I have been approached by many reporters who have asked: what is the mood of the priests today? They are wondering about the impact of the events of the past five years: the sexual abuse scandals, the calls for a discussion of mandated celibacy, the anxiety surrounding a rumored document on homosexuality in the priesthood, the growing shortage of priests, the influx of international priests, the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict VXI.
My response is always a very measured one. The reason is that most priests that I have encountered over the past six years or so focus on the day to day ministry of their parishes or the demands of their specialized ministries. At the same time they feel impacted by the larger issues and events the press upon the Church.
I find that what is most important to priests is whether or not the spiritual needs of God’s people are being met. Consequently, they are busy with daily Masses, funerals, weddings, hospital visitations, pastoral counseling, helping a mother and father come to peace when their child says she is pregnant, and worrying whether there are enough teachers for the booming religious education classes that are exploding with kids.
Most priests I know are busy trying to learn how to say Mass in a second language, how to understand the grieving process of the different Asian peoples that are suddenly sitting in the pews, what food to put on the table in a house of Irish, Mexican, Filipino and Vietnamese priests.
Most priests I know are taken up with the administrative tasks of finding the money to pay the bills, forming teams of people to work in the social services ministry, running the building committee meeting that is preparing for the renovation-expansion of the parish church, and making sure the diocesan assessments are paid.
Most priests I know are worried about opening a new parish, establishing mission churches in rapidly expanding communities, increasing the number of Masses to fit the crowds and simply getting to know the increasingly growing number of parishioners. - OR - trying to figure out how to reduce the number of Masses, how to merge parishes, cluster parishes or even how to close parishes.
Most priests I know are really not concerning themselves on a daily basis with the kinds of issues that have been headline issues. Yet, they know how deeply the larger concerns of the past five years have affected their daily ministry.
Immersed as they are in the busyness of everyday ministry, priests are confused and annoyed when a directive comes telling them that they need to change the chalice they are using at Mass from expensive glass to metal. (GIRM) Priests are angered when a letter comes from the chancery that tells them someone in their parish is complaining that they are not orthodox enough – and there is no name given or they know the person to be “on the fringe” (conflicting ecclesiologies).
In their attempt to keep Eucharist present to the people, many priests are saying four, five and sometimes six Masses on any given weekend. Many are pastoring three or four parishes. They become confused and angry when the Church refuses to discuss a rational plan for increasing the number of priests. (Priest shortage-mandated celibacy)
Priests have worked hard to live out a vision of the Second Vatican Council at the nitty-gritty level of parish life, only to be told that they have been uninformed, or misinterpreted the call of the Council or, in even more harsh language, scolded for “destroying” the church. (conservative/liberal conflict)
Priests work tirelessly to help young couples prepare for marriage, grapple with what cohabitation means for them, and explain the power of the virtue of chastity. They shed tears at times when a young person commits suicide because their parents will not accept them as “gay.”(sexuality/homosexuality)
So what is the mood of priests today?
On the one hand, most priests I know would never do anything else. They are committed, faithful priests dedicated to serving the Church in the local communities. They are happy being priests.
On the other hand, priests become discouraged, confused and angry when affected by conditions, situations, disciplines and systems whose negative impact could be overcome if there were a will to do so on the part of leadership.
Most priests I know are positive and enthused about the priesthood they are living. At the same time, they are confused, angry and discouraged as they experience the impact of the larger issues.
Perhaps a good way to see it is to review two observations of the recent Synod.
One priest tried spoke kindly of the recent Synod, happy with what he saw: “At least the issues got put on the table. There seemed to be some open discussion.” Another good priest wrote: “Many observers could not be blamed if they speculated that it looks like the Catholic Church is severely reducing its operations and in many places appears to be going out of business. Isn’t this a form of madness?”
The mood of the priests today? You decide.
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