Recently I was asked to celebrate Mass and preach to the members of The National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy who were visiting our Archdiocese. In my homily, I cited a USA Today op-ed, written by Tim Busch, the founder of the Napa Institute. The article is entitled, In this time of great scandal, faithful priests need your love more than ever. It opens with these words:
"There’s a crisis in the Catholic Church that no one’s talking about. It’s not abuse. It’s not cover-ups. It doesn’t spring from Vatican infighting. It starts much closer to home, with the shepherds who guide the flock. Many good and godly Catholic priests are struggling with their vocation."
Busch editorializes that priests are exhausted, because of two trends. First, the number of priests in America is shrinking, both in size and in percentage engaged in active ministry ... and second, the number of Catholics in America continues to rise. He adds that fewer and fewer priests are being asked to do more work for more people, all in a culture that’s increasingly hostile to faith.
While trying to offer some insight and even consolation to the group gathered, offered by the Scripture reading of the day from the letter of James, Busch's words really struck a chord with me. Perhaps it's because many of us who serve as priests know only too well that some, including many Catholics, have little sympathy for us and our Church these days. Clearly, the anger in the pews and other venues is palpable. Given the scandals, people are demanding answers about what happened, what’s still hidden, and what’s coming next.
And while most of us agree that these feelings are understandable, even justified, its frustrating because we priests aren’t the ones setting Church policy nor covering up crimes and scandal. Unfortunately, while more remains to be done by so many of us in every corner of the Church, the expressed anger being taken out on priests has driven holy men to desperation … to walking away from their sacred vows and in some cases … even worse.
As priests, men like so many on the journey of faith, we wrestle with the bigger question, "what are we to do?" Without a strong and vibrant priesthood, without a well-educated and nourished priesthood, without a humble and servant priesthood, the mission of the Catholic Church cannot be fulfilled.
Despite having heard, even from experts, that priests are no different from the rest of God's people, we know one difference is that priests and other clergy oftentimes are idealized and held to a standard that we feel like we can't ask for help. After all, we are the individuals that other people come to for assistance, and so it creates a dissonance and lots of stress when we ourselves feel like we can't seek support. Consequently, we allow ourselves to go down without reaching out to professionals, to one another or to our good people, who in so many cases really love us.
In this generation priests seek a sign … one for sure that only the Lord can give, but one that communities of faith can also express in every parish where faithful priest serve and serve generously. The Scriptures in so many places walk us through the practice of living the Christian faith. God's word exhorts us to maturity and holiness. In these days, priests need for communities to take the abstract concept of faith and make it concrete alongside with them.
Perhaps folks can take some time to learn more about who we are, what we do, what we say, what we feel, and what we have. Faith communities cannot be afraid to address each of these areas boldly, courageously and compassionately.
I know God is present in our Church – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Perhaps the words of St Teresa of Avila can help, she said: “We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer.” We pray for each other, as together we walk the journey of faith in our respective lives.