Pope Francis says that the training of priests must be a “work of art, not a police action…We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps.”
Pray Tell has heard increasing reports in the last few years about difficulties with some recently ordained priests. There are divisions in some parishes because some younger guys are more traditional or conservative or legalistic than much of their flock. This seems to be an important issue that needs addressing. To get the conversation going, Pray Tell went to some folks we knew in diocesan offices and asked them to reflect on the issue as constructively as possible.
The three contributors writing below have asked to remain anonymous. Given the highly sensitive nature of this issue, and the possibility of hurt feelings within dioceses if the writer were known, Pray Tell has agreed to their request for anonymity. We hope this puts the focus on the message rather than the writer.
We asked the contributors, “What is a positive, constructive way to deal with young priests who have good zeal, who want to do the right thing, but what they do sometimes doesn’t build up the church and instead causes ill will? What good attitudes are needed? Is there a need for better education and formation? Is it an issue of maturity, and can we be hopeful that the crucible of life will polish rough edges in young people’s temperaments?”
We hope that younger priests will come to Pray Tell, feel respected, and hear the loving challenges presented them. And we welcome them, and you, to join the conversation!
The last several years, I have increasingly found it difficult to engage in a positive and constructive way with many of our newly ordained priests. My role as the diocesan director of the Office of Worship allows me to work with these men directly during their seminary formation for ordination planning, and often more indirectly after they are ordained. While I can handle the criticisms (the type of censer we use or the style of vesture, etc.), lay ministers in parishes are having more difficulty coping.
I often receive calls in my office from lay ministers and parishioners regarding actions by these men. The issues include rigidity, unwillingness to receive people where they are, offending messages during homilies, confusing interpretations of rubrics, very lengthy processes of purifying vessels at the altar, and making changes to parish practices, though they are valid and licit, because of his personal preference. My encouraging lay ministers and the faithful to speak with the priest about these issues doesn’t seem to work. They are afraid or unwilling because of a perceived lack of openness on the part of the priest, or a very real fear of being fired for speaking up.
To be fair, I am sure that problems can be seen in all generations of priests. I would imagine that a generation or two ago, the older priests were lamenting the younger priests’ ideals and actions. Among those being ordained now, there are certainly those who have good pastoral qualities, leadership skills, and sensitivity to community. However, there are also many who seem to have “all the answers.” Because of this, these men are perceived as caring more about their interpretation of the rubrics than the Mass, unwilling to engage in conversation, overly critical of the people they serve, and unwilling to receive feedback.
With all this being said, newly ordained priests are a gift to the Church. We can learn much from their passion for Christian discipleship, reverence for the Eucharist, energy and seemingly fearless desire to evangelize. When one has been in ministry a long time, new energy helps to remind us why we once started serving in church ministry. My question is this: what is the community’s role in helping to develop better leadership skills with those newly entering ordained ministry? I hope for a fruitful dialogue.
When I was about to begin ministry in parish liturgy a long time ago, I prepared to encounter the people of my parish with great confidence. I had a fine educational pedigree, was respected by my peers, and had an excellent skill set. Give me five years, I thought, and this would be the best parish in the diocese!
I quickly fell from the pedestal I had created for myself. People didn’t particularly care where I was educated. They didn’t know my peers and didn’t care what they thought of me. My skill set didn’t seem to have nearly enough tools.
That was lesson number one of a long series of lessons I have had over the years. I’ve learned from accomplishments and failures, from wise ministers and crabby sacristans, from compliments and insults, from bishops and pastors and from the average Catholic in the pew. Ultimately, of course, God was the wise master teacher who presented these lessons.
With that in mind, I would like to offer a little advice to newly ordained men who are beginning their own lifetime of learning.
1. Open yourself up to a wide range of pastoral experiences. You only have a short time as a parochial vicar, so take in as much as you can. Many pastors complain to me that some associates think that celebrating Mass and hearing confessions are their only real commitments as a priest. Don’t fall into that trap! Attend parish events and school concerts, endure parish council meetings, visit the sick, say Mass in the jail, learn what other staff members do, ask lots and lots of questions.
