their family. It provides the man with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, and in time, if he stays long enough, he bonds with many spiritual children. A long-term relationship with a parish provides him with love and belongingness. The constant moving or fear of being moved has caused the priest to be more isolated and insecure than ever.


Read Part 2 of "The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis" here.


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