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A Beleaguered Priesthood In Need Of Spirit

Eugene Hemrick

If there is to be a recovery from the damage of pedophilia scandals of priests, the principles for which research and study stand must play a much bigger part in the life of the Church than it has! Why emphasize this?

Because research generates prudent reflection, raises stimulating questions, and speaks to our creativity — indispensable assets for the vibrancy of the priesthood.

Before addressing the benefits of research and study, we need to dispel a common myth about one of their most acclaimed powers: the promise some see in them for curing our ills.

In light of the damage the priesthood has recently experienced, there is a natural tendency to direct research toward ways of revitalizing a battered, sick priesthood. Without a doubt, the present pedophilia scandals, ominous projections of fewer priests, and the 1980s document, "Reflections on the Morale of Priests," give us ample reason for centering on therapy. Listen to some quotes from the latter.

“Although there are present today powerful individual examples of priestly ministry shared in creative and energizing ways which continue the mission and ministry of the Church, it is also clear to us that there exists a serious and substantial morale problem among priests in general.”

“The priest must deal with those who are angry and disillusioned with what they consider the slow pace of renewal; he must also face the unreasoning and often well-organized opposition of the self-styled orthodox and of those who simply do not believe in the decisions and directions of Vatican II."

No one denies that we are hurting and in need of therapy. And thanks to new strides in psychological therapy we have wonderful tools at our disposal. But just as precautions must be taken with these tools, so too, must caution be sounded about employing research solely as a therapeutic tool for the priesthood.

In the book, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future; research on the growing phenomenon of therapy led its authors Wade Roof and William McKinney to observe that our culture is becoming increasingly therapeutically sensitive. When we associate with groups or we pursue work, often we join in because such groups or jobs are therapeutically healthy for the "me" in "me."

If we approach our priesthood with this therapeutic mind-set, we put ourselves into the defensive posture of being on the ropes; in need of help. Help we definitely need, but to become overly concerned about solely preserving the “me”--- “my public image as a priest”, “my personal well-being” --- can end in disaster. Circling the wagons around the priesthood can only lead to insulation, which is contrary to the communal life priesthood is.

Wade and Kinney, as does Robert Bellah in the book Habits of the Heart, intimate that if we remain therapeutically sensitive too long it turns us into navel gazers. We can become so anxious about our own health that we tend to lose sight of others and the common good.

It is for the above reason that studying priesthood should not be seen solely as a healing endeavor. Rather, research on the priesthood should become an instrument for: 1. Enhancing leadership qualities in the midst of a crisis by defining those qualities and asking how well they are performed. 2. Raising questions and providing information that create a dialogue which fosters restructuring and renewal. 3. Generating a healthy zest, which counters being matter-of-fact, and 4. Surfacing the ultimate “Spirit" the priesthood should possess.

Starting with research as a handmaid to leadership it asks: what virtues do today’s leaders need to practice most in light of the rapid transformations society and the Church are experiencing? If, for example, we are to avoid a nuclear holocaust, ecological disaster, and especially a clergy catastrophe, what leadership qualities in particular are needed?

From his studies, the theologian and anthropologist, Romano Guardini would tell us that they should include:

1. Earnestness

2. Gravity

3. Asceticism.

1. Earnestness is the "will to know what is really at stake. It is brushing aside empty rhetoric and facing heroically the duties forced upon man by his new situation."

Earnestness deplores covering up the truth on the pretext that people aren't ready for it; it is impossible to define, or that “my” experience and “my exalted position” make me the expert on knowing what is essential. Rather, it humbly and docilely pursues the essence of a problem no matter the consequences or exalted position.

It especially deplores those who go into denial, or who manufacture dodges when facts become distasteful.

2."The virtue of gravity is spiritual, a personal courage devoid of the pathetic, a courage opposed to the looming chaos." It reflects the old saying, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." It is not a physical toughness, but rather a spiritual-psychological toughness directed toward "staying in there and sorting it out" when everything seems chaotic.

3. Asceticism is learning "again to become a true self-master by conquering and humbling self." Guardini tells us "Only the freedom won through self-mastery can address itself with earnestness and gravity to those decisions which will affect all reality. "

It goes without saying that the credibility and effectiveness of our post modern leadership depends heavily on the degree to which it laboriously tries to understand reality, sort out its variables and analyze its essence.

If we are less than earnest, more than loss of morale or losing priests is at stake; the sacramental life of the Church is imperiled.

At the moment, we are immersed in an atmosphere that points to an endangered priesthood. A day doesn't pass in which the media bombards us with scandals. Here is where the virtue of gravity implores us: Don’t run and hide! Don’t manufacture clever dodges! Rather take wise counsel; study, patiently regroup, and be open change!

All of this in turn requires humility and admitting that business as usual is no longer acceptable. The rapidly changing laws, and a public sick of dishonesty are challenging leaders not to rely on lofty titles and privilege, but to operate on character. It is a public hungry for thoughtful answers founded on serious reflection, studious study and in depth research.

Asceticism means practice and exercise in directing one's life properly. It assumes hard work, self-discipline, and burning the midnight oil to gain success.

When we trace earnestness, gravity and asceticism to their origins, we learn that they are very akin to St. Thomas Aquinas' virtues of wisdom, prudence and the fortitude.

Thomas tells us,

.... It belongs to wisdom to consider the highest cause. ...Accordingly, he that knows the highest cause in any particular genus , and by its means is able to judge and set in order all the things that belong to that genus, is said to be wise in that genus. "

.... Prudence directs man in the research of counsel, according to principles that his reason can grasp; hence prudence makes man take good counsel either for himself or for another. "

Fortitude is loving the goodness of the priesthood so deeply that we are willing to endure anything to preserve its beauty.

