July 14, 2010
In a State of Grace? Thank a Priest
Every time I go to confession, I am yet again grateful for the men who serve us as priests. Of course I am thankful for Mass, but it often seems that the priests are grateful, too. Confecting the sacrament, offering in persona Christi the perfect sacrifice, feeding Christ’s people the saving Food . . . the priests I’ve known have told me that this is the high point of their lives. (All the more reason why liturgists shouldn’t crowd the sanctuary with laymen poaching on their role.)
I cannot imagine taking the same satisfaction in hearing confessions. In the church where I go to be shriven here in New Hampshire — no, it’s not my parish . . . I don’t evacuate where I eat — the priest who faithfully staffs the booth each Saturday sounds like he’s in his 70s. His old voice creaks through the grille, gentle but serious, and on my way out after penance I find myself wondering about the man. What path drew him to this place? Is he sick at heart, after all these years, of hearing week in and week out how stubborn and irreformable are our hearts? How is his health? And then, more selfishly: What will we do without him?
The last survey I can find on the average age of American priests put it at 60, and that number comes from 1999; perhaps we’d rather not hear how much worse the situation has gotten since. A priest in my area told me that his bishop fairly begs elderly clerics not to retire — so most of them don’t. They keep on straining to raise chalices, bending old necks beneath the stole, long past the age the rest of us hang up our aprons. They serve generations such as mine that have failed to replenish their ranks. In the year after I was born, 1965, there were 994 priests ordained in America. In 2008, there were only 480. The only reason many of us have parish priests at all is that so many men — perhaps too many men — were ordained back in the 1950s and 1960s.
While the number of clergy involved in abuse is a tiny percentage, the ugliness of the crimes and the callousness of their cover-up have for now made squalid and pornographic the public perception of our priests. The media doesn’t have to make things up, just highlight them, to drain the Church’s credibility, even among believers. For my upcoming book, we chose as the cover photo a quaint old 1950s picture of a priest hearing a boy’s confession. When I showed the picture to a fervent Catholic friend, he winced. “I don’t know. Might people think it’s kind of . . . pervy?”
I almost snarked back: “When you hear that someone’s Italian, do you assume he’s in the Mafia?” But my quick Celtic temper gave way to Slavic sadness, as I thought back on all the good priests I’ve been blessed to know over the decades. Father Pezzullo, Father Mulloney, Father Grisaitis, Father Hardon, Father Shelley, Father Spriggs . . . I can’t list their names without my eyes tearing up. These men deserved better, the priesthood deserves better, than to land in the ditch where it seems to lie today — when policemen in once-Catholic countries are drilling into the coffins of dead archbishops in search of incriminating documents. That didn’t happen in The Da Vinci Code; it happened last month in Belgium. When I read the reports, I wanted to be outraged at the state’s incursion on the Church. But I couldn’t. My weary thought was, “Was that really necessary? If so, God help us.”
Will we ever again have rectories full enough to let our priests live in communities? Not in my lifetime. How many young men today are ready to serve as circuit-riding hermits, living in large and haunted Gothic buildings, driving hundreds of miles every week to say Mass for laymen they’ll barely know? It sounds a stark and comfortless life to me, one I’d have trouble urging on any young man. Maybe I’m part of the problem.
St. Thomas teaches that grace perfects and builds on nature. Spiritual writers assure us that God will provide us the consolations we need to follow the call He sends us. I will take that on faith, and remember to pray that He do that for all our priests. Thinking of the humanly desolate situation so many priests face today helps me to see them in full color and three dimensions — not as the functionaries of a billion-man religion, impersonal channels of sanctifying grace, or even (God forbid) as one nasty sacristy rat I knew used to say, “sacrament machines.” Without losing respect for the uncanny spiritual powers with which they have been vested, I have learned to see them more as men. Each one is a priest as my dad was a father, and each one carries a cross. In these times we owe our priests special acts of kindness and gestures of friendship. Like New York City policemen in the 1970s, these men are on the front lines of what can seem like a losing war. We soldiers in the rearguard must support our men in the trenches.
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