Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Friday, May 1, 2015

My dear young man...




Pope Francis ordained nineteen men from a number of countries to the priesthood last Sunday. Seeing the picture online of two of them standing with the pope at his Angelus window is a happy sight.

While I send blessings and prayers to the entire class, I'm writing here only to any Americans among them and any priests ordained in our own country (317 diocesan priests from 120 dioceses) this spring. The challenges, tendencies and concerns of young priests is particular to each country. I'm familiar only with what's happening in the United States. And so...

My dear young man,

People all around the world have seen the pictures online of your Rome-ordination. Many priests will think of their own ordination day and people everywhere send you good wishes, prayers and hopes for fruitfulness in your mission. I am a priest thirty-five years. The real learning of priesthood begins after ordination. May I share with you some insights I have had along the way.

You have been ordained for 21st century America, not 18th century France. Some newly ordained yearn for another time. Plant yourself firmly in today.

Many priests have re-designed Catholicism to mean taking on the culture war. This is a mistake. The only war to be waged is within ourselves, with our passions: our laziness, moodiness, shallow gratitude, entitlement, selfishness, resentments and pride.

Clericalism is a serious problem for many priests - even the newly ordained. We seem to learn it quickly. Clericalism means: the rules that apply to everyone else don't apply to me.

Some priests still think of themselves as distinct from others - set apart. I have even known younger priests who really believe the sanctuary should be their domain. Some newly ordained have even had their mothers make a manutergium for them. Jesus came with human hands, not angel wings. If you find yourself thinking your hands are special, challenge the thought by calling to mind the hands that change adult diapers, the hands that do dangerous work, that sew high-end clothing for pennies, that collect garbage or wash down emergency rooms. 

The culture talks alot. Priests talk alot. Much of the talking is silly, vain, unnecessary, doctrinaire, moralistic. But for all the talking we have failed to present Jesus as an alluring source of joy - an expander of human hearts. 

And there is another problem with all the talking. As I was taking an icon painting class some years ago, everyone was chattering away while painting. The Orthodox priest said, "Where there are many words, sin cannot be avoided." I am convinced of the correctness of this insight.

Some priests stopped studying the Gospels long ago. Their preaching becomes a theology or history class. Some priests fashion themselves to be stand-up comedians or the moral answer-man. I heard a young priest once give a twenty-five minute harangue on the Sins of Hollywood. And on the Feast of the Transfiguration. What a missed opportunity.

Many priests love money. They think about and talk about and save money. Saint Francis said to his young brothers, "It would be better for you to go outside and kiss donkey dung, than to touch money." 

I don't believe celibacy is the problem underlying the sex abuse scandal in our country. The problem is that many of us are psycho-sexually frozen, plateaued or stunted. We have to be serious about our psychological and emotional growth.

Who are the women in your life? Only the Virgin Mary? Your mother, sister, the rectory cook, the religious education coordinator, the parish office receptionist? Any straight-talking women friends? Many priests don't do well with women. It is a serious problem.

One senior priest said of his cassock, "This is my habit." No it's not. One way to learn vulnerability (and there is no holiness without vulnerability) is to set out sometimes without clerical clothes. The people know who we are. 

Many priests are waiting for the people to  come to see them inside their churches. It doesn't work that way any more. Baltimore is a rather Catholic city with lots of Catholic churches. But while that city was set on fire during race riots this week, I saw dozens of evangelical minsters, imams and even a Jewish rabbi on the streets with the people of that suffering town. But I wondered, where are the Catholic priests? Saying Mass? 

Many priests never visit jails or prisons. The evangelical protestants do. Or when they go to the nursing home, they only go to offer Mass. They don't sit just to  talk with people or look into their eyes - only at the ritual  book. Maybe this is what Pope Francis meant when he told the priests to "smell like the sheep."

I heard about a young priest's father who stopped by his son's rectory to pay a visit when he was in the neighborhood. The man was furious when the secretary told him that his son was upstairs taking a rest. It was ten or eleven in the morning. Some priests take a lot of rest. In my first parish the men talked about the 5:06 red-eye train they caught to work each weekday morning. 

I visited a Catholic nursing home recently and watched as the lady gave out the pills to the folks who were sitting around the TV room. I asked her if there were any religious sisters working in this nursing home anymore. She said (uncritically) that the sisters would come by later, right now they were having their quiet time. I asked, "Do you get any quiet time?" She answered, "When I go home." Then after a short pause she added, "No, not then, when I'm in the car on the way home." Many of us in religious life live quite comfortable lives.
Help people to see how attractive Jesus is - not the Jesus of piety and devotion but of the Gospels. 

18 comments:

  1. Heed these words young man. This priest knows what he is talking about.

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  2. Fine words of advice from someone with many years of experience that most of us cannot give ourselves. Maybe there should be a seminary courses that deal with these life issues. Priests are ordained with theological knowledge, however many are lacking in interpersonal skills especially for the word today. I don't blame them for their lack of experience, but as you said, they should be open to growth.

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    1. The theology part of seminary is 4 years. It could benefit being made 6. I have more credits in Canon Law than Scripture. There's something very off about that.

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  3. We are lucky to have had good priests in our parish. These men have been fine examples who guide and teach with love and humility. I feel blessed. I can only imagine that you are like this Fr. Stephen. I hope that someone reaches out to younger priests and guides them as you have done here. It is sad to think that young men who enter the priesthood would not have these qualities. I would think they grew up in an open world where the media made issues easily accessible and connections with others made and then kept with social networks. How could them be so locked away in their own stunted world as you described?

