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.