A Supportive Talk By An Active Priest
By Richard G. Rento

Had anyone asked me just a few months ago how many priests in my modest-size Diocese of Paterson have left the active ministry, I would have said maybe 30 or so. I was astounded to be informed in April that there have been 116! Project that statistic across the U.S. to appreciate better the dimensions of the exodus and to wonder again why the church does not respond more proactively to a situation that cries for attention.


I regard our beloved church as seriously thrice wounded and, sadder to say, self-wounded. I consider you, and all that you represent vis-à-vis the total mission of the church, as a sign and a very important part of the recovery of health and vigor that we are all so eager to experience. In fact, in each of the three wounds I think you have a key role to play as healers.

 

1. The first wound, from which we bleed daily, is our lingering failure to become what Jesus obviously had in mind: truly a people's church.

 

I had the treasured privilege a few years ago of presiding at the joint funeral of two beloved, elderly sisters - siblings and also long-time and much loved members of the same religious community. Jayne and Eileen were full of life and love; their very presence lighted up whatever space they occupied. Their deaths in a car accident brought grief and sadness to countless persons whose lives they had brightened.

 

Jayne had asked me long ago to preside and preach at her funeral, and she sent me from time to time personal writings that she hoped would enable me to reveal her true mind & heart to the mourners at her funeral. In one of those jottings, she wrote -

 

Jesus began his message with friendship, not only because it is powerful, but also because it is hopeful. It is the key, the only key, that can unlock the door to a worthwhile future in love. Jesus saw the truth of that 20 centuries ago. Instead of organizing institutions, he started a movement based on friendship, on love. That is the only solution to the problems of the human heart. People can live together under almost any conditions if they are friends, if they are in love.

 

For whatever historical reasons, that I certainly am not qualified to delineate, we seem to show a preference for a pyramidal, hierarchical church, in which the normative modus operandi is still vertical: God, pope, hierarchy, clergy, religious, laity, in descending order. Commands and teachings from above, compliance and assent from below.

 

The eminent theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza was quoted just a few months ago as saying that the church is run more like the Roman Empire than the ekklesia of Christ. Asked, then, why she stays in the church and still calls herself a Catholic theologian, she answered that such questions are wrong-headed because they presuppose that the hierarchy is the church rather than that we, the people of God, are the church, that the hierarchy is called to serve.

 

Symbols are helpful, and I share with you one that I got from a teaching theologian, himself a resigned, married priest. Think of the church, he said, as three interconnected circles, each representing a major segment of the church. One is the hierarchy. Another is the scholars and theologians. And the third is you and I, the ordinary members of the church, possessors of the sensus fidelium.

 

When the hierarchy is not written off as irrelevant, when theologians are not silenced, and when the members are not denied their legitimate collaboration, the church is functioning at its best and we can be certain that the work of the Spirit is being optimally facilitated. But when these three are out of sync, when there are distrust and contention among them, the church is crippled and unable to function as it should.

 

A beloved member of the hierarchy, now retired and of blessedly advanced age, told me not so long ago that he is convinced that the problems of the church will never be resolved until it honors fully the rightful role of all its members in the process of decision-making.

 

I appeal to you, my brothers and sisters: do not deny the church your input regarding matters in which you know you have something true and valuable to contribute. Do this, not so much from book learning, but from the authentic experience of your Spirit-filled lives.

 

2. The second self-inflicted wound is the clergy sex abuse crisis. Is there anything new or different or particularly revealing to be said about it? I think not; however, we might well point out that it is related to a much larger and more pervasive problem within the church, namely, its unenlightened view of human sexuality that has been too long with us. The disconnect between the official teaching of the church in that area and what the vast majority of the people are believing and practicing is just one sign that something is radically wrong with the church's approach to human sexuality. Another is the obvious fact that bishops themselves here and around the world admirably placed compassion and clear thinking above sheer conformity with Rome when many of them counseled us priests, after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, not to probe the sexual decisions of the faithful, but to leave those matters to their own well-formed consciences.

 

My own training in human sexuality was nothing short of tragic both at home and in Catholic schools, and especially in seminary, leaving me with a sexuality that was out of touch with human nature and virtually identified with sin, for almost never was the former discussed except in the context of the latter. At 75 years of age, I am still trying to expunge from my deepest self those jaundiced, joyless, cautionary, and frightening views of the precious gift of human sexuality.

 

The sex abuse crisis of today can be a wake-up call. Only one among many sexual issues, it demands of us attention not just to itself but also to the much broader context of which it is a part. Again I appeal to you, my brothers, and you wives, to realize that you have a critical role to play. We must not turn principally to men who represent a thousand-year tradition of celibacy for insight into our stewardship as sexual beings. No, you who have experience in marriage and parenthood must be among our chief teachers of the present and the future. I urge you to speak up in every way you can, you with your Spirit-led instinct for the truth, you who have made such difficult conscience decisions in the management of your lives, you with your respect for the bearers of truth, whoever they may be.

