success stories

A Priesthood Re-energized

Eugene Hemrick
A Reprint From Origins

A picture of priests as leaders, evangelizers and sanctifiers who want to examine life in depth, to explore and to transform reality, and to translate the best of tradition into "contemporary images" that make an impact on our times was drawn by Father Eugene Hemrick, U.S. Catholic Conference research director, in an address in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 22. He spoke to the convention of the National Organization for the Continuing Education of the Roman Catholic Clergy.

Hemrick focused on the relationship of spirit and mind in the priesthood, describing what he termed a priest's "intellectual-spiritual responsibility" - a quality to be cultivated not only by priests who ordinarily would be considered intellectuals, but by all priests. Citing research showing that "most priests value priesthood highly, "

Hemrick said "we owe it to them and the faithful who support them" to plan for the future, even in the face of statistics showing that "we will have 43 percent fewer diocesan priests at the turn of the century than in 1966" and that nearly half the active diocesan priests will be 55 years old or older. He also cited research indicating that numerous seminarians today "tend to be less activist oriented than in the past" and tend to focus primarily on their ministry to "core Catholics. " The desire of these seminarians to provide the Mass and sacraments cannot be faulted, Hemrick said, but one can ask whether as priests of the future they will be disposed "to respond to those who are on the church's fringes, " to serve dysfunctional families or, in the face of mounting priestly workloads, "to cultivate leisure. ..and thus truly to celebrate life and reflect the happiness of the priesthood. " He suggested that priests can benefit from sabbaticals, continuing educational opportunities and visits to the missions which offer an experience of the church in more global terms -in a larger dimension that offers one way to feel the church's strength. Hemrick's text based on his address follows.

"It is not necessary to be curious and anxious about the shape of things to come. The pope's basic rule of conduct must be always to content himself with his present state and have no concern for the future" (Pope John XXIII, Aug. 14, 1961). 1.

In light of the priesthood's uncertain future, Pope John's prayer seems apropos. In numbers the priesthood is diminishing. Age-wise it is getting older and its spirit is waning. As we look at the numbers, we are prompted to ask what is needed today to energize it.

We will have 43 percent fewer diocesan priests at the turn of the century than in 1966. As the Catholic population grows, the ratio of priests to Catholics diminishes. For every 10 diocesan priests who leave the active ministry by resignation, retirement or death, only six will be replaced by ordination. 2.

The priest shortage is long term. This can be substantiated by a growing number of priestless parishes, 3. decreasing numbers of seminarians and seminaries, 4. and church decision makers who have conceded it and who are planning accordingly. 5.

One thing helping to slow the priest shortage is the influx of foreign priests. Some would argue they only confound the problem since they are not attuned to our culture. Yet others feel that they bring a richness from their diverse cultural backgrounds which is needed to re-energize the Catholic Church in America. 6.

Age-wise, by the turn of the century nearly half the active diocesan priests will be 55 or older, and slightly more than 10 percent will be 35 or younger. 7. With almost a third of seminarians in theologates over 31 years of age, it is conceivable that many laity will never experience young priests ministering to them and receive the benefits that come with youth.8.

Spirit-wise morale is down. Most demoralizing are news reports which have many questioning the priesthood's sacredness. Considerable uncertainty has arisen about its fitness as sanctifier because of public lawsuits and scandalizing allegations.

Also demoralizing are reports of priests leaving because they see themselves alone in old age without peers or younger colleagues. One can sympathize with this need for community and intimacy; but if they are seen solely as a negative outcome of celibacy and the solitude connected with it, this is cause for concern. As the priesthood is presently envisioned, celibacy, solitude and the priest as sanctifier, prophet and teacher are interdependent. When one of these components is questioned the priesthood itself becomes questioned.

No wonder John's prayer is so comforting and that he prayed it daily. Do we dare to venture to plan for the future? Our answer? Not only must we plan for it, it is our responsibility to do so.

Let me cite just one of many recent research findings which prompt this response. When priests ordained five to nine years were asked, "If you had your choice again would you enter the priesthood?”, preliminary findings show that 61 percent definitely would, 23 percent probably would, 7 percent are uncertain, 6 percent probably wouldn't and .07 percent definitely wouldn't. 9. Although the priesthood may be in a slump, most priests value priesthood highly. We owe it to them and the faithful who support them to plan for a better future. Let's see what needs to be stressed in this plan.

Prayer life is the heart of the priesthood. Unfortunately, when it is presented it sometimes resembles Molinos' heresy of quietism. Molinos was condemned for saying that "he who uses images, figures, ideas, conceptions of his own in prayer, does not worship God in spirit and in truth." 10. Quietism is a total abandonment of the tools of the mind. It is a shirking of daily duties under the pretext of humility. It smacks of letting things "take care of themselves" and can lead to an optimism which insists that all things necessarily move toward something better.

