In this exceedingly complex age, the church places an amazing array of demands on a shrinking number of priests. Certainly they must keep their vows of celibate chastity. They should have the leadership, administrative, management, financial and entrepreneurial skills of a chief executive officer. We expect them to celebrate uplifting (but not too lengthy) liturgies and to deliver wise, theologically sound and thought-provoking homilies. We want priests to be truth-telling prophets (preferably to someone else) and also to deliver compassionate pastoral care at our bedsides. They should be tech-savvy and constantly available but remain calm and centered, not distracted or obsessive. In other words, we want priests who, like Jesus as described in Mark’s Gospel, do all things well. We want competence—to the extreme.
In the face of these often contradictory demands, some priests gravitate to what they do well, neglecting other ministries. Others increase their velocity in a desperate attempt to be all things to all people. Still others retreat into identity enclaves of turn-back-the-clock traditionalism or militant Vatican II-ism, fracturing parishes and presbyterates. Some rule their parish as micromanaging demagogues, mistakenly equating control with competence. Struggling with loneliness and overwork, some lose their vitality, vision and creativity. Some just give up on priesthood.
Expectations of competence are not unreasonable, and the seminary at which I work spares no effort in preparing men well for the multitude of tasks they will face in ministry. Beneath this constellation of pastoral skills, however, there is one thing needful for the priest, as Cardinal Francis George writes in The Difference God Makes: to reveal God “as absolute self-giving and life-giving love that heals and transforms us and draws all to share in the very life of the Triune God.”
This kind of generous, inviting transparency comes less from competence than from humility, as St. Benedict understands it: an unflinching interior gaze that recognizes one’s gifts and limitations, goodness and sin—and in all this one’s belovedness by God. Truthful humility is the taproot of compassion and the antidote to the pathology of competence-ism. But humility, too, asks much of priests.
Making time for the contemplation from which humility grows requires a “spirituality of subtraction,” by which priests learn to say no to at least some of the demands placed upon them in a never-ending stream by bishop and parishioners alike, and to strike a dynamic balance among the responsibilities that reasonably remain. Most essentially, humility implies a commitment to growth: not covering up shortcomings but seeking support and accountability from a priest’s bishop, his fellow priests and his parishioners.
The priest is shaped by his community even as he leads it, especially when he invites the laity to help spur his growth with honest, constructive feedback—for example, in a group that meets regularly with the priest to discuss his homilies and presiding. And if the priest is overwhelmed by tasks that we laypeople have the authorization, time and talent to do as well or better, might we not step up and offer to collaborate rather than criticize?
An invitation to collaboration may be the saving grace of the recently concluded Year for Priests—a year meant to recognize and honor the priesthood—that became another explosive chapter in the ongoing horror story of sexual abuse by clerics. If the Year for Priests had been a mere advertising campaign intended to put our priests up on a pedestal, then certainly the sex scandals would have made a disaster of those plans.
Perhaps, however, the ironic timing is actually a gift. What if this tumultuous Year for Priests helped them become icons of truthful humility, of brokenness and redemption, rather than reflections of our culture’s pathological obsession with overwork and übercompetence? What if the Year for Priests served as an invitation for us not just to point fingers at abusers and their enablers (as they certainly deserve), but to support our priests’ growth and collaborate in their ministry?
This would require, of course, that we too take up a similar spiritual practice of humility. We will recognize God’s saving love in priests only as we learn also to discover it in ourselves.