Last week I ventured out to Houston, Texas—a first for me (and, boy, there sure are a lot of Lone Star flags around)—to speak to the National Federation of Priests Councils meeting. It was wonderful to be among so many hardworking, dedicated and lively parish priests, even if it was for two short days. As I mentioned in an Of Many Things column, with all the talks I have been privileged to do in parishes across the country, I’ve learned (at least) three important things. The first is that parish priests, if you'll excuse the phrase, work their butts off. (And yes, I know that people in many states of life do so as well: young parents, overworked and underpaid employees, but I think some people might be genuinely surprised to see the daily schedule of a parish priest.) So it was an honor to address the NFPC. (The other two lessons learned were that sisters and lay pastoral associates keep the parishes going; and Catholics love their parishes.)
It was especially powerful being there after having been, the week before, in Minneapolis for the National Catholic Education Association meeting, whose annual conventiaon drew something like 8,000 high school principals, presidents, administrators, campus ministers and faculty, including laymen and laywomen and priests, brothers and sisters (as well as bishops and other administrators). In the midst of the breaking sexual abuse crisis in Europe, it was good to be reminded of the astonishing work done at the grass-roots level of our church. Which is often both hidden and heroic. And though people (at least some) were demoralized by what was happening in Europe, everyone I met seemed on fire with their love of Christ, for the church and for their apostolates. As were the priests in Houston.
While in Houston, I was privileged to hear a stunning address by John R. Quinn, the retired archbishop of San Francisco, on the state of the priesthood during the abuse crisis. His first few words were dramatic: “I am here to pay tribute to you, the priests of the United States. You stand on the front line. You meet the angry or confused or troubled people at the Sunday Masses in your parishes and missions. You have to try to answer their questions about the worldwide crisis caused by priests and bishops around the world. You are the ones out there in the parishes whose hearts break at the anguish of our people over the robbed innocence of their children. And you weep inside over the desecration of something so beautiful, so cherished as the priesthood is to all of us. You are the ones who meet the children and the families, and try your best to walk with them in their search for peace and healing. You are there where the wound is."
In his address he told the stories of individual priests he has known who had led lives of great holiness. And the archbishop adverts to Karl Rahner’s famous answer to the question, “Why would someone want to become a Jesuit?” (Here applied to the priesthood.) But it was the final few paragraphs that captivated me, when he spoke of the importance of darkness in the spiritual life. I won’t try to summarize it. I'll just say that I was so moved that I immediately approached him to ask if America could publish his talk. Archbishop Quinn, no stranger to our readers, agreed. So you can read this beautiful address here. It is, I believe, something every priest in this country could profit from. And their parishioners, too.
James Martin, SJ