 

Twice already in this talk I have addressed you on the basis of your life in the Spirit. My understanding is that a spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to incorporate its power and direction in the decision-making that life demands.

 

I am convinced that we have interpreted much too narrowly the relationship between the Spirit of God and Christians. Consider just these three items among many others: 1) the Feast of Pentecost, which we have recently celebrated and which is recounted in the bible with so much rich symbolism; 2) our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit; and 3) our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation. These alone certainly can imply that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to 9/10ths of the people of the world. That cannot be so. We humans are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who invite her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scriptures emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.

 

3. The third serious and self-inflicted wound I see in the church today is the increasing unavailability of Eucharistic action in our parish churches. By that I don't mean Eucharistic presence in the tabernacle-reserved sacrament; I mean the whole fluid, dynamic action in which what the people have brought to the liturgy, namely themselves intentionally placed in the bread and wine, is returned to them with the most special and exquisite sacramental presence of Christ. Receiving Communion from a pyx or a tabernacle, no matter what prayers and rituals may surround the act, is in a category different from and inferior to participation in the entire Eucharistic action. But fewer and fewer persons have full access to that central act of Catholic Christian worship because of the increasing shortage of ordained priests. I read very recently that one quarter of American parishes do not have a resident priest.

 

The first time I felt keenly the import of this situation was when I was invited two years ago to give a half-day of recollection at a parish in south central New Jersey, not far from where I live. As I pulled into the parking lot a bit after noon on that Sunday, I noticed large numbers of people pouring out of the church and assumed that the last Mass of the day had just ended. But, entering the church, I learned otherwise: there had been no Masses for the entire weekend. The concerned parishioners had sent their hard-working, exhausted priest off on a two-week vacation and, not being able to find a priest they considered suitable for their particular needs, they asked their deacons to lead them in a Eucharistic service, which they did four times on those two days. Of course, I had long heard of this phenomenon occurring in remote areas of our country and beyond, but here it was in my own backyard.

 

How I wish that we could turn to you men for what might be called weekend service. I would anticipate that your experience of marriage and child-rearing and your earning a living in the marketplace would make your homilies uniquely relevant. I should think that your respectful, loving relationship with that one chosen person of the opposite sex would signal to all women that you honor them as true equals. And I say these things not unmindful that there are occasional tragic failures among the marriages of priests. In what category of relational commitment will that not always and inevitably be the case?

 

Twenty five or so years ago, at the invitation of a fellow priest of our diocese, I made a 2-day retreat with 11 Episcopal priests. It was conducted by an Anglican bishop who had resigned his episcopacy and had become a Franciscan friar in the Anglican tradition. I remember getting the impression that he was revered among those men the way Fulton Sheen was revered among Catholics. They considered it an honor to sit at his feet and receive the pearls of spiritual wisdom he had come to share.

 

During those two days, there was time for us RCs to engage in many conversations with our Episcopal counterparts. My selective memory has stored but one part of only one personal dialog among the several I must have had. It was with a 42-year-old priest, a husband and father, who said to me, "You know, Dick, you Roman Catholics and we Episcopalians have so much in common. We can count on the fingers of one hand the really important differences between us. But certainly one of those is our respective outlooks on the matter of marriage and celibacy in priesthood. Let me put it this way: My dear wife is such an intimate part of everything I do as a man and as a priest that, if you took her out of the equation, I would not know how to be a priest."

 

I do not know how many married priests of whatever religion or rite would make the same statement. I am not aware of what percentage of wives share actively in the ministry of their priest husbands, nor am I at all sure that there must be such sharing. I suspect, instead, that there are as many arrangements between priest husband and wife as there are priestly marriages. And there is, of course, a mortality rate among the marriages of priests.

 

Nonetheless, I look at you and your wives as foretelling in these present times a dispensation restored after a thousand-year hiatus. Surely it has to come: a married priesthood and optional celibacy. An increasing number of bishops, theologians, and persons in the trenches like you and me are hoping, believing, and praying that it will.

 

It seems to me that it is precisely for the Sunday Eucharistic gathering that we need you most of all, and I very much regret the unwillingness of Rome to dispense with a discipline that now works as much against the church as for it. Your return to priestly leadership in liturgy would not, of course, resolve the problem far into the future; after all, you cannot be too many years younger than I am. But it would be immensely helpful in the short term and also the most influential factor in establishing among the people a climate of receptivity to a married priesthood.

 

A word about the Eucharist, so central to our Catholic life and worship:

 

We don't get theological technicalities and complexities from Jesus; he speaks plainly, commonly, most often in simple stories. From that consistent style of his, we can be sure that he had no obscure theology in mind on the night before he died when with bread and wine he made a parting gesture of love, his graphic way of saying, "Remember me. Don't ever forget that I am with you always, because I love you."