Father Romano Guardini would say, "Such attitudes only endanger the chances of a positive outcome, for they fail to alert those forces on which, ultimately, everything depends: the personal responsibility of free men.” , 11. He would tell us quietism relies on a false piety that deflates our God-given human spirit. When we look closer at Guardini's idea of personal responsibility we learn it is a combination of the spiritual and intellectual.

In the book The End of the Modern World, he states that post-modern leaders need to practice the virtues of earnestness, gravity and asceticism. Earnestness is the courage to get at what is at stake. (It is one thing to have a bomb shelter. It is yet another thing to question why we have bombs.) Gravity is the prudence needed to sort out our problems even though we seem to be in the midst of chaos. It is the courage to stay in there and unravel things. Asceticism is conquest of self in order to practice earnestness and gravity. The virtues of earnestness and gravity are the same virtues St. Thomas calls wisdom and prudence.

Let's look further at intellectual responsibility and how it is connected with the spiritual.

The spiritual writer Diodochus of Photice gives us an excellent image of the spiritual and intellectual working together. "We must maintain great stillness of mind even in the midst of struggles. We shall then be able to distinguish between the different types of thoughts that come to us. ...A comparison with the sea may help us. A tranquil sea allows the fisherman a gaze right to its depths. The stormy sea, however, becomes murky when it is agitated by the winds. The very depths that it revealed in its placidness, the sea now hides. The skills of the fisherman are useless."

Note that Diodochus says, "We must maintain great stillness," not be still - this in order to overcome the murkiness that struggles create. In using an active verb he draws a picture of a disciplined mind steadying itself to let God's inspiration touch it. It is the antithesis of quietism.

Next Diodochus dwells on the power of the mind: "The mind is capable of tasting and distinguishing accurately whatever is presented to it. Just as when our health is good we can tell the difference between good and bad food by our bodily sense of taste ...so when our mind is strong and free from all anxiety, it is able to taste the riches of divine consolation."

In focusing on stillness Diodochus is calling for a meditative intellect that can respond to the moment of God's inspiration. It is an intellect that combines analytical powers with the spiritual principles of meditation and contemplation. It is the type of intelligence Romano Guardini feels world leaders need to respond to the world challenges of a possible nuclear holocaust, ecological destruction, anarchy and the like. 12.

Diodochus' and Guardini's thoughts lead to the corollary: Just as we have a responsibility to cultivate a meditative-contemplative intelligence to respond to world challenges, so too must the priesthood cultivate this in order to energize itself and make known the divine within those challenges. From this follows the hypothesis, If the priesthood is to increase morale, improve its role as sanctifier, prophet, teacher and pastor, it must focus on intellectual-spiritual responsibility. Walter Burghardt concurs when he states: "Unless the Spirit-led ministry of American priests pays high tribute to the life of the mind, unless the majority of Catholic seminarians cultivates intelligence with seriousness and in depth, we risk losing today's masses ...the educated class." 13.

Let's return to Pope John XXIII to understand what is implied here.

John F. Kobler, an observer of Pope John, tells us that John was far from being a quietist. "There is a final talent possessed by John XXIII which must be stressed: his ability to look. The only other man, to my knowledge, who possessed this skill in a way comparable to John's is the ethologist, Konrad Z. Lorenz. Such men are naturalists, observers of animal behavior; their vocation consists largely in looking. They watch with an affection and absorption that ultimately begins to break down the barriers that exist between species. They begin to see the objects of their interest not as they have always looked to people but as they look to each other. Here are the first glimmerings of true knowledge." 14.

Note how looking is equivalent to Diodochus' stillness of mind and the spiritual qualities of meditation and contemplation.

It is similar to the profound German concept wahrnehmen: reception of the truth - to receive into oneself - to submit to the influence of things, to place oneself within their grasp. 15

It is like compunction of the heart which allows the heart to be lanced by the message. It is the disposition from which all research, scholarly and spiritual endeavors should begin. 16.

The concept of looking is behind good judgment. Cardinal John Henry Newman states, "Of the intellectual powers, the judgment is that which takes the foremost lead in life." 17.

All these concepts are at the basis of spiritual-intellectual responsibility. Descriptions of true intellectualism confirm it is closely connected with the spiritual.

Andre Malraux defines the intellectual as a person whose "life is guided by devotion to an idea";

Peter Viereck holds that he or she is a "full-time servant of the Word, or of the word, that is, a kind of priest either of a lofty ideal, or of literary, artistic, philosophical pursuits.” Plato depicts the intellectual as one who feels “the necessity to examine life." 18.

