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Church in Crisis

Priest: beyond employee, to minister of the sacred

Editor’s note: Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, a priest of the New York archdiocese, is director of the National Pastoral Life Center. Following are excerpts of a presentation made Sept. 9 at a Catholic University of America symposium on “Priestly Identity in a Time of Crisis.”


The cohort of priests ordained between 1962 and 1972 -- I call us the Conciliar Cadre -- are a group for whom liturgy and social ministry were part of the one fabric, the liturgy as the work of the people and work as the liturgy of the people.

Ordained in 1963, I recall the years when solidarity and creativity were the character of the priesthood, when the council and the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of the ’60s inspired us to believe that we could reshape church and world so that both would better fulfill their missions. Ordination was for mystery and service -- for serving as an instrument of God’s grace and the community’s care. Laity, bishops, clergy and religious were proud of what we had accomplished as a church in the United States and no less committed to the pope and the universal church. We were a generation deeply rooted in a church whose devotions touched the heart, whose sacraments interwove mystery and humanity, and whose ministry was to equip its members for responsibility in the world.

I was ordained at a time when Cardinal Francis Spellman not only defended the U.S. scripture scholars under attack from Rome and the right, brought Fr. John Courtney Murray to the Second Vatican Council, and gave the newly burgeoning Hispanic population of New York the creative leadership of the truly radical Ivan Illich, but even defended a group of us seminarians whose new journal had come under criticism from curial offices. Creativity and solidarity were not enemies.

Things have changed.

But, as John Paul II said to a group of French bishops: “It is not a question of cherishing nostalgic memories of a past which has sometimes been idealized, nor of blaming anyone.”

Perhaps the current crisis in the church is one more sign of the times -- one last chance? -- urging us to confront squarely and candidly what has been happening in the church. It is time to take responsibility for the present and leadership for the future. In recent years solidarity and creativity have too often become unrewarded, undernourished, and unhooked from each other. Solidarity is too often distorted into bureaucratic or integralist claims of some that they represent “orthodoxy.” Creativity became too often: “do your own thing,” and endemically in tension with institution.

I will consider the ordained priest as pastor, presbyter, priest.

Priest as pastor

Pastors find their greatest satisfaction in their sacramental ministry and their greatest challenges in organizational demands -- administration, personnel management, finances. They suffer from the killer b’s: buildings, budgets, boilers, bulletins and bingo -- and one bishop admitted he could be another “b.” Typically, they have no training for their role as pastors, as distinct from their role as priests. Increasingly they have little time to learn from older pastors. They live “over the store” in rectories that had once been clerical preserves and are now organizational offices.

It is pastors who have been primarily responsible for welcoming laypeople and religious into pastoral ministry (and, I dare say, the Conciliar Cadre are primarily responsible for this flowering of parish lay ministry). These lay parish ministers now number more than 30,000, more than the numbers of parish priests. The motivation of the pastors is pastoral, not ideological -- they carry on the great U.S. parish tradition of pastoral pragmatism, employing every rite, movement or minister to do the work of the parish and serve the people of the community. The creativity of pastors regarding both the ministers and the ministries of parishes, mostly on their own initiative, is remarkable. We now need to be concerned about the fact that half the younger priests see no need for more lay ministers, for expanding the ministry roles of women or for empowering of laypeople.

The diversity of parishioners, the diversity of parish ministers and the increasingly complex role of pastoring even one parish, never mind two or three, call for careful selection of pastors and much more support and training for all who will pastor parishes. It requires diocesan offices to be much more helpful in providing training, services, and resources to pastors and parish leaders. The National Pastoral Life Center training weeks for pastors are most gratifying for us because the pastors find them so helpful to their ministry.


Presbyter has become a popular term among liberals for ordained priests, wanting to underscore the uniqueness of the priesthood of Jesus and the share in that priesthood of all the baptized. I use the term as expression of the fact that the ordained priest is part of a body of ministers sharing the responsibility of the bishop. It is the relationship of priests with one another and with the bishop that is at stake here. Both relationships are being renegotiated.

