Priests for the Third Millennium

by Father John McCloskey

Today, the most effective and perhaps only way to encourage priestly vocations (apart from familial encouragement, and intense and persevering prayer, of course) will be the example and “personal influence,” in the words of Cardinal Newman, of dedicated, zealous, pious, intelligent, well-formed priests: priests for the third millennium. These priests have to be the ones who will through their preaching, direction, and pastoral focus put into effect the magisterial teachings of Pope John Paul II in the decades ahead. Finally, it is in hands of the Lord of History and His Holy Spirit. However, respecting the freedom that he has granted us, He does count on our collaboration.
As we draw ever nearer to Jubilee year 2000 and to the “springtime of the Church,” as John Paul II so prophetically and optimistically calls this era to come, we ask ourselves how this transformation will come about? How will we change from the “culture of death” (Gospel of Life) or “sick society” (Letter to Families) to which the Holy Father refers in several of his documents, to the “civilization of love truth” (Splendor of the Truth) that he foresees? There are many answers, but obviously it is effectively the work of the Holy Spirit joining together with the free collaboration of men to produce this radical change over decades or centuries. The laity, forming the overwhelming majority of the Church, undoubtedly will play an important role in this re-evangelization. They share in Christ’s priesthood by their initiation into the Church through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. They will be stimulated (or perhaps jump started) by the various lay movements and new institutions born in this century. These organizations with their specific charisms place a strong emphasis on personal holiness and evangelization in the midst of the world. The principal agent, however, in that bright future that the Pope foresees for the next millennium will be holy apostolic priests, participants in Christ’s priesthood through the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Pope St. Pius X said: “In order for Jesus Christ to reign in the world, nothing is so necessary as the holiness of the clergy, so that with their example, word, and knowledge they might be a guide for the faithful” (Haerent Animo, l908). Priests participating in the ministerial priesthood of Christ, providing Christ’s sacraments, preaching the word of God and communicating the authentic teaching of the Church to God’s children provide the spiritual nutrition which enables the Church to build the kingdom of Christ in the society and culture. Without the ministerial priesthood in God’s providential plan, there is no Church; there are only groups of well meaning followers of Christ more or less equipped but ineffective without the sacraments groping to understand and live the Scriptures. Quite simply the formation, happiness, and effectiveness of diocesan priests in their mission is a key indicator of the health of the Church and of society. As the French early nineteenth-century philosopher and writer Joseph De Maistre once said, “The priesthood must be the chief concern of any society that wishes to renew its vitality.” The transformation that the Pope envisions requires a new springtime in the flowering of priestly identity with the Person of Jesus Christ, who, after all, is not only at the heart of the Church as Lord and Savior, but also is at the center of our millennial celebration.
I believe it safe to say that the state of the priesthood in what we loosely define as the West (Western Europe, the United States and Canada) is not healthy. How often does one hear as one travels from diocese to diocese that “priestly morale is low?” Priestly defections, notable scandals, and a constant decades-long decrease in priestly vocations point to an understandable loss of priestly confidence, optimism, and happiness. In the U.S. the decrease in vocations still continues, although there are some slight signs of stabilization still way below the minimum number needed simply to replace the present population of priests; whereas there has been a general ten percent increase throughout the world during John Paul II’s pontificate. There are diminishing numbers of priests due to defection, retirement and death, and this causes an ever increasing average age in those who remain.
Given that ten percent of the parishes in the U.S. are currently priestless, with more to come, demographic facts show that energetic action will be needed over the next decades simply to maintain much less increase the number of priests. This, of course, unless we simply have recourse to luring imported “missionary” priests from Africa and Asia, often attracted by money which is largely then recycled to take care of their families in their country of origin, where, I would say, they are still much more needed, given the youth of their local churches. The reality is that even though we are beginning to experience the pinch of a priest shortage, there are two additional factors to consider which perhaps show the situation in the U.S. not to be as critical as it might seem and that may provide us some breathing space to upright our ship. One, there has also has been, lamentably, a vertiginous drop off over the last 30 years in the percentage of Sunday church-goers and, as one would imagine, in the practice of frequent confession. This rate continues to drop, roughly matching the drop in the number of priests. Two, the Church in United States still enjoys one of the highest priest per faithful ratio in the world. However, we cannot use the vertiginous drop in Catholic practice by the laity as an excuse for being satisfied with fewer priests. There will never be enough priests or saints in our world.
