Challenges facing priests can lead to disillusionment
By Deborah Gyapong
OTTAWA (CCN) — Though a recent study shows most Catholic priests are happy in their vocations, they face many challenges that could lead some to become disillusioned.
“The demands on priests have grown exponentially in the last century,” said Rev. Scott McCaig, general superior of the Companions of the Cross, and chaplain to the Ottawa-based apostolate the Spiritual Motherhood of Priests (SMOP). McCaig spoke to 10 women in formation for induction into the five-year old apostolate and 23 spiritual mothers taking a refresher course. The SMOP boasts 144 women after their annual induction ceremony May 31.
Priests feel “pulled in thousands of directions” because “everyone has needs” and there is an “urgency to meet those needs right now,” the priest said. Prayer and the pursuit of holiness, which are supposed to be priorities, then become secondary and suffer. Jesus’ first call to the disciples was not to mission but to “be with him,” he added.
Without the commitment to prayer, penance and a deeper relationship with the Lord, the priest risks ending up in “maintenance mode,” not “mission mode,” McCaig said. The busyness can leave the priest “bone weary” and exhausted.
The next challenge is “cultural Catholicism,” a massive group of people who are not well-evangelized, but who come to church for Christmas and Easter and for sacraments such as baptism, confirmation and marriage, McCaig said. The priest can pour out his heart preparing people for confirmation or marriage, and then never see them again afterward.
Priests can experience frustration in pouring energies into a “black hole” where there is no response. This can make them feel like “religious functionaries” who merely “hatch, match and dispatch” and not much else, he said.
Priests also face challenges from Catholics who demand service from the church “but resist any initiative to deeper orthodoxy, catechesis or outreach,” McCaig said. They are likely to respond, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
So much energy can be spent battling people who oppose any efforts to put the church in ministry mode, and “wasting time and energy arguing with people about things that should be no brainers,” he said. A priest can begin to think all he encounters is “gossip and detraction.”
The worst case scenario is the priest begins to say, “Who cares?” and become discouraged.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, there was a wave of men who left the priesthood in the 1970s and 80s, he said. For most of them, it was similar to a midlife crisis a man might go through in his 40s. Today, however, the church is losing young priests who enter with “high ideals” but end up “crushed by expectations that cannot be met in a milieu of cultural Catholicism” and facing that “black hole” of unresponsiveness.
Because of the shortage of priests, many become pastors of parishes too soon, he said. Previously there used to be a long period of apprenticeship, where associates would serve under an experienced pastor. Now a priest is lucky to get two years as an associate.
Seminaries do a good job in teaching seminarians how to teach and sanctify the People of God, but not how to govern, he said. If a priest is keeping the doors open, the furnace running, the bills paid and the roof from leaking, he is deemed to be doing all that’s needed for governance. But governance means mobilizing the People of God for mission, McCaig said.
Another challenge is the smear to the priestly identity from the sexual abuse crisis. “It has tarred us all,” said McCaig. Though statistics show the percentage of abusers among priests is actually lower than in the general population, “it should never have happened,” and it has “wounded priestly morale.”
“The suspicion concerning our orientation and our intentions is very painful,” McCaig said.
The priesthood was once seen as a manly commitment, almost like going into the military, one that demanded courage, rigour and a sense of dedication that was commended, he said. “You are in a war for souls.”
Loneliness is also a problem for priests, he said. Celibacy can be difficult to live, and difficult for others to understand, in a “hypersexualized” society like ours.
When McCaig was in seminary, he said celibacy was mostly framed in terms of what a priest could not do. “We are still not doing a very good job of giving men a good, spiritual idea of celibacy as a way of loving.” It took exposure to Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to understand celibacy differently, he said.
If you look at a country church, you will see a rectory nearby that has five bedrooms, he said. Several priests might have lived there in the past, a built-in solution to loneliness. Now one priest will have that parish and four others to serve, so “the old models for priestly fraternity are gone,” he said.
While some priests are called to be hermits, most are not, he said. “Priests need priests” and they should “be willing to sacrifice” to ensure they meet with other priests for fellowship. They also need holy, life-giving, warm friendships. Priests need families where they and “go and take the collar off and be in life-giving relationships — with proper boundaries — with families, to love and be loved in ways that are healthy.
“We can be celibate and fulfilled,” McCaig said. “Our need is for love and not for sex. Celibacy is not a natural call but a supernatural call.”
On a natural level, priests are still attracted to women and would like to have children, but somehow the “universal love of Jesus breaks in” and we are called to “a universal love and not a particular love,” he said.
However, when a priest is “disillusioned, tired or lonely, the natural call starts to re-assert itself,” he said. “Living the supernatural call can only be lived by supernatural means. We have got to be in touch with Jesus and lead a deep spiritual life. Busyness mitigates against that.”
McCaig urged the Spiritual Mothers to pray for their priest’s holiness, so he would make Jesus a priority and celebrate the sacraments with attention and devotion.
He asked them to pray their priest has a devotion to Our Lady, because those who “immerse themselves in the maternal embrace of the Blessed Mother” tend to be happier and healthier.
Pray for holy, life-giving relationships with other priests and good spiritual friendships “in deep common zeal for the glory of God,” he said.
Pray for courage for the priests to break out of some of the moulds, expectations and systems that keep them responding to every problem as if it is an emergency, when some are not. “The only way that changes is if the priest makes hard decisions,” McCaig said. “It takes courage to do what is necessary to live as apostles and not as religious functionaries.”
Lastly, he urged the spiritual mothers to pray the priest never forget the tremendous beauty of the priesthood and experiences joy.