January 9, 2009


Priesthood: Not for wimps

The priesthood is not for wimps. Nor is the life of deacons and non-ordained men and women religious.

As you read the stories of the men and women in this week’s Religious Vocations Supplement, you have to conclude that their lives are full of challenges. It takes strong and dedicated men and women to face them. Wimps need not apply.

To be honest, that wasn’t always true, perhaps 75 to 100 years ago.

At that time, Catholics were almost always among the poorest in the U.S. population. They had hard menial jobs.

In addition, they usually had large families, making it difficult for the fathers to support their families. Of course, the mothers were rarely employed.

In a situation like that, the priesthood or religious life could be appealing for other than religious motives. For a large number of priests and religious, the life was often quite pleasant and comfortable. It meant upward mobility in our society. Wimps, even if they were a minority, could get along quite well. Vocations were plentiful.

Obviously, those days are long gone. Those entering the priesthood or religious life today know full well that they are going to have to put in long hours and meet heavy challenges. It would be hard to prove it, but the result might be that we have a higher percentage of dedicated men and women serving the Church and its members today than ever before.

What are the greatest challenges modern priests have? Steven J. Rolfes recently surveyed a number of priests and asked them that question. In the Nov. 16, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor, he wrote about five of those challenges.

Perhaps not surprising, the top challenge is finding enough time to do all that needs to be done. Modern parishes are busy places and priests in those parishes spend a lot of time in administration, leading a large staff of full-time and part-time employees and volunteers. A 2006 study of clergy of various Christian denominations found that priests work the longest hours per week—an average of 56.

It is not just administration that takes so much time. Priests must also find time to do the work for which they were ordained in the first place—celebrating Mass, administering the sacraments, preparing and delivering good homilies, visiting the sick, preparing couples for marriage, and maintaining a presence among children and teens. While doing all this, they must also find time for their own life of prayer: the Liturgy of the Hours and other prayers, meditation and study.

A second challenge that priests identify is lax church attendance. Priests naturally worry about the large percentage of Catholics who no longer consider it a sin to miss Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. How to reach teenagers and young adults is also a concern, as is the low percentage of parishioners who avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation.

The Catholic Church’s conflict with our modern American society is a definite challenge. The Church’s values—the life issues, concern for immigrants, sexual issues—are not those advocated by the pervasive media. How can priests get the Church’s message across, especially to young people, when they are bombarded by opposite views?

Personal health can also be a challenge, especially when priests work that average of 56 hours a week. It is not just finding time for exercise, either. They are supposed to have a day off each week, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, and planning a real vacation requires much planning. Priests frequently have to cook for themselves and eat on the run so their diets suffer.

Finally, there is the matter of finances. Priests are seldom trained for handling the finances of a parish, but they must do it, and keeping a parish fiscally sound is a constant challenge. Sure, they rely on the advice of members of the laity, but the responsibility is still the priest’s.

We desperately need more dedicated men and women willing to accept the challenges of religious life. As the saying goes, it is a hard job, but someone has to do it.

However, it is also true that the rewards are great, both in this world and in eternity.

—John F. Fink

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