In the U.S., there are many reasons for the low morale of the priesthood that makes it difficult for young men to find the person of Christ in their priestly role models. The culture certainly is hostile to the idea of dogmatic religion and especially the very concept of apostolic celibacy. What appeared to be at the time the rock-solid ecclesiastical superstructure of parochial grammar and diocesan high schools and the one-time excellent Catholic university system barely exist any more. There are no longer a myriad of well identified priests and religious, or the large families and stable marriages that were the seedbeds of priestly vocations up to the Sixties.
Clearly there is a radical difference from traditional Church teaching concerning priestly identity in some areas of the Church; this approach affects both priestly spiritual health and the number of new priestly vocations. In some sectors priestly and religious vocations appear to be actively discouraged as the role of “lay ministry” is presented the answer to the dearth of priests. This expedient amounts to a “clericalization of the laity,” truly an insult to the goodness of the created and redeemed world, and to the radical nature of the sacrament of Baptism. The layperson’s participation in the priesthood of Christ leads him normally not to liturgical participation at the altar, but rather to his preeminent task of sanctifying the temporal order in the world. One can search high and low in the documents of the Second Vatican Council to find the word “ministry” applied to laypeople. It is not there. The Council Fathers instead speak of the “apostolate” (the close following of Christ and the desire to draw others to him) that flows from the layperson’s baptismal incorporation into the body of Christ. Aging women religious or lay administrators are considered by some as adequate replacements for priests who are called in (grudgingly) for the bare sacramental necessities. Even this may change with time, according to this mistaken mindset, when doctrine and discipline are changed or “developed” in order to allow married or women priests, though all responses of the Magisterium are to the contrary.
In other sectors of the “American church,” various “models of the priesthood” are presented: the priest as social worker, political agitator, psychological facilitator, mechanical sacrament distributor, diocesan bureaucrat or simply feckless hail-fellow-well-met who approaches his vocation as a “job” with plenty of time off on account of the “stress” he suffers (read laicization of the clergy), and the list goes on. None of these models can be identified with the dignity of Christ the High Priest and Redeemer. It is a wonderful tribute to the supernatural nature of the Church that the laity put up in so many cases with this type of priestly behavior. In our “modern” society priests are often portrayed from these unattractive models (or worse) in television, and cinema, and literature. I do want to make it quite clear that certainly the vast majority of the priests in the U.S. do not follow these archetypes. However defections and aberrant forms of behavior continue at an alarming rate, which would lead an impartial observer to conclude that many priests are not being given the help and support necessary to live their calling fully identified with Christ the High Priest.
Some of the reasons for this are certainly cultural. The human element in the Church is by no means immune to the killer viruses that abound in the decadent West, most notably its inability to handle affluence, thus producing the bourgeois Catholic (lay or cleric), an inevitable product of the “Americanism” so clearly condemned presciently by Pope Leo XIII in the nineteenth century, and exacerbated by doctrinal and moral confusion following the close of the Second Vatican Council. This confusion was not caused by the Council but rather by a twisted and unfortunate interpretation of its directives by some with mistaken agendas, ideas which only now are being overcome. The confusion, although it still persists, has lessened dramatically thanks to the clear, consistent, and coherent teaching over close to two decades of John Paul II. This is not the place to speak of the various secular philosophies and ideologies from Kant to Marx down to our own time that have so noxiously affected various currents of Catholic theological thought. However, their influence has been devastating on many Catholic university and seminary theology departments, which formed, at least theologically, the priests of our generation.
