Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Modest Proposal for Priestly Life

I was alarmed when I saw him.

Twenty years earlier he had been our high school chaplain and teacher. As a young priest, he was quick-witted, smart, knew us each by name, played pranks on us and received some pranks back in return. The diocese put him in charge of a camp alongside the bay that had fallen into disuse and over the summer, my friends and I spent weekends clearing out brush, painting, and mowing the grass. We loved that guy.

But the priestly years had not been good to him. He was over-weight now, without spark, a shell of the man I remembered. There were whispers of alcoholism, some stints with rehabilitation, and then, a few years later, the bomb: he was accused of illicit liaisons with teenage boys, dating back to the late 1980's. He was quickly removed from the priesthood and lived out the rest of his life in shame, dying a broken man a few years later.

I am now a Catholic high school principal. Seven years ago a young priest was sent to us for his first assignment. He had the makings of an excellent teacher: a deep knowledge of his subject, theology, with that hard to define “with-it-ness” – a quick-wittedness and quirkiness that fascinated his students. I remember once visiting his classroom as he was standing on top of his desk, peering over the ledge in mocked pain. “Rebecca”, he said, “if you don’t know the answer to this question, I’ve failed as your teacher and I’m going to jump.” The class sat on edge, hoping Rebecca would get it wrong.

He combined this talent for teaching with a zeal to serve the Lord and his Church. He attended ball games. He talked sports with the boys and teased with the girls. He heard confessions and gave thoughtful, passionate homilies. A black woman, hearing him preach one day, told me “he had the anointing”. Students loved him.

On June 28, 2005 he took his own life.

We were completely devastated. What happened? Apparently, he suffered from clinical depression. No one knew that, except a very few people in the chancery some 170 miles to the south.

I shudder when I think back to a remark he made to me a few months earlier: “When you’re in the seminary”, he had said, “you are surrounded by 30-40 guys who all aspire to the same thing: ordination. The community, the laughter, the challenge to live a holy life, is incredible. My ordination was everything I dreamt it would be, the best day of my life. The very next day, I was assigned to a parish and I was suddenly all alone.”

How many good men must we see crash and burn before we realize our model for priestly living is wrong?

Up until now, our response to the sexual abuse crisis has been primarily procedural, fashioned by lawyers to protect diocesan liability. We're doing background checks, running workshops for teachers and volunteers, and teaching children the difference between a "good touch" and a "bad touch". In the event of an accusation, everyone knows how to respond.

But we haven't attacked the problem pastorally. The root of it, echoing the words of our chaplain, is that most of our priests live completely alone. Gone are the days when rectories were full of priests, thus providing them with a kind of automatic community with built in opportunities for fraternity and fellowship. Now our parishes have typically one priest, living alone in a rectory, largely unaccountable and generally lonely--many living this way for fifty years! And yet, we're surprised, disappointed and angry when our priests become alcoholics or develop sexual problems.

No, this isn't an argument for a married priesthood. I'll let others argue that point. Instead, I am making a modest proposal: that we rethink our paradigm of how priests live. The parish rectory is an anachronism, designed for a time when people couldn't drive or talk on telephones. To see a priest, one had to walk to the parish, which was often the center of town life. But today, with cars, telephones, cell phones, voicemail, call forwarding and email, the idea of a “priest in every parish rectory” makes little sense. Instead, let us begin to insist that priests from surrounding parishes live together and share some sort of life together. Make a minimal common rule (prayer and dinner once/day, perhaps?) and then send these priests to their various ministries all over the city.

It is worth noting that although the religious communities have not been immune to the scandals, the much bigger problem has been with diocesan priests. It only makes sense: in a community with other men, destructive personal behavior can be addressed long before it becomes an entrenched sickness. But more fundamentally, the laughter, friendships, and yes, the aggravations and "opportunities" for personal growth that living in a community requires are all healthy for priests--indeed, healthy for all of us.


Mr. Basso said...

you make a very insightful observation. One of the key factors in me discerning not apply for the priesthood was realizing that i was attracted to seminary life so much, and i knew that atmosphere wouldn't last.

Anonymous said...

Most of the "fallen priests" we know were most likely remarkable young men before joining the priesthood and as seminarians. We have to find the reasons how they deteriorated. One of the reasons, I am sure, is that man-made mandatory celibacy has something to do with the problems of priests, especially the sexual ones.