Daniel O'Hanlon would call such a person a critical thinker - one who after he or she reads another's writings sometimes agrees, occasionally disagrees and sometimes suspends judgment depending on the evidence. 19.

Thomas Molnar points us to the essence of intellectualism when he states, "The intellectual is not satisfied, ultimately, with interpreting events ... around self, but is trying to influence and transform them. The intellectual thus combines theory with praxis." Molnar observes, "Intellectuals form a class not by virtue of their organization, but to the extent that they have similar aspirations and influence, and a chance to be heard." 20.

Turning to Pope Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi he confirms the need for going beyond interpreting events to transformation. "For the church it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographic areas ... but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind's criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation." 21.

Note how Pope Paul is speaking about tensio vitae, world values in tension with divine values. By stating that evangelization upsets world values he is implying a spiritual tension dependent on critical thinking and aimed at causing a spiritual transformation.

When we summarize the preceding images and use them to define spiritual-intellectual responsibility, they call for: 1.) an analyst, grounded in meditation and contemplation, who is interested in examining life in depth; 2) a critical thinker and wise judge who is dedicated to the word -the Word - and who espouses spiritual tension as a way of transforming the world according to God's plan; 3) a person who feels he or she belongs to a special social class that wishes to change reality and who is in a position to do so.

To be an analyst grounded in meditation and contemplation is akin to fulfilling the role of priest as light of the world -one who pursues enlightening truth through the interior life.

As critical thinker, judge and examiner of life we are reminded of the Wisdom of Solomon and Daniel, and the priest as leader.

As a proponent of spiritual tension, the priesthood is pictured in its forceful role of evangelization. As a co-planner in salvation, we see the priesthood fulfilling its role of sanctifier.

These images are not those of an elite intelligence. They emphasize courage to explore, to challenge and to remind society that it is part of God's, not its own activity. They can be applied to the priest of ordinary talent as well as one blessed with above-average intelligence, to priests who work in the inner-city, barrio or in an affluent suburban parish, who teach in a university or hold an influential administrative position.

In Priests Among Men, Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard's portrayal of a good pastor subtly emphasizes the qualities of intellectual-spiritual responsibility. It is the image of a pastor patiently comparing "point by point, his two 'guiding plans. ' The old plan of the church in the Christian community has its islands of influence, its strongholds and its areas of habitual Christian practice. The other plan, of the new city, has its quick bridgeheads, its centers of spontaneous interest and its unexpected religious movements. Whether the priest be pastor, assistant, professor or a Catholic Action chaplain, he will know no rest until the two plans run together, until they coincide to form the one 'city' in truth and love."

Note how the pastor reflects Diodochus' stillness of mind in his patience, an active stillness that will not let him rest until his mission is accomplished. Yet he is not restless.

Comparing point by point, we see Newman's person of judgment in vigorous pursuit of accuracy. Malraux-like, the pastor is devoted to an idea - the idea of unity - and he is Platonic in feeling the necessity to examine the life of the parish. Suhard's good pastor is a man whose heart is open to the message of love -a spiritual- intellectual in its truest sense.

Let us expand this picture to include not only a pastor, but an associate pastor, campus minister, teacher, chaplain and many of the other roles a priest can fulfill. In place of one man mapping out ministry on his own, let us make him the orchestra leader collaborating with laity and permanent deacons. The islands of influence they analyze range from hurting families, gays, the homeless and migrants, to singles, the hospitalized, conservatives and liberals.

At one moment they may be accused unexpectedly of not having been emphatic enough on a pro-life or charismatic issue, while at another moment they may have unconsciously overlooked a sexist remark that has women irate.

Although the priest may have acquired Diodochus' stillness, he finds struggles with his sexuality and maintaining the identity he formed in the seminary are a never-ending battle. Beyond this he may have elderly parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces who concern him. This is to say nothing of a congregation that is far different from one in the 1950s or '60s.

As the Notre Dame Study on the parish found, and Douglas Woodruff predicted in the 70s, "The priesthood of tomorrow, like the episcopate of tomorrow, is likely to find itself sharing many of the experiences long painfully familiar to Protestant parsons and bishops, that they are listened to selectively, approved and commended by those who like what they say, and politically disregarded by those in the pews who withhold their assent on that point."

The many islands of influence, personal struggles and the unexpected that confront the priesthood are the reality of 1990. They could very well be ongoing de-energizers if the priesthood does not pay better tribute to intellectual-spiritual responsibility. This leads us to ask where we start to accomplish this.