This post-Conciliar crisis is nothing new in Church history; look at the advances of Arianism for many decades after the Council of Nicea, or the growth in the Protestant Revolution that continued even after the Council of Trent before receding somewhat as the Catholic Reformation took hold. This Reformation is normally largely attributed (and understandably so) to the great work of catechesis and recovery done by the new missionary congregations, most notably by the Jesuits, Theatines, and the Capuchins and by the strong spiritual influence of St. Philip Neri and his Oratory, of St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and the Discalced Carmelites. After all, the saints and often their institutional offspring are the instruments of the Holy Spirit to effect renewal in any historical epoch. Over time, however, the real, although somewhat hidden story of renewal, was the implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent regarding priestly formation and life, which was best exemplified in the wonderful example and action of St. Charles Borromeo of Milan, the first to courageously attempt to implement these decrees, in spite of substantial opposition. The renewal of the priesthood in the twenty-first century will happen, I believe, in the same way; that is, through the commitment to holiness and the interior life of the diocesan priest and its inevitable and welcome influence on the laity–though not without a little resistance from the bourgeois.
My vision is not a chimera. These priests who are committed to holiness and faithfulness to the Church and evangelization exist; in fact their numbers are growing. There are even now some few seminaries (with others in process of reform) which are consistently producing exemplary young priests, well “armed” for the new evangelization of the U.S. There are also several dioceses which are producing disproportionately large numbers of young priests given the small size of their diocesan population. A sizable portion of these vocations are products of the new vibrant Catholic colleges or families that have been influenced by the new movements and institutions that place such an emphasis on the dynamic faithfulness of the lay vocation. If some of the very largest archdioceses in the U.S. were to “produce” vocations on a per capita basis at the rate of these small but vocation-filled dioceses, they would have almost 3000 seminarians each in their local seminaries! I see no reason why this flowering cannot happen in every diocese in our country. Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians once said that he believed that one out of every ten Catholic young men had a vocation to the priesthood. I agree with him.
The writings of Pope John Paul II form a “seamless garment” reflecting the Pope’s attempt to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council through the prism of his “personalistic” philosophy based solidly on the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas on two thousand years of prior magisterial teaching of the Church. We have guidance from him in the two most important areas in need of reform and renewal in today’s society, the priesthood and the family. The two documents to consult, both easily readable and accessible to their designated readers, are theLetter to Families, written by the Holy Father for the International Year of the Family in l994, and the Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests issued in 1994 by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy. The latter document is not signed by John Paul II but quite clearly has his most emphatic endorsement. Perhaps 75% of the footnotes are from his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and Holy Thursday Letters to Priests. Who could doubt, upon reading them, that if these messages were communicated and spread clearly and widely to the Catholic (and in many cases the non-Catholic!) faithful and put into effect by priests and families that there would be a refreshing change in our social and ecclesial environment.
In the course of my pastoral work with priests and seminarians, I am constantly surprised to find priests (present and future) who not only have never read theDirectory, but indeed have never even heard of it! The Directory reinforces the identification of the diocesan priest with Christ the Priest in all its aspects, leaving no doubt for clerics of good will about the mind of the Church for the priesthood as we cross “the threshold of hope.” The document basically collects magisterial teaching from Pope Leo XIII down to our own day, with special emphasis on the teaching of John Paul II, and presents it in an abbreviated, clear form for contemplation and implementation. In short, the document looks to the example of the Cure of Ars, the patron of diocesan priests, and not to “the priest of what is happening now” for a model to imitate. I hope and pray that it will be widely disseminated to all diocesan priests by their bishops and friends in the years ahead.
In the heading “Means for Spiritual Life” (Number 39), the Directory lays out for the consideration of the priest the seven habits of holy apostolic priests. These are the reliable means by which the priest who is serious about a happy perseverance in his vocation will be assured of his holiness, and a fruitful apostolic priestly life, including attracting priestly vocations to continue his work on earth when he has gone to his reward. These are the means which, if faithfully practiced in the priestly life with its ups and downs, will bring on “the springtime of the Church” in the centuries to come. As Blessed Josemaria Escriva has pointed out, the apostolate (or evangelization) is nothing other than the “overflow of the interior life,” and prayer, as Dom Chautard tells us, is the “soul of the apostolate.” The seven habits are the following: 1) Daily Eucharistic Celebration (2) Frequent Sacramental confession and Spiritual Direction (3) Daily Examination of Conscience (4) Daily Reading of Scripture and Spiritual Reading (5) Days of Recollection and Retreats (6) Marian devotion, and (7) the Via Crucis and Meditation on the Passion of Our Lord. (I might have added exercise, sleep, and rest, all done for God’s glory, but no matter!)