 

The essence of that gesture, which has become our Eucharist, is undoubtedly presence, Jesus' desire, his intention, to be with us in a unique way — and the fact of his actually being with us.

 

Friends and lovers can be present to each other in ways other than the physical, bodily, tactile presence. The recollection of a shared experience, a card or letter taken from a drawer, a photograph, a familiar place that two persons experience as they stand face to face and converse or as they are locked in an embrace of love. But even when there is no such contact or visibility, when for example they are thousands of miles apart, two persons can still be present to each other in many ways. The sound of a melody dear to both can make one present to the other, even an idea that came from one and is treasured by the other — all these are examples of how human beings can be present to each other even though they are physically apart.

 

We Catholics maintain that there is a personal presence that outranks all others in intimacy, and that is the mysterious, sacramental, real presence of Jesus in Eucharist

 

It seems to me that it is no more useful to dissect and analyze this mystery than to analyze any act of genuine love. Some things are so sacred, so precious, so profoundly personal, that to subject them to microscopic examination is to fail to appreciate them. The words "Body and Blood" are, of course, anatomical in their primary, conventional definition. But in the context of the Eucharist I understand them to mean real — real not in the sense of physicality but real in the sense of sacrament.

 

When we do this sacred action together week after week, this fluid action called Eucharist, Jesus is uniquely present. Unseen, yes, but as intentionally and really present to us as he was to his original disciples.

 

We must content ourselves with that alone and not be distracted by the scrutinizing that goes on in theological laboratories, which can only do further violence to the uncomplicated plan of Jesus to remain with us, not merely in memory, but in here and now.

 

Jesus does not ask to be adored, but only to be welcomed and loved in return for his own unconditional love of us. He invites us to follow him with trust and to accept the priceless gifts he offers.

 

The popular bumper sticker urges us in another context, "Keep It Simple." We would do well to apply that advice here as we contemplate and honor Christ in Eucharist.

 

Theologians are speaking more and more these days about a paradigm shift that is taking place in contemporary Catholic thought and practice. In essence, it focuses on a radically different imaging of the ultimate mystery we call God. For an ever-increasing number of us believers, God is no longer that humanoid, male, supreme being who resides far above the clouds; for us God is not anymore the feudal lord who ruled over a relatively modest empire, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. We know now, through that form of revelation called science, that the universe, in every particle of which the Creative Spirit dwells, is immense beyond our comprehension. The author of the 8th psalm contemplated the tiny world known in his day and declared it awesome; what can, what should, be our response to the wonders we are privileged to know more fully with each passing day?

 

Who is the priest in that context, that "new story," as it is called? What is the function of the priest in such a radically different setting? He — and I am among those who hope that we can say "she" someday — will not speak about what my theologian/author friend Michael Morwood calls the "elsewhere God." The priest of the near future will not think of his ministry as one of mediating between a distant God and a suppliant people; he will not boast of powers bestowed on him for the purpose of making God present. Rather, he will do what Jesus did: he will reveal, he will point out, he will herald the presence of God already in everyone and in everything! He will say what Jesus said: that the Kingdom of God is here, the Spirit is here, as they have always been, in the hearts of all people. He will speak mostly of love, as our present pope has done in his first encyclical, love that alone opens our eyes to the universal divine presence.

 

Resigned and married priest that he is, Michael keeps reminding me that priesthood is primarily about affirming God's unfailing presence with us. Eucharist, he says, asks the question, will you and I live committed to being the presence of God in our world?

 

I trust that this is the priesthood you are living now; I hope it is the priesthood in which we can be reunited more fully someday soon.

 

Please know that, in the meantime, I admire and am thankful for, the graceful way in which you accommodate to what I suspect must be at times an awkward state of affairs. Know for sure that to more and more of us your lives speak of the future and give us hope. And, therefore, a third time I encourage you to continue communicating to the church and its leaders your well-considered thoughts about what the church must do so as to recover from its present malaise and move resolutely into a robust future.

 

I am grateful to my good friend, Joe Cece, for a quotation that seemed well suited to close this presentation today. On the website of the Paterson Diocese, which he produces, Joe recently included words from the late Carlo Carretto. I should think that some of you have read his books. He was a mid-20th century spiritual guide, author, and mystic. More than 50 years ago, he addressed the following message to the church. It is blunt, yet tender. It may well express some of your own sentiments. Listen carefully, please.

 

How much I criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!

You have made me suffer more than anyone,

and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

You have given me much scandal,

and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false,

And yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful. Countless times I have felt like

slamming the door of my soul in your face

And yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms.

No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you. Then, too - where would I go? To build another church?

But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.

And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ's church.

No, I am old enough. I know better.

 

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Richard G. Rento is a retired priest of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey still very active in a variety of ministries. rrento@optonline.net