Priesthood and the Communal Dimension

A reader has asked me to expand on a brief remark I made a few days ago when I said I hoped Pope Francis’s experience as a member of a religious order, the Jesuits, would enable him to bring greater awareness of the communal dimension to our understanding of priesthood. I was responding to a question asked in the context of the Church’s record on clerical sexual abuse and the ministry of women, but the point I was trying to make is of wider application. I am sure that any priest readers will have their own take on the subject. I write as one who is not, and cannot be, a priest myself but who does have a great love of the Church and therefore of her priests.

By way of preliminary, I ought to say I think Pope Benedict did his best to purify the Church of what he himself called the ‘filth’ of sexual abuse and had to put up with a lot of false accusations about his record. Pope Francis has emphasized that he takes up where Benedict XVI left off. However, where this subject is concerned, enough is never enough: there is always something more one could or should do because of the enormity of abuse; and no one could say that the Vatican has handled the situation well. In PR terms, it has been an unmitigated disaster.

But the Church is not a PR organization, nor is priesthood to be defined in negative terms, or in the light of individual or institutional failures to live up to its obligations. The sexual abuse scandals have highlighted something which disturbs many Catholics — the feeling that many priests are in need of fresh encouragement and inspiration. Some of my own priest friends have spoken very frankly about how low their morale is. They go about their duty perseveringly, but the backlash from the abuse scandals has rocked them. They are often vilified and distrusted simply because they are priests, which makes for a lonely and difficult life.

I take heart from the fact that the pope is a Jesuit and has served as novice master. He has therefore been directly responsible for helping young — and possibly not so young — men to prepare for living a vowed life in which celibate chastity is not merely ‘part of the package deal’ but an explicit, freely chosen, way of following Christ. He is thus familiar, in a way many bishops drawn from the ranks of diocesan clergy are perhaps not so familiar, with the important role of the community in the formation and support of the individual. No one is a priest for himself alone. Equally, no one should be expected to find within himself all the resources he needs to exercise his priestly ministry. It is a kind of two-way contract, but during the past fifty or sixty years, I think we have tended to forget that.

Once a secular (i.e. diocesan) priest has left the seminary, community support can be a rather hit-and-miss affair. The days of the parish priest with a couple of curates a-piece is long gone, and many clergy would much prefer to live on their own anyway — but the need for support remains. I believe that there is something religious orders like the Jesuits can contribute to the understanding of how that can be done and that Pope Francis is uniquely placed to further that understanding.

Why is it important that priests be supported in their ministry by the community? Quite apart from the fact that as Christians we are all responsible for each other, there is the very obvious fact that without support ultimately we won’t have any priests or any community, either. That is why I am hopeful that Pope Francis will lead the way in encouraging and supporting the Church and her priests.

I’m pretty sure some people will land on this page and want to take me to task for abuse in the Catholic Church. That is not what I am writing about above although I had to give the context in which my original remark was made. If you are one of these, please would you take the trouble to do a search in the sidebar where you will find I have written several posts which make my attitude clear. Some may also alert you to aspects you may not have thought about, e.g. the way in which most Catholics feel betrayed by what has happened and the way in which it has been handled. Thank you.


12 thoughts on “Priesthood and the Communal Dimension”

  1. I am sure every priest feels the shame and betrayal even more than lay people do. We do expect too much of priests. If they get involved in parish/school life they are criticised for being pushy/power-mad or worse…

    If they allow the community to take greater leadership roles they are accused of being aloof/lazy.

    They are expected to be saints and yet have the same experience as “normal” families. People expect a priest to have all the answers, forgetting they have doubts and fears the same as every other person.

    Support will never stop all abuse but would hopefully prevent the cover-ups and harm done by a system that now seems so flawed. Most priests are good men as well as good priests.

  2. Before Pope Francis was elected, Sister Gemma Simmonds wrote a thoughtful article in the Jesuit on-line journal, ‘Thinking Faith’ suggesting it might be a gift to the Church if the man elected had an approach to authority that had been formed in a religious community. Readers of this blog may find it an interesting companion piece to this post.

    • Thank you for the link, which I shall now proceed to follow. Before I do so, however, I’d like to make a suggestion. The current code of Canon Law, nos 617 to 630, deals with ‘superiors and councils’ of religious communities of all kinds. It is well worth studying for what it says about the way in which authority is to be exercised, and the fraternal community and culture the superior must promote. St Benedict has his own take on all this, of course, but Pope Francis is not a Benedictine.

