Raising up Priests
by Most Rev. Timothy Dolan
When I was Auxiliary Bishop of St. Louis last year, I resided at a wonderful parish that was particularly hard hit by the current scandal of sexual abuse by priests. The popular pastor of this vibrant parish had to resign, acknowledging an incident of abuse from years before. The parish was devastated: Many were angry with the priest for his past sin, many were angry with the archdiocese for requiring his resignation.
In the midst of this sadness, scandal, and shock, I returned one evening to the rectory, to be told by the receptionist that a high school boy from the parish was waiting for me in the parlor. In I went, taking a deep breath, expecting him to express anger—or worse, to tell me of another accusation. Instead, to my great relief, after inquiring about the well-being of the former pastor, and admitting how his own faith had been tried in the midst of the scandal, he confided to me that he was very interested in a vocation to the priesthood. He mentioned how the current crisis had inspired him to consider a call, as he believed that, now more than ever, the Church needed faithful, zealous priests.
That young man was a genuine messenger of hope to me and did much to confirm me in my strong conviction that the present trials are an occasion of purification and renewal for the priesthood and the Church. We who are priests are challenged to recover and reaffirm certain qualities essential to our vocation, characteristics which must also be evident in candidates for the priesthood.
First, priests and candidates for Holy Orders must be men of strong faith. A young priest once told me that, during his eight years in the seminary, his superiors had asked him many questions about studies, relationships, and even prayer, but no one ever asked if he believed in God. We can certainly take some things for granted, but maybe this priest had a point! We priests need a faith in God, His Son, His promises, His revelation; a faith that is simple and childlike, yet deep. We believe with all our heart and soul that Jesus keeps His promise to be with His Church forever, that He hears our prayers, that He works in the sacraments, that He has called us to be configured to Him at the core of our being. Without a deep faith, all else is a sham.
Second, the summons for priests to be holy is more urgent than ever. When I became Archbishop of Milwaukee, a well-intentioned reporter asked, “Now that you have reached the high office of archbishop, what further ambition do you have?” To her surprise, I replied, “My ambition remains the same: to be a saint.”
Thus, for a priest, the highest priority is to nurture a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus. This union with Him—through prayer, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance, constant conversion of heart, and the pursuit of virtue—is holiness. As Fr. Dominic Maruca, S.J., long respected for his work with priests, often remarks, “To attempt to remain faithful as a priest without a strong personal relationship with Christ is risking nothing less than emotional and spiritual suicide.”
Third, we priests must recover our joy. Now more than ever there is the temptation to be scared, nervous crabs, worried about our future, fretful about our vocations. Especially at this time we need a smile on our face that flows from a serenity in our heart. I am convinced that a recovery of happiness in our priesthood will attract vocations. We do not work for Enron; we have given our lives to Jesus and His Church, and that noble vocation gives us a joy no one can take away. As Leon Bloy observed, “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence,” and as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, joy flows from the virtue of hope, which is so critical for us today.
A final quality I would urge in priests as we persevere through this period of dying and rising is generosity. You see, the easy thing would be to “circle the wagons” and feel sorry for ourselves, doing an autopsy on the Mystical Body of Christ and a postmortem on the priesthood. Now is the time to stop navel-gazing and revive that pastoral charity that the Holy Father, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, claims is at the core of priesthood. A crusty old priest told me, “Every time I get discouraged or start feeling sorry for myself, I go visit the nursing home down the street. That snaps me out of it.”
A positive result of the crisis of the past year is that the laity are stepping forward to promote genuine reform and renewal in the Church and coming forth to defend the priesthood they love. Recently, at a meeting in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, a pastor acknowledged how his people had called forth the best in him during these months of turmoil and had been such a source of hope. He concluded by telling us, “Whenever I begin to doubt my effectiveness as a priest, I just read the Christmas cards my people sent me!”
Our people have no “identity crisis” about the role, mission, and ministry of priests. They love their priests; they realize that their faith does not depend on the virtue of priests but on the power of Christ; they look to their priests as messengers of meaning, who act in the person of Christ, who bring God’s Word and channel the grace of the sacraments. Our laity call forth what is most noble and essential in our priesthood. While they rightly abhor clericalism, they challenge us to priestliness, the virtue that husbands our unique priestly identity. They call us “Father,” and look to us for the love, care, and wisdom such a title implies. Our people know that priesthood is more than a job, a profession, a career, or even a ministry; they know that priesthood is a life, an identity, a permanent call that changes our very being. What I am saying is that our faithful people remind us of our priestly identity.
Likewise do our people invite us to reclaim the primacy of the spiritual. Yes, our priesthood requires talents in teaching, counseling, managing, building, and speaking, but the major arena of our ministry is the soul. A number of years ago, a very prominent bishop reminded priests that others—psychologists, physicians, politicians, activists, teachers, social workers—could help people in their respective fields much more effectively than we priests could. What our people expect from their priests is Jesus, His Gospel, His message, His healing, His grace. We tend to the soul. Thus, we love prayer, the Eucharist, preaching, the sacraments, the Scriptures, the teaching of the Church, the virtues, and growth in perfection. Our lay people remind us that their souls need care, conversion, and compassion, and they look to their priests for that
Right after I was installed as Archbishop of Milwaukee, our vocations director asked if I would be willing to do a series of radio spots to promote vocations. I was happy to do so. Within a week, CNN called and asked to interview me about these advertisements. “In these days when the priesthood is under attack and ‘on-the-run,’” the reporter asked, “isn’t it rather bold and daring to invite young men to consider being priests?” “I hope so,” I replied, “because this is not the time for us as Catholics to crawl under the bed, but to climb up to the roofs and shout out our confidence in Christ, His Church, and His priests.” Yes: This is the time for priests to reclaim their faith, holiness, joy, and generosity; this is the season for the faithful to help us reclaim our priestly identity and reassert the primacy of the spiritual.
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Most Rev. Timothy M. Dolan is the Archbishop of Milwaukee. He is the author of Priests for the Third Millennium. This article reproduced with permission of Lay Witness magazine. Copyright © 2004 Catholics United for the Faith
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