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    1. Lots of dioceses have mentoring for newly ordained. My sense is that these programs are inadequate: the meetings often don't happen, the newly ordained man lacks docility, the older seasoned priest is afraid to tell it like it is.

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  4. Statistically it has been shown that there is a high number of homosexuals that have entered the priesthood in the 20th century. Now the number of seminarians have drastically gone down and down. Do you think that this is in part because it is more acceptable to lead a gay lifestyle, even as a Catholic, so men who are not seeking marriage in the Church and may have at one time chosen the priesthood are less compelled to follow this vocation as they can live openly without bias?

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    1. Now htis is interesting. Though of course, there have always been homosexual men in the priesthood. I believe it was Fr. Thomas Keating who said that homosexual men might make the best priests as they may possess sensibilities which are needed or useful to priests. The idea of polling and statistics is all quite new. When working with teens and discovering a young fellow who was generous, prayerful, good, studious, compassionate, faithful, devoted to Jesus - I would suggest he consider the possibility that he might have a vocation to the priesthood. Invariably, the young man would answer, "I think I need to get married." I wonder how many vocations we are throwing away.

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    2. Michael LeonardiMay 6, 2015 at 9:28 AM

      If celibacy is a requirement for priesthood, then what should it matter to us what sexual orientation he has? I would find it much more disturbing to find that my priest broke his vow and had a relationship, male or female.This goes along the lines of the rules applying to everyone. Would a priest suggest that a married man break his vow to his wife and have an affair because it was hard to be with one woman? And if I may ask, what sensibilities does a gay priest have that are more needed or useful that a straight man does not? As a heterosexual male, I find this to be a bit off putting.

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    3. Well, if I"m correct it was Fr Keating whose said that and he isn't here to nuance the claim. But I'll imagine a bit. Human sexuality is much more complicated than we allow. Human sexuality which is the totality of the person and not simply the function of genital things which is only a small part of sexuality. I don't think I know you - but that you said the quote was "off-putting" might mean the conversation could take a contentious turn. If it does, I will end the conversation. No bad feelings - I just don't allow this blog to go that way. What sensibilities might (I said 'might') a homosexual priest have that are useful/needed that a "straight man does not?" Fair question. I would say perhaps a depth of empathy. Empathy means the ability to feel someone else's pain - to know what someone else's suffering is born of exclusion, having to hide carrying a secret or wound, being on the outside of society. Homosexual men are more apt (perhaps) to seek therapy becasue they feel/want a deeper understanding of what they are about - even a desire to know themselves beyond their sexual orientation. Therapy can make one a more attentive listener (sorely needed by priests).

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    4. Michael LeonardiMay 6, 2015 at 4:37 PM

      I am not meaning to be contentious at all Father. We do not know each other and I was not directing my feelings towards what you said, but rather that statement in particular because everyone assumes certain stereotypes about both hetero and homo sexual men. Straight men are seen as rougher and unfeeling. I was only off-put because many men are indeed caring and exemplify empathy. But I do certainly understand better what this statement might mean now that you have put it in these terms. I was not trying to fixate on sexuality. I thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my comment.

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    5. Our Church and our country are made ugly by contention. Contention is the atmosphere we breathe these days. I was only setting the parameters - I expect nasty debate almost everywhere today. My experience as a priest (now 35 years) is that most people don't want an answer, but an argument. So I appreciate your response: "But I certainly understand better what this statement might mean now that you have put it in these terms." That's fresh! I was glad that you used the term "put off" because I felt it might give some indication that you are in a position to understand how many homosexual people feel in our Church - unrecognized, unvalued, invisible. It's not a good picture. God bless you and your family. Thanks for "writing."

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  5. I am moved by your openness and expression of your opinions. I pray that thus will end up in the hands of those that need it most.

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    1. I'd like to give a national retreat to all the men who are going to be ordained this spring. But they wouldn't have me. Often the man in seminary feels entitled to ordination. Or he keeps his head down avoiding any trouble - anything that would get in the way of ordination. I've even known guys who had their chalice picked out in First Theology. And sad to say, sometimes a particular diocese is so hard up for priests the demands or expectations are kept low. Pope Francis spoke about this recently to vocation directors in Rome, telling them, just because there are few vocations to religious life is no reason to accept candidates who are deficient or weak. One religious sister told me that there were many applicants to her conservative order, (habit, religious names, corporate mission identity, "faithful to the teachings of the Church" but the problem is that so many of those who come to the novitiate lack maturity.

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  6. Wise advice. I am glad to see your encouragement of the friendship of women in a priest's life. It is good for everyone, priests included, to get various perspectives and not get locked into one point of view. It is not something to be feared. I hope and pray that you aren't just saying these things, but that you believe in them and follow them yourself. Do you have straight-talking women friends who will really tell you what they think? I wholeheartedly agree that this is important for clergy. I am going to pass this whole post along to my friend who has a son who recently entered the seminary in Ohio in the hopes that she will pass it on to him. Pray for him Father, that he will be a kind and good priest. We need them.

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  7. Fabulous advice! As a wife, mother and WIC nutritionist, I will take them to heart. I hope that your intended audience of young priests does, as well! Thank you for your wonderful blog!

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  8. Amen Father Stephen. You are a good teacher. The newly ordained young men have less role models than ever before so they need to see things like this. As do we so that we may understand the plight of these men as they begin their priestly ministry. Many people are ignorant of these issues and it is good of you to bring them to light.

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  9. Well spoken words Father. I can only hope that my priest lives his life as you do. With a kind heart.

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