2. Don’t make sweeping judgments about people. People are complex. Not every Catholic who likes to sing the Agnus Dei in Latin wants the parish to celebrate Extraordinary Form Masses. People who prefer contemporary music may also prefer fiddleback chasubles with maniples. Some feel called to contemplation while others to service and action. Don’t assume that you know everything about a person based on very few facts. Once we’ve called someone a “flaming liberal” or “right wing radical” we have compartmentalized them and they can be dismissed. There is a great diversity of charisms, talents, and experiences in our parishes. Harmonize them for the glory of God.
3. Don’t see everyone who disagrees with you as a “dissident.” This word is applied freely by many clergy and laity to anyone who disagrees with them. Do they prefer a Eucharistic Chapel to a front-and-center tabernacle? They are dissident. Do they genuflect before Communion? Dissident! Do they complain when there is incense and Mass parts are in Latin? Dissident! I have yet to meet the perfect Catholic (although I have met many people who think that they are). Remember, “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Mt. 7:1). Honest self-reflection is related to this. Sometimes the priest has to stand firm even when everyone disagrees with him. Sometimes, when everyone disagrees with him, he may be wrong. A wise person can tell the difference.
4. Seek out the lost sheep. I have heard many priests over the years dismiss Catholics who are marginal in their practice of the faith. I frequently have heard priests say that if this or that person doesn’t like what he is saying, they can leave the Church! Obviously the faith can’t be watered down, but everyone is made by God in his image and is deeply loved by God. Look to the Good Shepherd for guidance. He didn’t say, “Read this Catechism and fully believe it all, then come and see”! These marginal Catholics are the prodigal sons, the lost coins, the woman at the well. The liturgy tells us that Christ thirsts for their faith. As Pope Francis so beautifully says, don’t just tell them about the faith. Go out and meet them, walk with them, teach them, love them. Pope Paul VI eloquently summed up this idea forty years ago, saying “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).
5. Follow the law of love. Love is sometimes viewed as weak and “soft Catholicism.” Yet, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rm. 13:10). Loving another means that we are patient and kind towards every person regardless of who they are or what they believe. Love doesn’t jealously seek a higher position or more notoriety. The person who loves is neither arrogant nor a gossip. Love isn’t cynical, smirking at one’s superiority over those “pants-suit-wearing nuns” or those “Krazy Konservatives.” Love doesn’t call other people derogatory names. Love isn’t subordinate to the truth but complementary to it. Love ultimately unites rather than divides. Love is of such great importance that the Lord reminds us that we only will be recognized as his follower by our love for one another (Jn 13:35). God is love. If love is not present, we are not allowing God to be present. Where there is love, God is there.
Diocesan Official #3:
I would like to begin with an observation: this is an issue at both ends of the theological-political spectrum. While it may be more common now for new priests to be more “rigid” in their application of liturgical norms, we also have a history of those who have been much too “lax” in their approach to applying the same. Both would claim the “desire to do the right thing” as their motivation, and both—regardless of intention—can harm, and have harmed, the Church.
Is it an issue of maturity? On the one hand, there may be an inability to think outside of black-and-white categories, or a desire for security that is, in the end, illusory. If so, assuming that time alone will be corrective may be a dangerous assumption. Those attitudes may, instead, be perpetuated in the seminary environment. Such candidates need to be challenged early in their formation. In addition, a serious look needs to be given at how seminarians are selected and to the whole issue of minor seminaries, especially since affective and intellectual maturity seems to be increasingly delayed as adolescence becomes prolonged. On the other, immaturity may be manifested by an antinomian or rebellious attitude towards authority. I would think it less likely that one so predisposed would apply for the seminary, but such an attitude will have as much a negative effect on liturgical praxis as a more rigid attitude would.
Is it an issue of intellectual formation? On the one hand, what some individuals are taught in seminary may be “de-formative” – perpetuating a strident clericalism. Too often we place the ministry of priests and the ministry of others (deacons, laity) in a zero-sum relationship: one can be promoted only at the expense of the others. Such an attitude is nonsense, yet still gets play, and from both sides of the spectrum. If we are promoting clericalism in seminary (and deacon formation programs) or an anti-clerical attitude (in deacon and lay ministry formation programs), then we need to take a hard look at ourselves.