  3. You remind me of St Thérèse’s particular concern for priests, praying for them, and encouraging them by her letters. Holy Trinity Monastery prays for them, and you, by what you write, reach far greater numbers of them than Thérèse was able to do during her lifetime. The need for *immediate* human community cannot be gainsaid, but for those who feel isolated and unsupported, having a firm comforter (strengthener, advocate) via the internet can make a significant difference. Offering virtual community for priests is such an important dimension of your online hospitality. And not only for priests, of course…

  4. The priest in my parish has been on fire since Pope Francis appeared. He is a very enthusiastic man but was clearly struggling with all the negativity and scandal in the Church. He has maintained his equilibrium because he is a people person, not afraid to show his feelings and having many friends both clerical and lay. He loves being a priest. While not taking anything away from him, an outstanding man who has touched the lives of so many, I feel for his brother priests who are more introverted and, perhaps, don’t find it easy to go out to people in the same way. I also feel for younger priests who have to take on the responsibility of a parish at a much earlier stage than in the past. They come from the community atmosphere of the seminary into a much different environment. No wonder some find the burden too great.

  5. I think that being a Catholic Parish Priest must be one of the most lonely vocations in the Church. Called to be set apart in Ordained Ministry, and to live a life of celibacy and chastity must take someone special – and that choice is a deliberate one, freely entered into and if I’m honest one that I couldn’t hope to emulate or contemplate.

    Even if a Priest has a wide circle of friends in his parish and a supportive family in the background, there always boundaries to be observed for all relationships, even with parents and siblings. The Mark of priest hood separates and makes them different. The only relationship of love that they are able to acknowledge is with our Saviour.

    I’m sure that many have wide cultural and artistic interests which allow them to both participate and contribute in many spheres, but it seems to me that it’s no compensation for the close human relationships, which are more than friendship.

    Their pastoral, teaching and leadership role in their parish and community, the expectations of their parishioners and senior clergy of them are high – whether they want to or not, they are placed in a position of being honoured and respected due to their office, which many may find difficult to live up to – additional stress in a lonely role.

    I can remember many years ago visiting a Priest in hospital who was dying of cancer. Somehow he appeared to have given up hope and had resigned himself to what was happening to him. But he railed at his suffering and the unfairness of his situation. He couldn’t seem to articulate how much he was hurting, how alone and abandoned he felt. I had known him years before in his active ministry and he was someone that I had hugely respected. It seemed that he felt that his whole life had been pointless and that he had nothing to look forward to. His despair was disheartening to me, having gone through several bereavements myself of a parent and a close friend and I believe that it contributed to my leaving the church shortly afterwards.

    When I went forward for Anglican Ministry, at least I knew that I had the support and comfort my my spouse, children and grand children and a close circle of lifelong friends who I could fall back on – and while the issues of being set apart were stressed, they were in the context of the whole family being part of and supportive to the proposed ministry. I just wonder if the Catholic Church might learn something from this experience.

    • Yes and no. There have been literally thousands upon thousands of Catholic priests who have lived fruitful lives, faithful to the promises they made at ordination. Although we do have married priests, e.g. Eastern rite and former Anglican clergy, I personally don’t see the western discipline of celibacy being dropped any time soon. Apart from anything else, I don’t think the finance is available to support clergy families in any number.

      I am adding your priest friend to my prayers. I have attended many death-beds. Some are agonizing: the dying person loses faith, hope, everything, it seems, that he or she valued or lived by. St Thérèse of Lisieux experienced a terrible desolation of spirit before she died. That’s one of the reasons I believe prayer for the dying and for the dead are both so important. In the monastic tradition we pray for them explicitly at the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal.

  6. Our parish is served by two priests and three deacons, two of whom I know for certain are married. We have a growing number of married deacons in our archdiocese and their vocations are highly valued, so if a man chooses to be married, he may also serve as a Permanent Deacon. Yes, a different vocation, but at the heart of it still service in God. As much as people like to believe that allowing marriage would make for happier more fulfilled (and more numerous) priests, what about those who would end up in unhappy marriages, just as surely as clergy of other denominations as well as all laiety sometimes find themselves? Marriage is as much a vocation as Holy Orders with its own demands, it is not a tool. What I’m trying to get at is this: you don’t bring a baby into a marriage in order to try to solve marriage problems, neither do you allow priests to marry in order to create happier, more fulfilled priests – they have to have it within themselves to begin with, have to nurture it.

    Of the priests we have known personally over the years, I would not agree they live lonely isolated lives. They have their circle of friends, also in vocation, as well as another circle of friends in the parish and have been enthusiastic about joining us for family dinners and celebrations. On the other hand, a loner priest is no different than any other neighbour who prefers their own company – it is not vocation that makes the difference. We have kept in touch with a number of these clergy friends (and religious sisters, too) over the years, and I would describe our relationship with them as close and loving as anyone would have with another relative living in a different city.

    The falling away from faith at the end of life is something I have witnesses in a professional setting, too, and is not restricted to Catholic priests. On the other hand, people sometimes come to a place of faith and acceptance and experience the gift of conversion, again not restricted to any particular Christian denomination. When we attend a deathbed we must keep in mind that death is very complex, involving many processes, and must not surmise that the last conversations sum up a life lived in its entirety, nor compare the dying person’s attitudes to our own – they are in a different state of being.

    There are many ways we can support our priests and religious beyond shaking hands and rushing out of the Church following Mass. If we make the effort to do so we’ll find our lives (and hopefully theirs) enriched by friendship, so yes, pray for them, but make the effort.

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