We might begin with future candidates to the priesthood. In the most recent study of seminarians, a good number tend to be less activist oriented than in the past and they see the primary task of the church as encouraging its members to live the Christian life rather than to reform the world. They tend to stress the essential and unchanging aspects of Catholic doctrine. They see themselves responsible for ministering primarily to those who are closely affiliated with the church within fixed geographical boundaries. Social justice and the missionary outreach it implies are low on their list of priorities. A significant number will increase their work output in view of fewer priests, and indicate no need to collaborate with the laity to lighten their load.

One cannot seriously fault seminarians for wanting to provide the Mass and sacraments. This has legitimacy.

However, the attitudes found by the study raise an alarming question. Do they reflect an imbalance?

In the last decade we have seen theologians silenced, the far right insisting on greater orthodoxy, the far left berating the far right; we have experienced more curtailment than promotion of adventuresome ideas.

Conflicts have created unhealthy polarizations and some have the impression that the church is pulling its wagons into a defensive circle. When we add to this our need for greater numbers of seminarians, serious questions arise.

In our urgency to increase numbers and to stabilize ourselves, could we be recruiting men who are too status quo oriented and reinforcing them with an outdated educational process? Men who see serving the church solely as preserving and passing on its doctrinal tradition? This in contrast to men who have a spirit to explore, challenge and seek deeper interpretations of the church's traditions so that they are meaningful to the marketplace, political arena and family home?

One of the wisest principles of spirituality states that we must never opt to maintain a middle ground. We either make progress or go backward. The attitude of opting solely for preserving and passing on tradition could put us in the dangerous mentality of opting for a middle ground.

The church has a growing number of singles as well as new immigrants. 22. Add to this an increase in dysfunctional families and ministry becomes very complex.

Will the new corps of priests be disposed to respond to those who are on the church's fringes? Will they be armed with an intelligence that protects them from succumbing to an enclave mentality that takes refuge in ministering only to core Catholics? As Catholic immigrants increase will they go beyond learning a language and heed the urging of our pro-nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, that we enter into the culture behind the language in order to be effective?

With workloads doubling will tomorrow's priest be spiritually equipped to cultivate Diodochus' stillness - to cultivate leisure for himself and thus truly to celebrate life and reflect the happiness of the priesthood? Will the next war, which could possibly be over our ecology, and the present wars with substance abuse, AIDS and poverty be ignored because they are considered sociological or physiological problems with no theological connection?

Will the urging of Pope John Paul II on these issues fall upon insensitive intellects that won't be able to connect the spiritual with the sociological, anthropological, philosophical and psychological?

Will preaching be so woodenly orthodox that it stifles Pope Paul's spirit of evangelization and worse, never translates the best of our orthodoxy into contemporary images so that it makes an impact on our times?

A leading liturgist pointed out in a conversation that liturgy is not the result of an emotional outburst but rather the culmination of centuries of intellectual progress on how best to worship God in symbol and in deed. Will future priests be prepared to plan with the laity intelligent liturgies which draw the faithful into union with God and avoid poor theatrical substitutes?

A recent study on the sacrament of penance reveals it is in need of renewal. Yet the sacrament is much more difficult to administer in today's world. Will our next generation of priests be prepared to carry out this renewal?

The question of recruitment causes us to ask if we are seeking intellectual-spiritual candidates? Do we know how to identify them? Do our screening systems need further development to determine who they might be?

Turning to the seminary system, are we building faculties that believe in intellectual-spiritual responsibility? Is there something extra special in their teaching that gives seminarians the feeling they are being formed into a special class of spiritual intellectuals? Is there an effort to interrelate the philosophical and spiritual so that a student sees how they are integral to good pastoring?

Are we taking for granted that faculties have a fixed, high level of intellectualism, or are we affording them sabbaticals and encouraging them to publish so that there is an ongoing upgrading of their intellectual-spiritual responsibility?

This line of questioning is not pursued to embarrass seminarians or the seminary system. They are questions which can be asked equally of today's priesthood as well as the church's laity. They are raised to stress the urgent need for an intellectual-spiritual responsible church to respond to the times.

In one of its better periods of history the church hummed with creative, upbeat ideas and was noted for summit meetings in which educators, theologians, sociologists, liturgists, parish and diocesan administrators and lay intellectuals met. It was an era of movers. Brainstorming was spontaneous. 23. Can any of the many meetings today be termed true summit meetings - meetings whose purpose is to counter the circling of wagons? Quality meetings which avoid finger-pointing and instead encourage looking, exploring, critical thinking, thoughts of transforming - which reflect a community of thinkers devoted to the church's task at hand?

