[Read GodSpy's interview with Fr. Stephen J. Rossetti ]
"My Beloved son... be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down."
—St. Stephen of Hungary
Just as priesthood is more difficult than most of us thought it would be, it is also a lot better. In the end, there can be no mediocrity in this life, no room for a half-hearted priesthood. It demands a personal, total, and radical commitment. I believe that one of the many learnings from the 2002 church crisis in the U.S. is that we are called to a life of full integrity and to a level of holiness that we might not have thought possible. In fact, it is the laity who has challenged us to these heights of sanctity. The people expect us to be chaste, humble, and totally dedicated servants of God. In our hearts, I suspect this is what we want for ourselves too.
This is one of the reasons that celibacy is part of the priestly commitment. As Saint Paul tells us, "An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided" (1 Cor 7:32-34). This radical, total commitment to the "things of the Lord" is our life's calling.
But even on this side of heaven, the difficulty of its sacrifices and sorrows are strongly overshadowed by its joys and its rewards. Jesus promised that we would receive one hundredfold in this life and we priests know it is true. I cannot think of a more meaningful life. What could be more satisfying than helping people in their sorrows, giving them hope, and being an instrument of God's grace? In the survey I conducted, mentioned in the last chapter, when asked if they believed their lives and ministries as priests make a difference in the world, 89.1 percent of the priests said yes. If young people had an inkling of the satisfaction and a taste of the joys of priestly life, many more would be knocking on rectory doors to join our ranks.
There are many trials and struggles of our priestly lives... But these are nothing compared to the majesty of our calling.
In my survey, the priests were given a statement, "Overall, I am happy as a priest." The percentage of the priests who either agreed or strongly agreed that they were happy as priests was 90.5. Only 6.2 percent indicated they were thinking of leaving the priesthood and when asked if they would do it all over again, 82.5 percent said yes. These are very strong survey results. Some in our society have gotten the impression that priestly life is sad and unfulfilling. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When researching priestly satisfaction rates in previous surveys, similar very strong results have been consistent, and thus the results of my survey should not be a complete surprise. These previous studies help to confirm my findings. The 2001 NFPC study reported that only 5 percent reported they were thinking of leaving the priesthood, 88 percent said they would choose priesthood again, and 94 percent said they were currently either very or pretty happy. In short, priests find great satisfaction in being priests.
I have spent some time working with seminarians. Because they are not yet priests, they often do not have a full awareness of the depth of their calling. For example, when they are in training as chaplains in hospitals, they often see themselves as secondary and inferior to the doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. It is true that these professionals have a noble calling and they themselves participate in the healing work of Christ. But the chaplain carries a message and a grace that is of first importance. I tell the seminarians, "Medical science can only keep people alive for so long. The end will come for us all. You help the people to live well... and to die well. And you offer them something that will never end." Health care professionals' work is of great concern; it has life and death consequences. But the priest's role touches issues of ultimate concern; its consequences are now and forever.
Nothing is more important. Laboring in this field of ultimate concern is a great privilege. Perhaps this is why the priest is instantly welcomed into peoples' homes. Every priest experiences this after ordination, and I suspect many are a little surprised by it. I recall speaking to a young couple who had, two years previously, moved into the town where I was ministering. They complained that it was difficult to meet people and to be welcomed by them. I thought to myself, "I've only been here a few months and I know a lot of people and have been in their homes." The priest is a welcome friend to the people. For many Catholics, he is treated as a member of their extended family. He is a symbol of our caring, compassionate God and many people want him in their lives.
Priestly Satisfaction is High
I find it interesting and consoling how much satisfaction priests find in their ministerial lives. Survey after survey finds the same basic results: Priests love doing pastoral ministry and find great satisfaction in it. In the 2001 NFPC study, when asked more specifically about what they found of "great importance" as a source of priestly satisfaction, 90 percent endorsed "joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over liturgy;" 80 percent endorsed "satisfaction of preaching the Word;" and 67 percent endorsed "opportunity to work with many people and be a part of their lives." In my own 2003-2005 survey, 92.1 percent of the priests endorsed the statement, "Overall, I feel fulfilled ministering as a priest." When given the statement, "I am committed to the ministry of the Catholic Church," the response was almost unanimous: 95.9 percent said yes.
What could be more satisfying than helping people in their sorrows, giving them hope, and being an instrument of God’s grace?
These are incredibly high rates of commitment and satisfaction. I am confident that these rates would match up favorably with any work one might consider. In fact, in a 2003 CNN poll of five-thousand Americans only 62.9 percent said they were "happy with their current job." When the priests in my survey were asked the same basic question, "Are you happy in your current ministry?" 89.8 percent of the priests agreed. Perhaps one of the most needed vocational tools is to get the word out about how happy and satisfied our priests are, perhaps having young people observe these happy priests' lives so they can see it for themselves.
