The best advice I can offer new priests

Priests put their hands on the heads of newly ordained priests during an ordination Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 12, 2019. (CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters) 

“After you are ordained, turn around and let the people love you.” I could hear Father Kevin Bradt’s voice in my head as I lay face down on the cool marble floor of the cathedral. Ordination was a long, beautiful, complicated liturgy, and, though we had been rehearsed by Father Bradt, I was not sure what came next.

Except that at some point we would turn around, be presented to the people and let them love us. Whatever that meant. And we were to just stand there and accept it. After 10 years of Jesuit formation, after 23 years of classes and after 42 years of life, I was supposed to “turn around and let the people love me.” Fifteen years later, this advice still calls me forward, challenges me and feeds me.

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All over the United States and Canada, men will be ordained Catholic priests this spring and summer and they will be getting lots of advice for the life ahead. All of it well-meaning and some of it useful. One soon-to-be-ordained seminarian, Anthony Frederico, took to Twitter seeking tips from priests and lay people:

Mr. Frederico struck a nerve with this request, and with 233 replies and counting, he is still getting suggestions. Many respondents want more time slots for confession; most want him to actually pray and to keep praying, and a surprisingly large number encourage him to get exercise and enough rest.

He was urged to “Be kind” and to “Be open to hanging out with young families” and to remember that “people are critical but they love you more than you know.” So much good advice and warmly offered by the people this man is about to be ordained to serve. The sheer number of responses seems to be proof of how much hope people have for their new priests.

Yes, your life is focused on God but centered by the people God gives you to serve.

Father Bradt’s advice in the ordination ceremony is what I offer the newly ordained as priests this year. It was given not only as a stage direction during a ceremony but as advice for the life ahead. Turning around and letting the people love you. Both parts are important, and both seem almost too basic to mention but have been foundational to my attempt to be a priest for the people of God. If you are about to be ordained, I think this advice will feed you, too.

Turn around. The people of God surround you, and sometimes you are invited to lead them. But turn around and see them, know they are there, understand that they look to you, they are looking at you. Lead and lead well, but keep turning around to see those you now lead. You belong to them; turn and check in with them often.

Yes, your life is focused on God but centered by the people God gives you to serve. Turning toward them is not a turning from God; it has not been my experience that God forces me to choose between God and God’s people. More often, I am called to turn away from myself, from useless distraction, from fear, and toward the people of God. In this way, turning around is more a returning to the life-giving relationship with people.

Let them love you. Let people love you. This is hard, and on some days it will seem impossible. Because people will love you in a whole range of ways, and some of these ways will seem crazy to you, at least at first. Some will want to smother you with attention, some will want to criticize you, and most will just want to spend time with you, to know you, to walk with you. Let them. Make this a priority. Trust that the good training you have received about boundaries will serve you well. Learn to listen closely enough to feel the real affection they have for you, let it sustain you, and let yourself be shaped by this love into a priest who will be a true shepherd for the people of God.

Father Bradt was right: There came a moment toward the end of the ceremony where we turned and stood open to the people. And the congregation erupted into a huge noise of hope, sounds of joy at what God had done for God’s people. It was not about me; it was not about us. It was about them and the hope the people of God have for a shared future. And every day, I have the opportunity to turn around and let myself be loved. I hope all our newly ordained remain open to the same experience.

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Dale Athlon
3 months 2 weeks ago

As a layperson, I have enough buddies. We need priests who stand out in front (not WITH the uncatechized) and show us leadership and the path to God. That's why after Vatican 2, when the priest turned around and stepped down from the high altar of God, he's less now seen as a leader to the supernatural, which is what we truly need more of.

John Chuchman
3 months 2 weeks ago

Advice, “Go let the people teach you how to be a good priest.”

Cathy Stepanek
3 months 2 weeks ago

I'm just sad that the People of God are limited to celibate men for ministry. There is such a rich diversity of vocations willing to come forward - IF they would be allowed.
It doesn't seem to be about us, but rather about the institution keeping a reign on their control,

Tondalaya Gillespie
3 months 2 weeks ago

I cannot understand how an intelligent man will not stand up for women to be priest as well as themselves, it would serve the church well if they would stand up for equality within the church hierarchy. I have lived in countries where a priest is not available, been on safaris when there is no priest around and in the Peace Corps where there was no priest, but the gathering for prayer and reflection without a priest has been some of my most spiritual moments, usually conducted by a woman.

