20 January 2008

A priest to pray for

A post on The New Liturgical Movement today highlighted an article Dr. Jeff Mirus of Catholic Culture wrote in which he discusses The Other Health Crisis: Why Priests are Coping Poorly by Fr. Paul Stanosz in Commonweal.

Dr. Mirus' article absorbed me. As he points out, "this article unintentionally demonstrates an extremely important spiritual point."

It is important to read both articles in their entirety. However, a flavor of Fr. Stanosz' conclusions may be seen in these sentences, which appear towards the end of his article:
For me personally, acknowledging that the church and priesthood are in decline will lower my expectations of my bishops, brother priests, and my parishioners ... I’ll learn to say “no” when diocesan officials ask me to take a third, fourth, or fifth parish. I’m not advocating apathy in the face of decline; I’m merely recognizing that the decline began before me and will continue after me. Even Pope John Paul II, with all his vision, courage, and tenacity, was unable to return the masses to the church. The new evangelization he called for remains to be undertaken.

And so I anticipate ministering to a shrinking Catholic flock as I grow old. This does not mean that the work and mission of the presbyterate will be increasingly irrelevant. On the contrary, it will be all the more pressing and challenging. Embracing this reality decreases my anxiety, sharpens my vision, makes my expectations more realistic, and makes my spirit less likely to burn out; it leads me to care for my health, so that I will be able to care for those entrusted to me. To restore health to our pastoral function, we priests first need to admit our own pain and disorientation in a foundering church.
In his words, one can sense Fr. Stanosz' tired resignation. My heart grieves for this priest, and for all who feel as he does.

Read Dr. Mirus' article to see what he thinks. For my part, I was struck by the solutions Fr. Stanosz recommends: "embracing" the reality of a foundering American church, and taking care of his health.

At only one point does Fr. Stanosz mention his boss (not the archbishop; Jesus). And it is in a remarkable paragraph.
An aging presbyterate should not exhaust itself in implementing new programs that are at best only Band-Aids. Instead, we must acknowledge the magnitude and the complexity of the forces that lie behind American Catholicism’s loss of vigor, and stop blaming Vatican II or the bumbling bishops who shielded pedophiles and failed to protect children. We should avoid blithely scapegoating “the culture of death” and the evil of the secular world. After all, there are currents of sin and grace in both the church and the world. An eagerness to blame “the world” may keep us from seeing our own failure to embody the compassion and virtue of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Mirus discusses the many problems and implications of the passage, and I (again) recommend reading his article. What struck me about it was Fr. Stanosz ends by saying, in essence, that we should embody the compassion and virtue of Jesus.

I think, for me, that is the key.

While it could be argued that one might embody the compassion and virtue of Jesus, there is only one way that is going to happen ... and that way is not mentioned anywhere in the article.

Mother Teresa was renowned for an extraordinary, relentless, heroic charity. Her order is full of those who regularly rescue dying persons and tend to their loathsome physical conditions and, in truth, embody the compassion and virtue of Jesus.

However, they do not try to rev themselves up for this exclusively by sitting around and singing songs about how wonderful it is to be with Jesus.

They kneel on the floor, and they pray and meditate on Jesus. Then they go out with their hearts and minds and thoughts attuned to Him, so that they readily recognize Him in His most needy ones.

Analyzing her deeds and achievements, John Paul II asked: "Where did Mother Teresa find the strength and perseverance to place herself completely at the service of others? She found it in prayer and in the silent contemplation of Jesus Christ, his Holy Face, his Sacred Heart."

In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI mentioned Teresa of Calcutta three times and he also used her life to clarify one of his main points of the encyclical. "In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service." Mother Teresa specified that "It is only by mental prayer and spiritual reading that we can cultivate the gift of prayer."
From Wikipedia

Fr. Stanosz refers to "... high stress, poor health, and low morale. More and more [priests] are battling burnout and depression as well as suffering heart attacks and dying prematurely..." Yet we know that health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, increased longevity, and reduced risk for depression, may occur in people who regularly practice their spiritual faith or who are part of a religious community. Fr. Stanosz rejects "disciplines and devotional practices that flourished in the middle of the last century," identifying them with unsuitable candidates to the priesthood. He does not mention the prayer habits and lifestyles of those priests who are suffering. However, Carlo Carretto wrote: "I do not believe in theologians who do not pray... When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation."

While perhaps not to Fr. Stanosz' taste, there is a worldwide initiative to help priests through Eucharistic Adoration which has been launched by no less than the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.
Women were also mentioned as important members of this new initiative. “The vocation to be a spiritual mother to priests is not well known, poorly understood and therefore not commonly practiced, despite its vital importance. Regardless of age, all women can be spiritual mothers to a priest”, the congregation noted. Women are also encouraged to pray anonymously for a specific priest and to spiritual accompany him.
My patron saint - one Fr. Stanosz likely does not "cotton to" - was committed to interceding for priests.

Dr. Mirus gave a balanced, clear analysis of Fr. Stanosz' article. I think there are some of us who can clearly see what Fr. Stanosz perhaps cannot, in his exhausted and dispirited state. Let us pray for him.

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