When we realize the depths to which these virtues take leadership, we have a reply to the question, "What exactly are we trying to accomplish through research." Research is the handmaid to leadership enabling it to be clear sighted, unflinching and courageous in the face of adversity. It enables us to bite the bullet and get at the truth of the matter.

Interestingly, the principles of good research are also closely allied to baptism, for in baptism we are infused with gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom, prudence and the fortitude.

As much as no one likes delving into problems and the long hours of study they require to be handled properly, the gifts of the Holy Spirit we receive in baptism make it a Christian imperative to perform this duty, and in the words of Heideggar "enframe" them, i.e., let what is present in the problem come forth into unconcealment in order to get at its essence.

To fully understand the consequences of failing to perform this duty, we need only ask: if someone were bent on destroying the morale of the priesthood, what one method would succeed?

One sure bet would be to go silent, to stifle honest inquiry and try to put our problems under the table; in other words, to sidetrack open and honest dialogue. In the minds of many priests today, this is exactly what is crucifying the priesthood. We have lost our ability to be open, to dream, to experiment, to be creative and flex our entrepreneur spirit.

More than any pope, Pope Paul VI lauded the power of dialogue when he wrote the encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam." He sees it as the ultimate instrument for bringing about renewal --- the very renewal the priesthood desperately needs.

He points to the Trinity as the model of dialogue par excellence. In scripture we hear of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in conversation with each other.

Pope Paul VI then points us to four essential principles of dialogue:

1. Clarity

2. Kindness

3. Humility

4. Pedagogic prudence.

1. Our language, and for that matter research, must be continuously reinterpreted and clarified so that the most uninformed knows what is implied. In other words, we must not speak with “forked tongues” or in foreign [ecclesial] tongues when facing serious problems.

2. Kindness urges us to be well disposed toward others. In other words, everyone involved in the problem must be respected and listened to. Downtown needs to go uptown and vice versa in order to see each other face to face and avoid second-guessing, which leads to misinterpretation and misgivings.

3. Humility counsels us to be docile and to listen to the ideas of another; to make the pursuit of the truth rather than our own agenda the first priority. In other words, self-appointed know-it-all’s are taboo and collaboration must reign in our endeavor to gain ground on renewal.

4. Pedagogic prudence implores us to enter into the mind of the other to learn where he or she is at in order to connect with each other. It is much like the anthropological approach to preaching in which we priests are suppose to put our self into the mind of the parishioner in the pew before we enter the pulpit. In regard to the present situation, this translates into entering into the pain of those defiled, their parents, parishioners, abusers and our brother priests — to walk the talk of being compassionate.

In "Reflections on the Morale of Priests," it is pointed out that many priests are dropping out quietly because they sense that much of their effort is now being blunted or even betrayed.

Here we need to ask, can anything be worse than this?

Unfortunately the answer is, yes! Priests can become so indifferent or numb in their ministry that they don't physically drop out but carry it on with little to no emotion. They have literally left the priesthood both mentally and emotionally. It no longer enkindles excitement or enthusiasm in them.

We have many walking wounded whose hearts have been cooled and whose power to envision is dead. They carry out their work in a spirit of indifference and more recently in anger ---- anger with the Church and also at their fellow priests.

Guardini calls the growing tendency to be indifference "matter-of-factness", and considers it more devastating than being angry. At least with justifiable anger, we have emotion and movement that can lead to needed change.

Returning to our original question: What are the merits of conducting research on the priesthood these days, we learn that it is an excellent good way to rehabilitate the heart that is being taken out of it.

What is the very heart of the priesthood?

The theologian Karl Rahner points us to its charismatic element. "This”, he tells us, “is in contradistinction to discerning what is purely institutional, administrated by men, subject to calculation, expressible in laws and rules."

Too often as priests we have a tendency to focus on the political, the institutional, the administrative, the laws and rules of the Church. Rahner suggests we go beyond this mode of thinking and ask: where is the Spirit in our work? Furthermore he suggests we ask what might be blocking that Spirit?

Implicit in Rahner's vision is that we reflect on the spiritual glory we envision being in the priesthood and the Church. What exactly was that vision when we first had it, what has happened to it, and how can we restore it?

In the psychology of change, looking for the best in our priesthood is called utopian thinking. It is one of the most powerful ways of reviving our spirits and love for the Spirit.

Ironically, when the priesthood is in difficulty and a spiritual exercise like this is suggested, some feel that it is a cope out.

Reflecting on the Holy Spirit, or thinking utopian is not meant to avoid dealing with real problems. Rather, they are intended to encourage us to get back to our priestly roots and renew our appreciation for them at a time when idealism has been dashed to the ground.

As we reflect on all that has been written here we need to ask: why haven’t we focused on the immediate problems facing the priesthood. Why haven’t we discussed the nuts and bolts of the present crisis of pedophilia? Why focus on the thoughts of Romano Guardini, Martin Heidegger, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, and Pope Paul VI? Because they take us beyond the nuts and bolts of the priesthood to its spirit, and it is the spirit of good leadership, of healthy dialogue, of prudent decision making and of a love for our priesthood that will get us through these trying times.

"'Reflections on the Morale of Priests," Origins, Vol. 18, No.31, Ian. 12, 1989.

McKinney, William, Roof, Wade, C., American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick and London, 1987.

Bellah, Robert, et al., Habits of the Heart, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1985.

Guardini, Romano, The End of the Modern World, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1956.

Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, Pt. II -II, Q-45, Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947.

Aquinas, op. cit., Q. 52 Pt. II -II.

Heidegger, Martin, Basic Writings, Harper & Row, New York, 1977.

Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, Vatican Press, 1964.

Guardini, Romano, Power and Responsibility, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1961.

Rahner, Karl, The Dynamic Element in the Church, Herder and Herder, New York, 1964.