Year for Priests: A modest suggestion for the priesthood

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

On June 19, at a vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI formally opened what he has proclaimed as the Year for Priests.

The purpose of the year, the pope has noted, is to encourage among priests a deeper prayer life and a renewed effort toward the “spiritual perfection” on which, says the pope, “the effectiveness of their ministry primarily depends.”

Let me say something about how the priesthood rolls out on the ground level and then make a modest suggestion.

The pope has timed the year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests. But the life of the Curé of Ars, who spent several hours each day in the confessional in a rural town in France, bears little resemblance to the (mythical) “average day” of the priest in America right now.

Yesterday (as I write) was a Thursday, which is theoretically my “day off.” (A wonderful hospital chaplain generously takes the parish Mass on Thursday morning, so that the pastor can “get away,” which lately rarely happens.) This, in fact, was how yesterday went. It started at 8 a.m. at a board meeting of our local Catholic hospital, where the discussion is always spirited (and often lengthy). The hospital is building a quarter-billon-dollar addition, so there are financial issues surrounding that. It is also in the process of merging with a secular hospital, so there are ethical dimensions to address.

Finishing the meeting at 10, I drove to our parish office to draft a report on parish consolidation. The five Catholic parishes in our area this year are merging into three because of population shifts and the scarcity of priests. Lots of questions are on the table — new staffing patterns, revised Mass schedules, shared religious ed. programs, sale of vacated properties — and we have the next few months to figure it all out.

As I was writing that report, I was at the same time fielding phone calls: final arrangements for weddings (11 of them over the next few weeks) and baptisms (four this weekend); the ever-present calls from people with certain needs (the lonely woman who calls frequently simply to ask if it’s “all right if I call you tomorrow”; the man beset by scruples who calls most days, and many nights, to ask if I will “place your hands on my head, put the scapular around my neck and sprinkle me with holy water”). The challenge is to remember that “God is in the interruptions” and that a priest, like Christ, must always be kind.

Then it was off to the hospital and a local nursing home to visit parishioners, back to the parish for a wedding rehearsal, a 20-minute respite to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a supper-sandwich wolfed down at a local deli before repairing to the rectory desk to write a funeral homily. Soon it was 10 p.m. and time to fall asleep while watching the television news.

I’m not saying that the life of the priest is all work and no play; if you let it be that, you’ll soon be in trouble. Next Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m going to Baltimore with two high school classmates who are also fellow inveterate Red Sox fans to see Boston play two games against the Orioles. (Tickets at Fenway Park are nearly impossible, but at Camden Yards you can walk in off the street.)

What I am saying is that a monastic spirituality, with a large dose of quiet built in, just doesn’t work for today’s parish priest. Instead, how about this as a practical alternative: 10 minutes a day, early in the morning before the craziness begins, 10 minutes to talk things over with God, to measure progress on our journey to heaven. Let’s do it just for a year — the Year for Priests. It could even become a habit.

Father Doyle, a priest of the diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Michael Jackson’s spirituality

Amid the whirlwind of talk and writings about the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, after his death last week, we stumbled upon a story he wrote for Beliefnet in 2000 chronicling his faith.

During his childhood in the spotlight, Jackson found solace in going to church on Sundays, he wrote. He was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, though there have been reports that he converted to Islam. He also spent the Sabbath handing out missionary materials at homes and malls.

As the musical and cultural sensation grew in popularity, the media made it difficult for him to attend church, but he continued going door-to-door for “years and years” in disguise.

“I was comforted by the belief that God exists in my heart and in music and in beauty, not only in a building,” he wrote.

But he still missed feeling like part of a community, “sharing a day with God.”

He goes on to write that he experienced God when his children were born.

“Children are God’s gift to us. No — they are more than that — they are the very form of God’s energy and creativity and love. He is to be found in their innocence, experienced in their playfulness.”

Much of Jackson’s life was riddled by publicity crises, sex abuse accusations, unverified gossip, theories on what went wrong. This raw account offers a glimpse into the effect a lifetime of celebrity can have on a psyche.

And whatever you choose to believe and remember about his private life, it seems his intentions were good and his outlook pure.