Judi Flisakowski
3 months 2 weeks ago

Your are fondly remembered by some of us here at St Al's here in Spokane as the Cheetos's guy, a reference to your homily about a vending machine and the attempt to get Cheetos out of it.(although it was about much more). A belated thank you.

Nora Bolcon
3 months 2 weeks ago

The best advice should be for them to first know that they need to Love their People more than themselves at times. So I am a little concerned about the me-centeredness of this article, from the start, and that it does not state this anywhere.

Also, any new priests should, above all else, after loving his God, and then His People, pray continuously for, and genuinely expect and hope for women to be equally ordained priests and bishops immediately, and prepare themselves for that reality. Any priest who won't do this, as a priority, has fallen into the sins of sexism and arrogance already, and is already fully clericalized by the hierarchy and not good for much.

The justice and goodness we are willing to openly support, and believe for, are what makes up who we are in Christ, and that is as true for any priest, as it is for anyone else. If you are not willing to risk your own ordained state by standing up for your sisters who are abused by discrimination, for no reason Christ ever gave or allowed for in any Gospel, then you are not only a poor quality priest but a poor quality Christian.

It is always scary and risky to stand up for the just treatment of those being abused. God does not accept this as an appropriate excuse for not standing up for the oppressed. This is true no matter who is being oppressed and no matter who is the oppressor. Injustice does not become Justice when a Pope states that it is such, and we are all equally responsible to follow the direct Gospel command to treat all the same as we wish to be treated.

We, laity and priests, are also responsible to point out even the sins of popes to those popes so they do not risk their own eternal life by clinging to unrepentant sin and for the sake of the health of the church they are leading and influencing. No one is above the requirements of the law of love in Christ.

Sexism is Catholicisms worst sin, as it directly leads to, and causes the subversion of the humanity of all women while giving access and purpose to sexual abuse of both nuns, women and children. As we have witnessed on a large scale.

Also, there is a very definite link between sexism and the detachment of religious conservatives from the reality of the global warming crisis. The idea is similar - How dare those lesser humans, women, children, tell me what I can or can not do?! How dare this planet try to force me to change my ways of living to something less convenient?!

Sexism and Pedophilia in Catholicism - How One Supports the Other

During the mandatory abuse prevention video trainings lay ministers must now take in the Catholic Church we are informed that there is no link or evidence that either homosexuality or celibacy causes child abuse of any variety. This is true.

However, why does our hierarchy not also inform us that there is a most certain and proven link between all-male leadership in religion and pedophilia?

Below are just five of the many ways single gender or all-male leadership in our church has been directly linked to our church's pedophilia crisis. (These are a sample only)

1. Because women abuse children not even near half the rate men do (6-10% compared to men), including married men (who have a slightly higher rate than unmarried men), simply having a hierarchy consisting of half females would have lowered our rate dramatically and automatically since less pedophiles leads to less victims.

2. Women, because they are often victims of sexual abuse, are more likely, statistically, to point out and report abusive behavior against children, teens, and women than men. This reporting is far more frequent when the women are at the same authority level, or higher level, than the abusing males.

3. Male priest abusers tend to use their state of high prestige due to clerical exclusivity, respect, and admiration from women to "groom" them, in order to gain access to attack their children. This was often the case in our church crisis, as many predatory priests narrowed in on and sought to become more intimate friends with recently divorced and widowed women or single women with mental disabilities who had children still living with them. Having no concern for the women, they used their priestly aura and believed spiritual potency to enchant these vulnerable and often lonely women, gaining them greater and more intimate access to their vulnerable children. Why is this sexism? - these priests intentionally did not go after the kid, in the family, whose father was present and an ex-marine.

4. If we had priests who were male and female, (and if this pool were still not sufficient, then perhaps even married priests, as well, along with celibate priests,) we would have no vocation crisis. Protestant churches with gender integrated hierarchies do not have any vocation crisis. This would give us ample candidates for priesthood and therefore we would be able to deny more of the questionable priestly candidates applying. When there are few choices to pick from, desperation has led our church into choosing candidates it knew had problems even before ordination. When I worked in a rectory during the late 1980s - early 1990s (for seven years), our pastor was a psychologist (rare at that time) so they sent him a couple of new priests that had issues, in the hopes he could somehow make them into capable priests. One of them was let go later on because he spread rumors from what some people had told him, only in the confessional, to other parishioners he had culled into his personal click. The other one, later on, was found to be a pedophile priest with multiple counts against him. We are still likely doing this, even now, that is picking candidates from desperation, because our candidates are still very few given our needs.

