Priests discuss the joys, frustrations of their lives
ST. MEINRAD, Ind. — In years past, the annual Presbyteral Assembly has usually focused on topics that would help priests of the Archdiocese of Louisville in their ministries.
This year, though, the priests spent much of the gathering learning about each other.
The idea, said Father J. Ronald Knott, a former director of the Vocation Office and current director of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at St. Meinrad School of Theology, is to promote a sense of unity and teamwork.
“We all realize that we can’t work much harder than we’re working now,” he said June 6 following one of the assembly’s sessions. “So we have to learn how to work in the smartest way possible, and the smartest way to work is as a team.”
What the June 5-8 meeting attempted to promote, he said, “is a sense of the common purpose of the presbyterate.”
“One of the problems that a priest sometimes faces is a sense of loneliness,” he explained. “We’ve all found that working alone is too hard. But our efforts here are not about helping us feel good. It’s about service to our people, and we need to pull together to do that effectively.”
The people of the archdiocese also need to know, Father Knott said, that their priests are “trying to pull ourselves together not just for our good but for their good, too.”
“They are the people we are here to serve, and it’s in their interest that we must learn to work together for the common good, the common purpose of the presbyterate,” he said.
Toward that end, part of the June 6 sessions were devoted to allowing the 120 or so priests in attendance hear from one another. Prior to the gathering, priests in the archdiocese were asked to respond to three questions:
- If I had the choice, I would/would not do it all over again, because…
- My greatest joys/greatest frustrations are…
- If you could change three practical things in church life now that would effectively enhance your ministry, what would they be?
During a morning session, the assembly heard from two priests — one representing the more experienced part of the presbyterate, those priests ordained for more than 15 years, and a priest representing those ordained for 15 years or less.
Both acknowledged there can sometimes be tensions between younger priests and their more experienced counterparts, and the two-part session dealt with that.
“There is a tension between some recently ordained and the rest of the presbyterate,” said Father Nick Rice, who spoke as a representative of the more experienced priests of the archdiocese. “We would like that tension to be healed.”
The recently ordained “can’t be painted with a broad brush, and I’ll match (the Louisville presbyterate group) with any around the country,” he said to applause from those gathered before him. “We need to stand in each other’s shoes; that’s one of the great challenges of today. And none of us can be so haughty as to deliberately cause division within the presbyterate.”
Father Rice, who is pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, said that locally and nationally priests serving the church and its people fall generally into two groups — those who came of age with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and “those who inherited a church that many felt went to far” in its reforms.
“Many people look to our younger clergy to rescue the church,” he said. “There’s a need for regular communication, talking and sharing. We have to come to know each other as persons. We are the Roman Catholic Church, and there is a natural tension in those two words, Roman and Catholic.”
Some want the church to return to its more “Roman” roots, he said. Others want it to be more “catholic,” more open to dialogue and collaboration.
“The questionnaire revealed some wonderful news,” Father Rice noted. “In our presbyterate we have wonderfully dedicated priests, men of faith who care deeply about their ministry and about what the church will look like in 2050. In response to the question about ‘doing it all over again,’ 99.8 percent said they would.”
They also said, as did priests in several national surveys, that they “find their work personally enriching, incredibly challenging and sometimes confusing and confounding,” Father Rice noted.
“Their work always gives proof that God took us seriously when we lay on the floor of the Cathedral of the Assumption and gave our all,” he said in reference to the ordination service. “We often like to think that when we gave ourselves on the day of our ordination, we gave ourselves at our best. But we also gave ourselves at our worst. We gave our good parts and our bad.”
There is a natural tendency to be resistant to change, Father Rice said, to “hold onto what we know, though we know the old wineskin won’t hold all the new wine being given to us.”
And there is a natural tension “between those who rush to embrace the new and those reluctant to part with the past,” he added. “So what are the deep groans, the deep concerns of our presbyterate? The (priest) shortage, of course, and the lack of vocations. After Vatican II, we thought we’d have a new generation in the priesthood, and instead, we’re facing a shortage of priests and some newly ordained men who seem to be suspicious of Vatican II.”
Creating dialogue between the young and old, the experienced and the less experienced, “is one of the great challenges of today,” he said.
That view was echoed by Father Jeffrey Nicolas, pastor of St. Lawrence Church, who presented the view of the younger presbyterate — the “minority report” as he called it.
“One hundred percent of those responding said ‘yes, I would do it all over again,’” Father Nicolas said. But the kicker to that number, he noted, is that only eight of the archdiocese’s 31 priests with less than 15 years of experience responded to the questionnaire. (Fifty-six priests with more than 15 years of experience responded.)