People love and support their priests
People respond to their priests with gratitude. In the midst of the 2002 church crisis, Catholics in Boston, the epicenter of the ecclesial shockwave, were asked by the staff of the Boston Globe if they were dissatisfied with their parish priests. Only 4 percent said that they were. In the midst of this crisis in the Church, 96 percent of the people supported and were satisfied with their parish priests. The people are grateful for their priests and, when given a chance, willingly show their affection.
I recall a priest who decided to leave the parish where he had been ministering for a number of years. He did not believe that the people really cared about or supported him and he became dissatisfied. So, he quietly told the bishop he wanted to be transferred and was given a new assignment. Before he left, he had the customary departure Mass and social. The priest was stunned by the outpouring of sentiment and the expressions of sorrow at his departure. He said, "If I had known how much they loved me, I would have stayed!" Like us, the laity are busy, often preoccupied, and do not always express their gratitude. But try to take away a beloved priest and the people of the parish will rise up in protest!
We priests often miss the many signs of support and appreciation that come our way. We tend to focus on the negative. The truth is that the people are regularly and in many ways expressing to us their affirmation. Sadly, we tend to tune out the positive and only let in the negative. For example, if ninety-nine people tell you after Mass how much they loved your homily, and one person criticizes it, whom do you think about at night? Many times it is our own inability to take in the warmth coming our way that results in our feeling unappreciated.
I encourage every priest to take a quiet moment and reflect upon the events of the past week. No doubt there will be a few moments of conflict and unhappiness, as there are in any life. But woven throughout the days are many words of thanks and appreciation, signs of gratitude and support, such as the hospital patient who smiles at the priest when he arrives, the parishioner who makes a special effort to shake the priest's hand after Mass on Sunday, or the grateful eyes of a person whom the pastor took a moment to call on when hearing of a death in the family. The vast majority of the people are very grateful for our presence. A key to living our priestly life with grace is to take in these moments and let the laity support us, just as much as we take in the daily conflicts and problems that agitate us so.
A Sacramental Life
Much of the priest's work is presiding at the sacraments. He is uniquely the presider at Eucharist, the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the Anointing of the Sick. He also regularly presides at baptisms, funerals, and weddings. These can become a bit routine, and at times a burden, particularly if the priest has three or more in a single day. More of us will do so in the future as our numbers dwindle and the demands keep rising.
We will have to do some realistic planning about this for the future. The plain fact is that we are going to have many fewer priests in the developed Western nations in the near future and a lot more of the faithful who need our ministry. We will have to use our priests wisely, and they will need to plan the use of their energies and time with care and thoughtfulness. We will want to ask ourselves such basic questions as, "Who is most in need of a priest's ministry? How can I best serve the people of this place?" We will also need to ask, "What is the charism of the priest in active ministry?"
In the midst of this crisis in the Church, 96 percent of the people supported and were satisfied with their parish priests.
Some have decried the reduced numbers of priests in this country as a negative sign for the Church. I think it is indeed a negative sign of our affluence and the materialistic narcissism of our day. The vocation "crisis" is only a crisis in the wealthier nations of the world. In fact, the Vatican reported that there is a boom in vocations internationally; in 1978 there were 63,882 major seminarians in the world and in 2001 there were 112,982. According to the secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, "Never in the history of the Church have we had so many seminarians studying philosophy and theology." Vocations go down in areas as affluence rises. Jesus had something to say about the rich and the kingdom of God.
At the same time, the calling to be a priest has been, and will always be, somewhat rare. Sadly, the world has never had enough, at least from a human perspective. Unfortunately, there have always been, and always will be, areas of the world that do not have Sunday Eucharist available. As grace-filled as the life is, it takes a heart that cares deeply for the eternal in others, eyes to see the marvels of our gracious God, and a willingness to offer one's life in service. May God grant more people this priestly heart.
Some people have suggested that the priests themselves are not supporting vocations in the United States. My 2003-2005 survey results suggest otherwise. When given the rather personal statement, "If I had a nephew, I would encourage him to become a priest," 72.7 percent of the priest sample agreed. Moreover, 72.8 percent of the priests said they actively encourage people to become priests. In surveys done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 78 percent of the newly ordained acknowledge that before they entered the seminary a priest had directly asked them to consider priesthood. This direct encouragement of vocations by priests is clearly an important vocational tool. It is also a strong sign of priestly satisfaction. People who are negative about their vocations are unlikely to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.
While the priest's ministry has always been intimately connected with the sacraments, it will be even more so in the future. It will be important that our priests not become solely providers of sacraments to the exclusion of all else. Spending time with the people in a variety of settings, outside of the sacraments, is not a luxury. It is essential for the people and it is an integral part of his priestly vocation. Nevertheless, the sacraments have been and always will be a central part of his life.
Despite what is sometimes the routine of the sacraments, it is essential that the priest see in these moments a unique conferring of God's grace. Some time ago, there was a theology going around which suggested that the sacraments were merely signs that depicted what had already taken place between the individual and God. This has never been the teaching of the Church and it voids the sacraments of their real power. They are indeed signs, but within the sign is a grace-filled moment in which there is a direct transmission of God's life.
