Posted November 18, 2015:
Keeping Our Priests

by Christopher Zakrzewski.

Many years ago, at the end of an unusually cold winter, we were shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden departure from the priesthood of the pastor of the neighboring parish.

He was a former pastor of ours, and we remembered him as a somewhat distant but gifted teacher and a deliverer of pithy, meticulously executed homilies.

After a brief farewell address to his flock one Sunday morning, he departed quietly. Not long after that, we heard that he was married in a non-Catholic church not far from our town.

The event raised a bit of a flap in our quiet, seemingly unflappable rural Ontario area. Most parishioners expressed bewilderment and confusion.

Some were scandalized by what they considered to be an instance of the "insensitivity" of the Church hierarchy that will not budge from its discipline of priestly celibacy, thus "dooming" its ordained ministers to a life of loneliness and emotional starvation.

In his departing address Father X himself made reference to the problem of loneliness in a priest’s life.

It is not my place here to comment on his reasons and motives for leaving.

It would be in order, however, to use his remark as a springboard to reflect on the difficult role of the parish priest in our fragmented communities and to think about what we as laity can do to alleviate some of the stresses that wrack their lives.

To put it plainly, many of our parish priests are showing the strain of marginalization within their parishes (or remnants of parishes). What this means in human terms, a friend recently characterized quite well.

She told my wife how on New Year’s Day her husband suggested inviting the fiddle-playing pastor of a neighboring parish to the house to celebrate the holiday with the family. She replied that there was no way that a pastor would be alone and unengaged on New Year’s Day.

Her husband asked the pastor anyhow, and sure enough, he was alone. No one had thought of inviting him—and this was a priest who was known to suffer from severe bouts of loneliness and depression.

Of course, he was only too delighted to come to their house, and come with his fiddle he did. They all had a roaring good time.

The fact is that there are parishes that are notoriously indifferent to their parish priests. And even in parishes with conscientious, caring families, the tempo of modern living often prevents them from extending the hospitality they would like to.

However if we wish to keep our priests, we must somehow find the will and the time to treat them as members of our families—for that is what they really are.

Pope John Paul II said that priests "must unceasingly act towards families as fathers, brothers, pastors, and teachers… .

"Their responsibility extends not only to moral and liturgical matters but to personal and social matters as well. They must support the family in its difficulties and sufferings, caring for its members and helping them to see their lives in the light of the Gospel" (Familiaris Consortio, #73).

This process is a two-way street. In order for our priests to draw strength for their own vocation, families must also care for and support them in their difficulties and sufferings.

Priests are not Robinson Crusoes. The Sacrament of Holy Orders does not automatically confer upon them the charism of hermits in the desert. There is nothing supernatural about them when it comes to their need for the give and take of human interaction.

Parishioners of today have no choice but to rally around their remaining embattled priests. We must pitch in and support them in any way we can.

Faced with an apostasizing First World, the Church finds herself poised on the brink of a full scale "new evangelization." In fact, the signs are that she is already undertaking the Holy Father’s plan of re-evangelizing what is left of old Christendom.

Not since the onset of the first millennium has Christ’s dictum, the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few (Lk 10:2) taken on such an urgency. Our priests are already overworked, and their burden will only continue to increase.

Gone, moreover, are "the good old days" when our parish rectories housed sufficient numbers of priests to minister to a single coherent community. More and more, particularly in the rural areas, we must resign ourselves to the reality of one harried pastor servicing a number of disjointed communities.

In our chaotic urban centers and depersonalized suburbs the problems are often even more grave. All of this places an intolerable burden on our priests.

In two crucial areas, in the celebration of the Mass and the administering of the sacraments, Catholics will always depend on their priests. However, the writing is on the wall.

The laity is going to have to learn to become less dependent on their priests for many of the latter’s non-essential ministries.

We the laity must be ready to take up the slack, and we must show our pastors that we are available and competent to take on such roles.

There are other tried and true ways in which we can support our priests. We ought of course to pray for them as never before.

So here’s an idea. How about forming local prayer groups to "adopt" a priest? The sole aim of such groups would be to pray for the intentions of a specific priest.

Just think of the powerful graces that would flow to him! This is just one idea that has recently been implemented in many parishes in the United States and Canada.

We must also make a bigger effort to open our homes to our priests. Cook up some meals for him for the week and visit him at the rectory. Invite him home for dinner. Tell him he has a standing invitation to drop in at any time—and remember the importunate widow. Don’t take no for an answer.

When all else fails, use your little children as ambassadors. In one instance, after our invitations were repeatedly unsuccessful, our five and three-year-old sons managed to talk our pastor into coming to our house to watch a video.

Place your tots on Father’s lap. Pour him a cup of steaming coffee. Let him tinker on the family piano or guitar. Sing with him; joke with him.

Commend him on a good sermon, and make a special point to rally behind him when he preaches an unpopular but orthodox teaching of the Church.

In the process you might just be helping to turn your parish into what Pope John Paul II liked to call "a village fountain," a parish where both pastor and laity can draw "fresh encouragement and spiritual energy" for their complementary and intertwining ministries.

As time went on, the memory of our former pastor who succumbed to the pressure of loneliness in the final days of a cold winter grew dim. It is too late to give him the warmth of community he needed. But many lonely priests remain.

Let us remember them. This is not sentimentality. It is community in practice. And it will contribute highly to the preservation of our priests.

—Excerpted from Restoration, May-June 2004


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