“I’m left wondering what the other 75 percent (of younger priests) are thinking,” he said. “Would I do it again? I know the answer I’m supposed to give; I’ve seen all the national surveys, and I know we priests are supposed to be a happy lot.
“But if I knew 20 years ago when I entered St. Meinrad what I know now, would I do it again? If I knew about sexual abuse, if I knew that some cradle Catholics would be barred from Communion while converts were welcomed because of divorce, would I do it? Honestly, I don’t know, but maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m here now. Maybe I’m like Peter, who when Jesus was abandoned by the crowds and asked the 12 if they would leave him, too, said, ‘Where would I go?’ ”
Father Nicolas said he recognizes that he is a priest “when it is a scandal to be one.”
“We are infamous more than famous,” he noted. “We face false accusations from without and witch hunts from within. Forget help, forget replacements, take two, three or more parishes.”
As a new priest, he recalled, he was asked to give a bit of a pep talk during one of the “Dinner with the Archbishop” evenings held to promote vocations.
“I said Peter was chosen because he knew his sins, his shortcomings,” Father Nicolas said. “Peter came to know compassion, and compassion is the most important trait you can have as a leader. Compassion is what sent Jesus to us.”
So, would he do it again? “Perhaps not,” he said. “But perhaps that’s not the best question. The best question is, ‘Would I do it today?’ And the answer is yes. Tomorrow? Yes, with God’s help.”
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What laypeople want, need from their priests
ST. MEINRAD, Ind. — Ask Catholic laypeople what they want and need from their priests, and you are likely to get varied responses.
They want their priests to be spiritual leaders; to be available to people; to have a love of Christ and a caring for all people. And they want them to be personable and welcoming.
A variety of responses also are likely if you ask people about specific behaviors, skills and ministries they expect of priests.
They expect their priests to love their jobs; to lead ministries founded on prayer; to give good homilies; to be involved in religious formation of children and adults; to teach Catholic beliefs; to be a part of the parish in which they serve; to be understanding; and to have good leadership and communication skills.
These were some of the responses laypeople in the Archdiocese of Louisville gave in an informal survey conducted for the annual archdiocesan Presbyteral Assembly attended by about 120 priests June 5-8 at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. The survey was conducted by Cathy Schneider, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church, and Art Turner, pastoral associate at St. Stephen Martyr Church.
Schneider and Turner presented the survey’s findings to priests during the assembly on June 7. Turner said more than 100 people responded by e-mail, letters and phone calls to three questions asked on the survey.
“Catholics across the spectrum” in urban and rural communities in the archdiocese responded, Turner said. They received responses from teachers, accountants, business leaders, parish staff members, young mothers, parents and parish volunteers.
The three questions asked were:
- “What do you want and need from your priests?”
- “Do you have specific behaviors, skills and ministry expectations of the priests of the archdiocese that you would like to share?”
- “Do you have a story to share about a priest who moved you and inspired your faith?”
Regarding what people want and need from priests, Schneider said the No. 1 answer given was being “a spiritual leader.”
“People like to see your spiritual side,” such as seeing the priest at prayer, she reported to priests at the assembly. “Many people thought being rounded in prayer and the love of God’s message of the good news was the most important thing.”
Also important is the priest being available to people, including visiting the sick, homebound and nursing home residents, Schneider said. “Everyone appreciated a priest who is easy to approach and is there for them in good times and bad. Being with them on their spiritual walk was very important.”
With availability being important, Schneider noted, people realized priests can only be available to minister if they turn over administrative responsibilities in a parish to others, such as lay people.
One person wrote: “The archdiocese needs to employ laypeople … to run the administrative part of the job and let our priests be our priests, our spiritual mentors, our teachers, our guides to the kingdom of heaven. They (priests) need to be CEOs, that is, Christ’s Employees Only.”
Another want and need mentioned was having a “love of Christ first and foremost” and “a genuine caring for all people, both inside and outside the church,” Turner said. “They (people) wanted more focus on the poor and wanted you (priests) to encourage us to do so as well.”
Also important to people is for a priest to be personable, Turner said. “People really appreciate when you know their name and make them feel welcome and included.”
The survey also showed the need for priests “to have respect” for the people they work with and the staff, Turner said. “As lay volunteers, they want to be treated like a person on your team, being reminded of their gifts and talents and calling them to better service alongside of you.”