To be a good pastor in the 1990s and the next millennium shouldn't there be greater emphasis on intellectual-spiritual responsibility to self - a responsibility that requires taking sabbaticals and demands better educational opportunities for himself and the laity with whom he works? 24. Is it not a pastoral responsibility to avoid an enclave orientation?

Is this not one reason for sabbaticals, continuing educational opportunities and visits to the missions? Do they not create a missionary outlook which influences us to become less self-centered? And doesn't such global thinking give greater depth to our work by giving us a broader base of comparison? To more fully appreciate the church, shouldn't we speak of it in global terms? Isn't an experience of the church in this larger dimension one way to feel its strength?

As we have opened with a prayer, let us finish with one last question directed to praying. Where are the prayer crusades for the re-energizing of the priesthood? Do we dare to humbly acknowledge that there is a slump and do we know what to pray for in order to change ourselves?


1. Pope John XXIII, Journey of a Soul: McGraw-Hill Company, 1964, p. 313.

2. Hemrick, Eugene, "Capitalizing on the Catholic Moment," NCEA, Seminaries in Dialogue, No.21, Spring, 1990.

3. "Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy Study Concerning Sunday (and Weekday) Worship in the Absence of a Priest"; unpublished, Washington, U.S. Catholic Conference.

4. CARA, "Seminary Enrollment - 1988-89 and 1989-90," CARA, Washington, 1990. From 1989 to.1990 total (high school, college and theology) seminary enrollment dropped from 8,894 to 8,394 seminarians.

5. Recently the Archdiocese of Chicago announced a major closing of parishes. It was explained that finances, parishes that no longer serve a purpose and the projections of fewer priests were behind the closing. In the diocese of Albany, a recent pastoral letter places heavy emphasis on lay ministry in light of fewer priests.

6. Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University in Washington, sees the impact of immigrants as good when he says, “The country has always needed and continues to need immigrants to energize us culturally and intellectually, and to fuel our economy."

7. Hemrick, op. cit.

8. Hemrick, Eugene, and Hoge, Dean, "Seminary Life and Visions of the Priesthood: A national Survey of Seminarians," NCEA, Washington, 1987.

9. The study of priests ordained five to 10 years is presently being conducted with a sample of approximately 3,000 diocesan and religious order priests. The final results are expected to be ready by June 1990.

10. Knox, Ronald, A., Enthusiasm. Oxford University Press, New York, 1961, pp. 261-67.

11. Guardini, Romano, Power and Responsibility, Regnery, Chicago, 1961, pp. 53-91.

12. In a conversation 1 had with lawyers recently, the question of who forms America's moral thinking arose. One lawyer commented that he felt too much of our morality is formulated in the civil courts and that they are far more influential than the church in forming consciences. How true this is, is uncertain, but it does point to the necessity for the church to increase its intellectual-spiritual responsibility not only to head off nuclear holocausts or ecological destruction, but also to create the moral thinking needed to know why we must get involved in such issues.

13. Burghardt, Walter, J., "Priestly Preparation and Academic Excellence," NCEA, Seminaries in Dialogue, No.16, September 1987.

14. Kobler, John, F., Vatican II and Phenomenology: Reflections on the Life-World of the Church, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht; 1985. p. 9.

15. Guardini, Romano, The Lord, Gateway Editions, South Bend, Ind., 1954, pp. 153-58.

16. Stanley, David, M. A Modern Scriptural Approach to the Spiritual Exercises, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1967, pp. 4-5.

17. Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1925, p. 173.

18. Molnar, Thomas, The Decline of the Intellectual, Arlington House, New York, 1961, pp. 7-10.

19. Wolf, Donald, Schall, James, Current Trends in Theology, Image, New York, 1964, pp. 33-34.

20. Molnar, op. cit. 11

21. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 19.

22. In 1965 the U.S. Census Bureau reported 14.6 percent of the population over 18 was single. In 1970 it rose to 16.2 percent; in 1975 to 17.5 percent and in 1980 to 20.1 percent.

23. Dolan, Jay, P. Transforming Parish Ministry: The Changing Roles of Catholic Clergy, Laity and Women Religious, Crossroad, New York, 1989, p. 51.

24. As simple as it may sound to suggest priests take sabbaticals, it is far more difficult for this to be put into practice. Priests often, become conditioned to being workaholics. There are the Lenten, Advent and graduation seasons they tell themselves they need to be present for. And then, too, someone who has been closely affiliated with the parish might die. The everyday needs of the parish and the people cause many to feel they are needed and this in turn makes sabbaticals look like selfish undertakings.