The greatest danger was voiced by Cardinal Avery Dulles just before the vote in Dallas on the “Charter for Protecting Children.” He warned that the charter would create “an adversarial relationship” between priests and bishops. I know that many bishops are making every effort possible to minimize this danger. Yet, the danger is widespread.

A still more pervasive danger is that the bond of mutual respect and responsibility between priest and bishop, ritualized in the ordination rite, is being eroded by a whole series of developments. Once priests began to retire and were enrolled in Social Security, the lifelong responsibility of church for priest in return for the priest’s lifelong commitment to the ministry of his presbyterate began to fray.

The transformation of senates of priests, which were admittedly sometimes adversarial toward their bishops, into presbyteral councils changed the body from the priests’ council to the bishop’s council. Many bishops have worked hard to develop a true sense of collegiality with their priests through careful consultation with the presbyteral councils and greater solidarity with their priests through annual convocations and other assemblies. Yet, collegiality is too seldom the character of the relationship.

It is not surprising that the vast majority of priests in Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge’s recent study have little confidence in the leadership of either their bishops or their presbyteral councils. Furthermore, only a quarter of priests in the Hoge study find strong support for their priestly ministry from their bishop. I also find widespread disappointment among priests that the bishops as a body do not seem prepared to represent and defend the pastoral wisdom of their priests in relating to the Vatican congregations. (Think of Cardinal Spellman.)

The solidarity among priests is an equal challenge. Priests are no more likely to experience strong support for their priestly ministry from their fellow priests than from their bishop, the data demonstrate. Priests feel more isolated because there are fewer priests in most dioceses, each priest has fewer classmates, more are serving on their own in parishes, and more are stretched thin by multiple ministries -- more than one parish and/or parish ministry and work in a diocesan office.

Furthermore, there are sharp differences among those who are being admitted to membership in the presbyterate -- by ordination or incardination. This seems by default. It is not clear that the bishop with his priests has decided what kind of men they want in the seminary or the presbyterate, nor that the increasing use of priests from other countries is part of a deliberate plan. (At the same time we are not recruiting Hispanic young men for the growing number of Hispanic Catholics.) As a result it is very difficult to carry out a shared ecclesiology. The need for common ground begins at home.

The missing voice in Dallas was that of the priest -- bishops and laypeople examined how to govern the priests. The missing voice on the new commission is that of a priest -- other than the resigned priest who was a victim of clergy abuse. The National Federation of Priests’ Councils itself can’t seem to get much of a hearing, unable to shake a reputation for confrontation that goes back about 30 years.

The solidarity of the local presbyterate is also affected by the fact that everybody moves but the diocesan priest: Bishops come from outside the diocese and move from diocese to diocese, religious move according to the plans of their communities, and the lay ministers move because of family obligations. The average tenure of a lay minister in the parish is six years.

If there is to be a strong sense of presbyterate, dioceses will have to be more intentional about who is to be part of a presbyterate, what it means to be part of a presbyterate, what it will take to develop a true sense of collegiality between priests and their bishops -- for both mutual support and mutual accountability, fostering a sense of shared ecclesiology while allowing for enormous latitude with respectful dialogue among differences. And more is needed. The presbyterate must be seen as part of the larger community of ministry that the Fort Worth diocese calls the ministerium.

When I was ordained the priesthood carried the priest, providing the authority and legitimacy of the priest’s role in people’s lives. There is still a strong remnant of this. Newly ordained are welcomed with considerable trust. Increasingly however, and especially in light of the current crisis, the priest must carry the priesthood, establish trust and restore the place of priests in people’s lives. We must do this by taking responsibility for our own development and ministry, by caring for others in the presbyterate, and by making deliberate efforts to strengthen the solidarity and collegiality of the priests with their bishop. This need not be at the expense of the relationships between priests and lay people, ministers and parishioners. For those who see their lives in relational terms tend to be consistent in this.