There is nothing new here. Indeed these habits (we could also call them a plan of life, or dare we say “lifestyle”?) are among the traditional means proposed by the Church to all the faithful, without exception, in order to further their growth in interior life and Christian behavior. The difference, of course, lies in the fact of their absolute necessity for the diocesan priest to fulfill his vocation and to sanctify, if you will, his professional work. Otherwise, he will over time inevitably fall into a passive lukewarmness and/or frenetic activism, with the consequent damage to his soul and to those entrusted to his pastoral care as well as to the universal Church. This practice is not a matter of simple external repetition but rather an expression of an intelligent and willful desire to use the habits as means to fall more deeply in love with God. A priest who acquires these habits will not, aside from the normal problems that face all men such as aging and illness, burnout. These “habits” cannot be limited to the proverbial “Holy Hour” so effectively preached by the late Archbishop Sheen. Rather they are guideposts that extend from morning to evening, from week to month, from year to decades, so that the priest is always immersed in God. Not only are they efficacious by their very nature in winning grace for the priest, but any priest who practices them openly in his parish and rectory will find his pastoral work flourishing, because his parishioners will know they have a priest who prays from sunup to sundown; only true emergencies prevent him from his daily faithfulness to Christ in prayer. They will know they have a priest who is more interested in being than in doing or having, in pleasing God rather than men, and thus capable of making a “sincere gift of self,” the Self being Christ himself. A priest who lives these habits will be able to share and pass them on effectively because all will see that he lives what he preaches and advises.
I do not think this is the place to examine the seven habits one by one because it has been done exhaustively by the magisterium, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the saints, spiritual writers, and contributors to this review. I do think though there is one habit that is more important than all the others. My choice may surprise you. I refer to (# 2) Frequent Confession and Spiritual Direction. To receive spiritual direction is a commitment to obey the Holy Spirit speaking through another person or institution. Who has ever heard of a priest who sincerely confessed his sins weekly or bi-weekly and who received frequent spiritual direction from a trustworthy, and dare I say demanding, priest who was not happy and effective in his life and pastoral work? If “the supreme art is the direction of souls,” according to Pope St. Gregory, how can any priest pretend to give spiritual advice to those entrusted to his pastoral care without receiving it himself? A priest who lives this habit will inevitably live all the others. Why is this? Quite simply because a priest who confesses his sins, and lets himself be known and helped in spiritual direction, is a humble priest, and humility is the foundational “habit” that allows all the other habits to help him to be holy and apostolic. Our Lord asked his followers to imitate him in only one virtue and that was to be “meek and humble of heart.”
Priestly identity is the key to restoring morale in the priesthood and priests need an environment in which to practice the seven habits. Priests are not meant to be bachelors; they are men, given the great gift of apostolic celibacy, who are destined to form part of many families by their very participation in the priesthood of Christ as other Christs. Their family membership begins with the Holy Trinity as sons of God and continues with the Holy Family, the Church, their natural family, their dioceses, their parishes and their brother priests. They are destined to be “tremendous lovers” (in the words of Fr. Boylan), and they need a home. It is not good for man to be alone, and there are no more virile men than priests. Priests need the help, prayer, friendship, and example of all the people that surround them but, particularly, of their fellow priests. As many priests can testify, loneliness can be the most difficult Cross to embrace. However, there are remedies for loneliness, and priests are free to seek for that help upon which their happiness largely relies. Diocesan priests can certainly establish their own support groups for prayer, socializing, exercise, prayer, and relaxation. But normally that is not enough. In #29 of the DLMP, the document, echoing the Second Vatican Council (P.O. #8) and the Code of Canon law (C 550, n.2), highly praises “those associations which support priestly fraternity, sanctity in the exercise of their ministry, and communion with the Bishop and with the entire Church.” Whether it be a priestly society, a third Order, a secular institute, or a largely lay movement, there is certainly some organization or spirituality in the Church in this millennial moment in which we see the Holy Spirit so active, that can guarantee the support, spiritual direction, and family life necessary so that all priests can live the seven habits and be happy, holy and apostolic. Mary, the Mother of God and the Church, desires and deserves no less for her most beloved sons.

First appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review in the February, 1998, issue.


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