Regarding the question about behaviors, skills and ministry expected of priests, Schneider reported: People “would like a priest to love his job. Many people put that as their top behavior.”
Many also wanted priests to have “a strong prayer life,” she said. People want “ministries founded on prayer” as well as priests encouraging them to pray more.
Schneider said “strong homilies that are relevant to everyday life was a popular response” in the survey. She quoted comments by two people:
- “Please don’t water down the Catholic teachings just to please people or avoid hurt feelings. Preach the truth.”
- “A good priest teaches the Catholic faith and traditions of the church.”
People also want their priests to be involved in religious education “in some form” for children and adults, Schneider reported.
One person wrote: “What the world and media tell us are important and good are not the high road in life. We need priests to challenge the world view and help us to follow a life of value that is contrary to the values of what society teaches and wants us to do.”
Schneider reported that survey respondents wanted to “hear pro-life messages from the pulpit,” and Turner said another request was for priests to use the pulpit “to teach us our Catholic beliefs.”
Turner also reported other responses:
- People want the priest to be part of the parish. “They don’t like to feel this is just your job (but) that you are truly connected to them.”
- Several people mentioned the need for priests to be understanding. One person said: “Be understanding because a non-understanding priest can create bitterness toward the church.”
- Specific skills “mentioned over and over again were strong leadership skills and excellent communication skills.”
Schneider reported that in spite of the recent clergy sexual abuse issue, “it came across loud and clear that people … really want you (priests) involved with our children.”
One person said: “Involvement in the youth group is essential; they are our future, strong active Catholics for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. If the only time they see the priest is at Mass, they have no connection to person behind the vocation.”
Another remarked: “We need to look to our priests to help create an environment where the children are raised to want to be part of the church.”
Several people also noted the implications of fewer numbers of priests, Schneider reported. She quoted comments by two people:
- One person said: “We all need to do God’s work together. God is not expecting any more of you (priests) than you can do. He has sent gifted people to help you. … Let us work with you to bring about God’s plan in our little section of the world.”
- Another respondent said the service of priests today is “best directed” to three areas: sacraments, parish school and fostering vocations.
Priests decide to take action in four areas
By JOSEPH DUERR, Record Editor
ST. MEINRAD, Ind. — Priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville attending the annual Presbyteral Assembly decided to take action steps in the areas of prayer, communication, formation and vocations at their meeting last week at St. Meinrad Archabbey.
The four “commitments” were made following group discussions at the June 5 to 8 assembly attended by about 120 priests.
The four commitments the priests made were:
“Promote and expand opportunities for prayer with one another and for one another.”
Examples mentioned were establishing “a process for priests to personally pray for one another; attend and concelebrate priests’ funerals; and support Pilgrim Prayer Days.”
Pilgrim Prayer Days are gatherings hosted by different priests, said Father J. Ronald Knott, director of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at St. Meinrad and one of the three archdiocesan priests who guided the assembly.
“Establish better and more regular communication with one another through an interactive Web site with restricted access for the benefit of the presbyterate.”
Examples given were an electronic pictorial directory with biographies of priests; a forum for sharing of ideas, information and questions; and a “networking bulletin board.”
“Strengthen both the ongoing formation of the presbyterate and the ongoing formation of individuals priests.”
Examples mentioned were having an annual assembly to support the formation of the presbyterate and regular offerings throughout the year for enrichment of individual priests.
“Involve the entire presbyterate in the promotion of priestly vocations.”
Examples listed were attending a one-day “presbyteral summit on creating a culture of vocational awareness and promotion” and creating a strategic plan for the promotion of vocations in the archdiocese.
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Priests share parishioners hopes, concerns
By GLENN RUTHERFORD, Record Assistant Editor
ST. MEINRAD, Ind. — Priests of the Archdiocese of Louisville share many of the same joys and frustrations — and hopes for the future — felt by their parishioners.
They worry about their lack of numbers and about the increasing administrative responsibilities they have. They fret about the fallout from the sexual abuse scandal; they get upset about the church’s position on a variety of social issues — including the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.
In short, they’re human — like any diverse group of 275 or so in any segment of American society.
Yet they are different, too, because of their lifelong call to the priesthood, service to the faith and to God. In the words of their Archbishop, Thomas C. Kelly, they are “dedicated, holy men” who are committed to do the work of the church.
The priests were asked to respond to four questions:
- What are our greatest joys?
- What are your greatest frustrations”
- If you had it to over again, would you become a priest?
- If you could change three practical things in church life now that would effectively enhance your ministry, what would they be?