On the other, “truth” has become what one decides it is. Some seminarians are simply not open to formation, to being challenged. They have decided on the “truth,” based on certain websites or Internet personalities, whether on the “right” or on the “left.” If they encounter something different in the classroom or in their reading, it does not matter: the seminary faculty is always wrong. Sometimes, the candidates are dishonest and tell the formation staff what they think it is that the staff wants to hear; but, in other cases, bishops—desperate for warm bodies to staff parishes and to keep vocation numbers up—simply ordain such men and thereby allow such attitudes to persist.
Is it an issue of pastoral formation? Liturgy in seminary takes place in an environment quite different from that of a parish. On the one hand, I hope we could agree that it is good for seminarians to learn and to experience the Church’s liturgy as they are being formed. On the other, we need to ask if we are always celebrating the liturgy well in our seminaries, and if we are exposing our seminarians to the joys and challenges of liturgical ministry in parish settings in a way that helps develop their pastoral skills.
For example, how well are seminarians prepared to exercise the legitimate flexibility and adaptability found in the liturgical books in a pastoral fashion – that is, for the good of the community and not to push one’s personal agenda or piety? Is such an appropriate exercise of pastoral judgment distinguished from changes made to the liturgy that are idiosyncratic and contrary to liturgical norms? Are seminarians taught that while our starting point is to respect the rubrics and the texts found in the liturgical books (“do the red, say the black”), something more is needed to be an effective presider (SC #11)?
Is it an issue of spiritual formation? Whether on the right or on the left, the cleric who imposes “his” liturgy on the assembly has lost sight of the fact that the liturgy does not belong to him or to any single group, but to the Church. At the same time, that liturgy is also particular to, incarnate in, a specific place and time. I am certainly not suggesting that the community should be given carte blanche; there are plenty of parishes whose liturgical practices—often due to the “de-formations” imposed by earlier pastors—are in need of correction. There are plenty of communities in need of solid liturgical formation. But what is driving the priest who wants to make changes? Is it a lack of self-awareness or humility, a savior-complex or need to control, and/or a negative attitude towards the laity that fuels the desire to impose one’s way of doing things on a community? Or is he motivated by not just a love of God and of the liturgy (which can be abstract), but of this people? And does he have the skills and dispositions to pursue needed changes in a way that is pastorally sensitive; that distinguishes between the urgent, the important, and the tangential; that refuses to let the perfect become the enemy of the good?
Is it an issue of mentoring? While seminarians are exposed to a great deal of philosophy and theology, what is needed is the experience of putting such learning into practice. Ideally, the assigning of new priests to be tutored by a more experienced priest ought to help bridge that gap between theory and praxis. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Effective mentoring requires that mentors be properly formed in the liturgy (both intellectually and spiritually), have the skills to mentor constructively, and take the time to do so. Sadly, at least in my observations, such is rarely the case—and either the errors and idiosyncrasies of the elder priest get perpetuated or the errors and idiosyncrasies of the new priest go unchallenged and uncorrected. In the end, it is the parishioners who are the ones who suffer and are deprived of the Church’s liturgy.
The selection and formation of seminarians, a willingness to discern whether or not a given candidate has the proper dispositions to be a good priest instead of just playing a numbers game, preparation of effective mentors for those newly ordained; all of these are important issues that need to be addressed. But, perhaps the deepest problem is that neither our candidates nor our formators nor those in our parishes have fully internalized the truth that the liturgy is what we do together as the Body of Christ. It is not what a priest does alone with the rest of us watching or helping or doing our own thing. Without the whole Body, there is no liturgy. Until all of us live and breathe this truth, a distorted approach to the liturgy (whether clericalist or populist; whether driven by the conservative/traditional right or the progressive/liberal left) will persist.
Coming soon: a response from a young, traditionally-inclined priest.