If the priest loses this sense, he loses the true lifegiving force that is the Church, and his own life becomes void of much of its power as well. The Catholic Church is founded by Christ who dwells within this Church in a full and direct way. Thus the Church is a sacrament, in and of itself. That is, the Church is a sign of God's presence on this earth and this sign is itself an instrument of God's grace. Similarly, the priest is a kind of sacrament himself. His presence, as one who is in persona Christi capitis, is a grace for the people, despite his very human failings. As he presides at the sacraments, these unique gifts of God make holy important moments in people's lives, such as births, sickness, weddings, and funerals.
The priest shortage is indeed a negative sign of our affluence and the materialistic narcissism of our day.
I believe that there is a kind of reflected grace that the priest participates in when he celebrates the sacraments. We are all aware that the priest is an instrument of God's grace in the sacraments. We know that the individuals who receive the sacraments are uniquely blessed at that moment. But priests consistently cite the sacraments as important moments in their own spiritual journeys. They speak of their presiding at the sacraments as graced moments for themselves. For example, each priest has felt at times the consoling presence of our merciful God in the confessional. All of us have sometimes experienced a sense of nourishment and a profound peace when presiding at the Eucharist. When anointing the sick, we ourselves have sometimes felt touched by God's healing grace. It seems that the priest is not only one who dispenses God's grace, but also one who receives a blessing of grace at the same time; a kind of reflected grace comes back to him.
I remember one of my first pastors when I was newly ordained. One day he was sick and I offered to celebrate the morning Mass in his place. He told me that he appreciated the thought but said that he wanted to do this not only for the people but also for himself. Being one whose life is closely connected to the sacraments means that the priest is intimately connected to that which is holy. He, too, is graced when he presides at the sacraments. His life becomes touched and slowly transformed by these graced moments.
I personally find it a blessing to spend time in the church and, in particular, time before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer. While God is present everywhere, God is uniquely and powerfully most present in the Eucharist. Being at home in God's house is a wonderful privilege given to the priest. God shares his house with all, but especially with the priest who is uniquely at home in this place and with him.
Fed by Grace
The priest's life then is one that is directly and intimately connected to sacred things, that is, things that are dedicated to God. He himself is dedicated to God as well. So, in a certain sense, he becomes like the church building, that is, sacred because it is dedicated to God. An apt metaphor for the priest is the chalice. When you really think of what most chalices are, they are ordinary metal underneath. The metal is hammered into shape and then dressed up with beautiful decorations, but it is still rough metal underneath. It is then totally consecrated to God's service; it ought not to be used for secular purposes.
We priests are human beings, no better and no worse than our lay brothers and sisters. But we are initially formed through the seminary and undergo a lifelong formation; we are "hammered" into shape. We are dressed up in special garments to signify the priesthood, such as the stole and the chasuble. Then, we are consecrated solely to God's service. This is one notion that helps to understand the commitment to celibacy; we are committed completely to God.
The air that the priest is meant to breathe is filled increasingly with grace. Down through his years of priestly service, he becomes more and more attuned to the ways of God. What a joy it is to see the hand of God working in people's lives! It is a special privilege to have a small part to play in these divine works. This, then, is a great blessing and joy of the priestly life. Our lives are dedicated completely to God, and to the people. Thus, they are sacred, despite our perpetually nagging human frailty.
In designated moments which we call sacraments, we are uniquely conduits of this grace. And it is not uncommon that we ourselves would witness and receive some of the power of such grace. Like every other priest, I have been moved time and again by powerful moments in the confessional. Many penitents have wept and, with them, my heart, too, has been touched. Similarly, at times our hearts are raised up in a joy-filled consolation when we offer back to the Father the body and blood of Christ on the altar. How many hearts have been consoled as we touch them in their final illness with the holy oils and dispense the last rites before they return to God? We are recipients of a reflected grace.
Our lives are dedicated completely to God, and to the people. Thus, they are sacred, despite our perpetually nagging human frailty.
There are many trials and struggles of our priestly lives, difficulties that come from the life itself and difficulties that arise from our own broken humanity. But these are nothing compared to the majesty of our calling. The priest's life "swims" in grace. He is a friend to all that is holy and of God. To live this life with integrity and peace, he must develop the eyes to see God's work and a heart deep enough and open enough to take in these daily graces.
The people know he is a man of God. This is why they open their homes to him. Unless he betrays their trust, he is given a key to their homes and their hearts that no one else is given. They tell him their most intimate secrets, their hopes and their fears, their joys and their sins. They speak to him in the hope that, by opening their hearts to him, they have opened their hearts to God. And indeed, they have.
It is an awesome grace and responsibility, but we ought to have no fear. The grace and the power are imbedded in the sacrament of orders. In the end, this is God's work, not ours. We only have to give God the room to work... by giving him our all.