5. Already, through a rather low on the totem pole ministry, altar serving, we have taken a big hit at abuse access by allowing this ministry to become gender integrated. In the 1990s this change had still not spread into many of the parishes. By 2005 many parishes had well gender integrated alter server pools. Before this ministry was gender integrated, most parents of adolescent boys would allow a trip to the pastor's or associate pastor's family retreat at the beach or cabin in the woods, etc. because they trusted their priest and it was all boys so what is the worry? However, this type of access or these trips led to many male altar servers being victimized and often in multiple amounts. Having female altar servers in the mix makes this kind of trip offer uncomfortable for the priest to make. How does a priest offer a trip only to the boys without upsetting the girls? Most parents are not going to allow young girls on a trip with young boys with only a priest as a chaperone. Gender exclusivity allows greater access to male children and teens within patriarchy and has them treated less as children and teens by priests.

The above are only a portion of how sexism in our church causes evil and violence in our church. This does not even touch on the other horrors our religious sexism causes in our world. Our witness as Christians is soiled as we promote the view that women are not as sacred as men, or capable of representing Christ equally to men, ignoring what Christ has taught, that the flesh is nothing and the Spirit in a person is everything. People watch what we do more than what we say. As our witness of 'Sexism is ok with Jesus' takes place on our altars, and within our laws and teachings, we promote sexism in the workforce, governments, and family life outside our churches, on a global scale. What evils have already been proven to be promoted by religious sexism (including Catholicism's), in our world, include the following: war, terrorism, poverty, child abuse (sexual and otherwise), sex trafficking, disease, forced illiteracy, forced polygamy, rape, murder, female genital mutilation, and the list goes on.

Unlike other flesh biases, religion is perhaps the largest sponsor of sexism in the modern world. We must act within our religions to put an end to it, or there is little point fighting sexism in society, as it will only return, again and again, continually being re-energized by religion.

Mary Jo Hare
3 months 2 weeks ago

This is very sound advice. I was blessed to have a close relationship with an uncle that was a diocesan priest. Being from a small family - one sister with 10 children and a widowed mother - he made it a point to make his parishioners his family. It served him well over his lifetime. In our many discussions about faith, laity and priestly life, he often noted how many priests' friendships were primarily with other priests. As a lay person, I saw this disengagement a serious concern and often detrimental to ministry in its fullness to the community. Thank you for sharing this wise advice. I will pray that more priests take it to heart.

Rick Malloy, S.J.
3 months 2 weeks ago

Interesting that some 6 of the first 7 responses to this article are offered by women. See my U.S. Catholic article "Some of the Best Priests I Know are Women" April 1993. Certainly, expanding priestly ministry by ordaining women, and married men (and married women) would lead to a renaissance of Evangelization in our world, and a radical renewal of our church. Still, I would hope that everyone called to be a priest, a person who practices the sacrament of empty hands and the art of being a sign of God's presence, would strive to open themselves to be conduits of God's transformative love, grace and mercy. Being a priest is a gift and privilege, a gift given to be broken and shared, as is the Eucharist.

Nora Bolcon
3 months 2 weeks ago

Well, I can't agree more. I was also called to priesthood in my teens and so remain one of the walking wounded in our church with one fist raised up in rage and the other hand holding a tissue and a book of Christian Prayer.

It is refreshing to see a priest admit he wants to see women ordained priests, and especially owning up to it in writing nowadays. Most priests won't now, due to fear of being attacked by the papal police. How is it you have found the courage? and are you willing to seek other priests to fight for what is just?

Martina Nicholson
3 months 2 weeks ago

Thanks for this good advice. "Let the blessings land on you." Our faith is about learning to love God by loving each other, the interpersonal connections and the interdependence in community. The readings from this week help us see ever more clearly that being enfolded in loving community is the antidote to fear, to isolation, to loneliness. If you love Jesus and proclaim the Gospel, your parishioners will love and trust you, and find good fruit in you.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
3 months 1 week ago

"You belong to them."

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
3 months 1 week ago

We need to pray for the well-being and good health of the new priests.

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