I see priests as heroes, even within the past climate in the church due to the clergy sex-abuse cases and the often-negative view in our country. I would add that their heroism is even more pronounced in the past year because of how priests have ministered and found creative ways to serve their parishioners during the coronavirus crisis.
Priests have been on the front line for the last 50 years, following the monumental changes set in motion by Vatican Council II. Priests have not only implemented these extraordinary changes, but have impressively managed a balancing act to keep both progressive and more traditional Catholics as part of the church, especially in a time of so much division in our country.
During this same period, massive changes in our society also have affected people within our church and within our parishes. Our society has experienced a constantly accelerating rate of technological and social change, often leaving people disconnected and disoriented. The priest has been a stabilizing force and a tremendous anchor in the “eye of the hurricane” of change:
- Facing the clergy sexual abuse issue — Although only a small percentage of priests were involved in this heartbreaking behavior, all priests were looked at with suspicion. Priests saw longtime fellow ministers and even some friends be removed from the priesthood. The negative publicity and the financial fallout were so damaging to the church and the view of priesthood. It has made this a difficult time for priests, but they have weathered this challenge and have continued steadfastly to serve God’s people.
- The decrease in parishioners especially during the lockdown with COVID-19 due to the closing/clustering of Catholic parishes and the lack of involvement by too many parents of school-age children in the life of the parish — Priests have constantly worked with faith-formation staff, catechists and parents to find evangelizing ways of addressing this problem, which has had additional challenges during the last year. Priests were not trained or prepared for such challenges (with conflict transformation skills) and yet did amazingly well with often very difficult situations, both in the past and in the present.
- The reality of so many meetings — One priest said that the new asceticism for priests has been the number of meetings they have had to attend. Priests have been so patient and generous with their time in this area of parish life because of their care for their parish, including being able to adapt now through “Zoom” and other social media avenues.
- The always-present financial challenges, including a drop in parish collections, especially during the pandemic, as well as mounting administration requirements priests have had to deal with — Although not trained as administrators or financial planners, priests have done a tremendous job in navigating this gantlet of demanding responsibilities, including many challenges emerging because of COVID-19.
- The change in the approach to marriage — Now most couples who come to get married in the church are already living together and not participating in the life of the church. It is a tremendous challenge, but priests have tried to prepare these couples both with pastoral sensitivities as well as using their encounters with these couples as opportunities for evangelization.
- The challenge of fewer priests (including the unexpected deaths of several) available to do the same amount of work — There was a study done that concluded that 75% of the laity did not experience the impact of the fewer number of priests available to serve. In other words, the impact of this problem was felt mainly by the priests themselves. Yet priests have done a wonderful job of persevering in the face of these many demands, which at times may seem overwhelming.
The church confronts many cultural issues such as the abortion issue, the understanding of what marriage is, transgender issues, immigration, race relations, a divided and polarized country, and the volatile nature of things because of COVID-19. Yet priests continue to be a calm in the midst of storms facing our country.
Each priest in his lifetime has uplifted an incredible number of parishioners through his homilies; fed them with the Eucharist; comforted them through visits and the anointing of the sick; consoled them in times of loss; encouraged them in times of suffering and desolation; been an instrument of grace and forgiveness to them in the sacrament of reconciliation; offered help to the needy (or supported the poor through the missions, Catholic Charities, etc.); and basically tried to fulfill Jesus’ teaching of Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 6:20-26, all of this ministering made more difficult because of the pandemic. Yet priests found ways to livestream Masses, construct new ways for people to go safely to confession, to create means within restrictions for small gatherings for funerals, and — taking proper precautions and with risks to themselves — to go to those who needed to be anointed. In addition, priests have found innovative ways not only to gradually open up their parishes, but to invite parishioners back to full participation within their faith community. Priests have continued to do all of this and more, and with such great grace.
Speaking to a group of priests studying in Rome June 7, Pope Francis stated: “Be pastors with the scent of your sheep, persons able to live, laugh and cry with your people — in other words, to communicate with them. St. Joseph is a reminder that having faith in God also includes believing that he can work even through our fears, our frailties, our weaknesses. We must not leave frailty aside: it is a theological place. My fragility, the fragility of each one of us, is a theological place of encounter with the Lord. The ‘superman’ priests end up badly, all of them. The fragile priest who knows his weaknesses and talks about them with the Lord, he will be fine.”
This statement of Pope Francis resonates with priests I know, especially in this last year, because they clearly are not perfect and certainly are aware of their flaws (“we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us”). But despite these many changes and challenges, and in the midst of their own fragileness, my brother priests have remained committed, generous, and faithful. As a senior priest, I have become even more in awe, particularly in the last year, of the tremendous ministry priests do quietly day after day.
My brother priests are truly my heroes.
Father Hewes is a senior priest in the Diocese of Rochester.