October 14, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The life of a priest in today’s world is difficult, but fulfilling

In two weeks, I will have the privilege of ordaining new deacons at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, including one of our own seminarians, Scott Nobbe. They will be ordained priests for several U.S. dioceses within the year.

As you know, the Church in the United States needs priests badly. We are especially experiencing the impact of the decline in the number of priests in our own archdiocese. The loss of four fine priests who died during July and August heightens our difficulty. Three of them were heads of active parishes and replacing them is very challenging. The number of our seminarians is increasing, but this will not meet our immediate need.

I discovered interesting statistics concerning the number of seminarians in a new book by Father Stephen J. Rossetti, The Joy of Priesthood (Ave Maria Press, 2005). He writes: “Some have decried the reduced number of priests in this country as a negative sign for the Church. I think it is indeed a negative sign of our affluence and the materialistic narcissism of our day. The vocation ‘crisis’ is only a crisis in the wealthier nations of the world. In fact, the Vatican reported that there is a boom in major seminarians in vocations internationally; in 1978 there were 63,882 major seminarians in the world and in 2001 there were 112,982.

“According to the secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, ‘Never in the history of the Church have we had so many seminarians studying philosophy and theology.’ Vocations go down in areas as affluence rises. … As grace-filled as the [priestly] life is, it takes a heart that cares deeply for the eternal in others, eyes to see the marvels of our gracious God, and a willingness to offer one’s life in service. May God grant more people this priestly heart” (pp. 28-29).

Father Rossetti, a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, is the president of Saint Luke Institute in Silver Springs, Md. The institute is dedicated to helping priests who are experiencing difficulties and need healing. He has conducted extensive research concerning vocations and the priesthood. In a 2003-04 survey, 72.8 percent of the priests surveyed actively encourage people to become priests. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicate that 78 percent of the newly ordained priests acknowledge that a priest had directly asked them to consider priesthood. Father Rossetti notes, “This direct encouragement of vocations by priests is clearly an important vocational tool. It is also a strong sign of priestly satisfaction.”

The happiness of priests was directly addressed in Father Rossetti’s survey. “In my survey, the priests were given a statement, ‘Overall, I am happy as a priest.’ The percentage of priests who either agreed or strongly agreed that they were happy as priests was 90.5. Eighty-two point five percent said they would do it all over again. These are very strong survey results. Some in our society have gotten the impression that priestly life is sad and unfulfilling. Nothing could be further from the truth” (p. 24).

Earlier surveys conducted by the National Federation of Priests Councils delivered almost identical results. As Father Rossetti remarks, in short, priests find great satisfaction in being priests. Priests love doing pastoral ministry. Especially, they enjoy administering the sacraments and presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist.

Priests will also acknowledge that they are stretched both by the needs for ministry and also by peoples’ very high expectations. As I listen to priests, their least favorite part of parish ministry is business administration and attendance at meetings. More and more parishes, especially larger ones, recognize the burden of administration and can afford to employ a lay business manager. Smaller parishes cannot do so. I encourage volunteers, perhaps retired professionals, to come forward to help relieve our pastors.

I would also encourage folks to review their expectations of priests. Father Rossetti notes that some people have the mistaken notion that all a priest does is celebrate Mass. On the other hand, he writes, “I recall one early morning I was praying quietly in the darkened parish church before the seven o’clock Mass. A woman came up, shook me on the shoulder and said, ‘I’m glad I found you and you’re not doing anything.’ She went on to ask me about a rather mundane administrative issue. For many people, if you are praying, you are not gainfully occupied” (p. 37).

It saddens me when some people expect the impossible from one of our priests or they protest about one thing or another in the manner in which he serves the parish. Our priests bring Jesus to the community and that is what counts. I think our priests do this the best they can and according to the personal gifts God has given them. They need our support and prayers. †


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