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Posted February 25, 2003

What's Behind the Crisis in the Priesthood?

By Father Eugene Hemrick, Catholic News Service

(This column is part of the CNS columns package.)

``Do our bishops and priests, our lay and religious leaders, have the will and courage to address this crisis (in the priesthood) candidly and confidently ..., inspired not by fear and suspicion ... but by the openness and trust that marked the papacy of Pope John XXIII?''

That question was raised by Father John Cozzens in the Nov. 4 edition of America magazine. The question not only raises eyebrows, but more important it encourages us to raise our inquisitive powers to a higher level in order to be able to respond to the challenge we face. The philosopher Seneca tells us that whenever we speak of courage, anxiety and fear are implied.

Another philosopher, Epictetus, takes this idea further when he says, ``For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death or hardship.'' Applying these insights to Father Cozzens' question, we end up with another question: ``Do we know exactly what we fear when we fear a crisis in the priesthood?'' Do we fear that with fewer priests, the priests we have will be overworked, thus smothering their space, leaving them no free time and leading to burnout? Is that it? Or is our real fear based on an apprehension that fewer priests means less time to produce quality work? And do we fear as well that second-rate work will lead to discontent and that this in turn will lead to disillusionment and depression on the part of priests?

The greatest fear about priesthood among many in the church could be that we won't always have someone to celebrate the Mass. Yet again, our real fear could be about disunity. Is the priesthood trapped between those wanting to return the church of the past and those wanting to create a new church? Polarization creates the uncomfortable feeling of being at odds with those we should be working with. Again, not too long ago priests were much more sure of what it meant to be a priest, they received much more support from the general public, and they were highly respected. But the exalted position priests once held by virtue simply of being a priest no longer is the reality they experience. Priests are expected to earn respect and honor. The support they once received from Catholics and non-Catholics too isn't automatic anymore.

Even when priests fully accept this development, they may wonder whether the misdeeds of some others make it all the more difficult for them to be respected no matter how well they do. Could it be that, for a variety of reasons, the greatest fear of all is that the priesthood as it once existed is dead?

Although the substance of the priesthood is still intact, many of the less essential elements that once tended to be considered essential to it are gone. Once, for example, priests were expected to be the parish's official counselors. Today professionally trained counselors often take on these duties. In the past, too, priests were supposed to be set apart from the laity.

Today the expectation is very different. Is the death of such elements a cause of fear and anxiety -- as though to say we once felt we knew the priest's identity so fully in so many regards, but today are less clear? Fear by its nature kills the spirit. Until we know exactly what we fear when we speak of a crisis in the priesthood, we will never be able to bring into play the courage needed to overcome that crisis.