I turn now to the priest as “guardian of the sacred” and “sacrament of the parish” (Fr. Andrew Greeley’s expression), one through whom the people should discover, or be reminded of, their relationship to Christ, their share in Christ’s mission in the world, and their own sacredness as a community, as the Body of Christ. Priests are concerned that such claims not encourage the distortion of charism into the entitlements of clericalism.

The priest needs to be one who can help the parish to be, in the words of John Paul II, “a school of prayer.” He is the church minister who is the primary theologian in the church, for if, as Fr. David Tracy proposes, theology is the relationship between revelation and experience, no one is more consistently called to do this than the priest as preacher and teacher.

He is the theologian on his feet, as distinct from the theologian on his or her seat. This is the minister whose engagement in the life of the local community helps to signal the sacred character of time and space.

To fulfill this role, the priest needs a continually maturing and theologically grounded spirituality. Unfortunately, the life and culture of the priest does little to foster that kind of spirituality. The problem was captured in the novels of J.F. Powers who was widely respected for an ear well tuned to the life and culture of the parish priest. A recent reviewer of Powers’ novels recalled his chilling characterization of priesthood: “Father Joe Hackett begins his seminary life determined to be saintly, but quickly squanders the impulse in parish life: ‘The truth was he hadn’t sacrificed his spiritual life -- it had been done for him, by his appointment to Holy Faith’ … What piety and spiritual alertness … [he] had has long softened amid the gluey fixtures and routines of daily parish life.” Looking back over my own life, I found the description cut too close to the bone.

It is true that spirituality is not simply or even most importantly the quality of one’s prayer life or interior life. As Fr. Ronald Rolheiser puts it in his article in the current issue of CHURCH magazine, spirituality is where you put your ass. It is the way we live our lives in fulfillment of the two great commandments. At least half of the ministerial spirituality of the diocesan priest is faithful, reliable service to the sacramental and pastoral needs of the people. In these terms, priests have as a group displayed a solid spirituality.

And yet, and yet -- that is no longer enough. That worked in a world where we all felt the presence of the mystical more readily and frequently. In a world which is perhaps more banal than secular, the more sacred, mystical and spiritual dimension of life needs to be more evident -- needs more evidence -- as the source and summit, the character and criteria of who we are and what we are doing. It needs more prayer and study on the part of the priest. Yet fewer than three out of five pastors report a regular prayer life apart from their official duties of prayer. The priests in the Hoge study make help in their personal spiritual development their No. 1 need.

When it comes to study, few of the pastors in our workshops report reading books in theology. Many read periodicals, and we’re happy that CHURCH magazine is their preferred pastoral periodical. The National Organization for Continuing Education of Priests reports that the majority has recently attended theology lectures, for the most part I’m sure in diocesan programs. But the culture of pastoral ministry and the demands on priests give little time or support for more serious reading. Central in all religious traditions to the role of the religious leader is the responsibility for handing on the tradition. To that we would add in the current context, making the linkages between the tradition and life in the world.

There is renewed interest in discussing the “ontological change” brought about by ordination. As one theologian wrote, “ontological” means “real.” The person ordained to be priest is meant to be really different. If this is not to mean reverting to differences of status and privilege, to claims of prestige and acts of domination, it will be because we will foster a priesthood whose theology and spirituality, whose sense of shared priesthood with the people, and shared ministry with the women and men in parish ministry, enable him to help people be aware of the presence of Jesus in sacrament and their community, in family and work.

As important as it is to enable priests to be effective pastors -- pastoral leaders serving with the women and men in parish ministry -- and to be united in a presbyterate and ministerium with their bishops and fellow priests, the church needs the priest to be the minister of the sacred, not an employee of the organization.

A small illustration of how the priest can enable people to feel sacred: Where I live, at the Holy Name Centre for Homeless Men, we have had Mass for the men on the detox floor of the Municipal Shelter. One Sunday, as we began the Communion rite in the tawdry lounge, I invited the men in their city-issue pajamas and bathrobes to come around the altar, a table covered with a sheet. I said this was like the apostles gathering around the table at the Last Supper. One of the men did a quick count and said with delight: “And we’re 12, too!”

Associated with the sacred, he was sacred also.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002