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Blessings for struggling priests

Given that we’re all laypeople at NCR, we can’t really write firsthand on what the country’s priests are feeling. But we can write from the heart, based on what we read and hear from priests we know.

And in recent issues we’ve heard from many priests and read wise words from Fr. Philip Murnion (NCR, Sept. 27). In NCR’s Oct. 11 issue, an anonymous, distraught Los Angeles priest, writing to a priest in another state, told us he feels abandoned, almost institutionally abused, by his church.

NCR presented excerpts from each account to a priest friend and asked if there is a common thread to them.

Murnion’s comment that “the church needs the priest to be the minister of the sacred, not an employee of the organization” resonated deeply with our priest friend, who responded: “The priest has to carry the priesthood. What Philip says is real to me.”

The letter from the Los Angeles priest observed that bishops were making distinctions between “good priests” and “bad priests,” and said, “oh, the follies of Western dualism!” He added: “The only reason I stay is because my people truly depend on me, and my heart goes out to them.”

Our priest friend is a smartly dressed, smiling pastor, much loved in his enormous parish. He is a man of many years experience in the church’s two worlds. He preaches with a quiet conviction rather than radical fervor. As he made the following points he seemed to suggest, without actually saying it, that growth as a priest -- as with growth for any Christian -- comes from learning as one wrestles with God.

The result, unquestioning compassion, sweeps all else before it. “That’s what the Los Angeles priest is saying when he says the reason he remains is because his people depend on him,” commented our friend. “But the poor man is alone. He has no support. He should stand up and identify himself and see who stands with him in his loneliness.

“I think the questions before priests are more profound than we’re seeing. That’s a very complicated statement, I know,” said our friend, “and I can speak only from my own life.”

“I think I got a passage of experience inside the system [working in the top reaches of a major chancery]. I got a different passage of experience outside it, as a pastor. What made me grow up -- to return to Philip’s theme -- was a confrontation with my own humanity, my own foolishness, and the emptiness of many things I presumed had value.

“I got to understand a God who was radically different from the God -- a false god -- I had been worshiping for a long time. I got to a place where I saw so much pain out there, I decided that the pain kind of belongs to me.

“That pain and failure belongs to me. Therefore I must meet my God in my pain and failures and your pain and failures. I don’t care what your situation is, there’s a place for you in my life.

“Now I could only come to that when I discovered, when I became conscious of the realization that I’m in no position at all to make a judgement upon anyone,” he said.

Of the younger priests -- our friend was ordained in the early 1960s -- he said, “a piece of the church would prefer to circle the wagons as damage control, coupled to an evocation of the past as the way ahead. Certain laypeople would be very accepting of that. Some of the younger generation of priests will stagnate in there.

“Others,” he said, “will in time come to terms with their own failure. I’m absolutely convinced that the only reason I could be an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, which I was when I was a young guy at the chancery, was I had this kind of notion I was a demigod or something. White cuffs, gold links, strong guy, perfect -- and in a position to say, ‘You fit’ and ‘you don’t.’ And when I discovered, as I did, that this was all superficial and there was no value in it that could console me anymore, I got to a totally different place.

“Now that’s pretty desperate, isn’t it?” he asked.

Desperate, yes. But profound. And it serves here as an invitation to all of America’s priests to join in the conversation.

From our lay perspective -- to all priests out there struggling in these times, and wrestling with God -- blessings on your work on behalf of the people of God.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002