Around these parts, the “Year of the Priest” has been as much of a nonevent as the opening of Al Capone’s vault or spending New Year’s Eve with the Y2K bug. Although Pope Benedict XVI officially began the observance last June, it wasn’t until eight months later that any activity started registering on our local seismograph. That’s when daily ferverinos began direct-depositing themselves in my diocesan e-mail inbox—luscious little bits of soul candy from the writings of eighth-century martyrs—courtesy of someone in the clergy personnel office. Then there were the detailed instructions on how to obtain a plenary indulgence during this time, along with the valuable information that I may also apply this indulgence to “deceased brethren in suffrage.” The cherry on the sundae was an actor channeling St. John Vianney who’d been commissioned by a diocesan office to add a few local stops to his tour schedule so we could all catch the show and be inspired. I admit that I opted instead for Grease at the local high school, but only because one of the kids in our youth group landed the part of Sandy.
I don’t blame the diocesan brass for this lackluster observance. It was just lousy timing. Who knew back in June that this would also be the year that the winnowing fan would hit the Irish church? That the scandal would reach Munich? That the heartbreaking cries of two hundred deaf boys would sound through the decades and finally reach our ears? No, this “Year of the Priest” has not been the best for priests or for any Catholics. Just when some of us thought we might be turning the corner, moving on, re-establishing some level of trust, it turns out the wounds are far deeper and much more widespread than we thought.
The people in my parish, as in many, seem to be divided into two camps. There are those who are simply tired of it all, tired of hearing about the scandals and the endless debate over who is responsible. They view the new corrective and preventative measures that many dioceses now have in place as important and viable steps to a new beginning. They just want to get on with it and over it. I suspect that many of these people have not been personally affected by clergy abuse. Like a great majority of Catholics, they’ve had either neutral or good relationships with their parish priests.
On the other hand, there are people in the pews who remain angry and appalled at a system and a leadership that would knowingly set down a wolf near their children. Yet they love the church and, from what I can tell, have no intention of leaving it. They remain active members of the parish, and after Mass they even let their kids give me a hug. Their thoughts are set on the future as well, but with a sense that substantial structural change is the only way to assure the safety of generations to come.
Ministering to these two very different groups and preaching to them from the same pulpit has made this “Year of the Priest” quite an exercise in creativity for many of us in the parish setting. Both have my heart and both have my ear. Learning to be a priest for both of these groups has required me to reassess my role as a servant and as a leader. Fellow priests in my prayer group have been a tremendous source of support in all this; the people in my parish even more so, with their generous words and frequent encouragement. But in this most difficult “Year of the Priest,” from whom have I not heard a word? The boss. The guy in charge.
Maybe that’s how this year might best be celebrated. Let every bishop, archbishop, cardinal write a note to each of his priests. Don’t make it long or we won’t read it. Just be sure to make it personal. Don’t just sign your name to the sentiments printed on the back of a holy card. Refer to a specific homily I preached. Or tell me the great things you heard about our parish food pantry or carnival or speakers program. Or at least let me know that you appreciate how accurately I account for the royal jelly (since, technically, everything belongs to you), or how frequently I show my face at company gigs. Anything that lets me know that you know something about what I do as a priest, as a minister of God’s people.
More than an e-mail or an indulgence, this might go a long way in building up a little morale that’s been lost. Like so many Catholics, we priests aren’t going anywhere either. We’re here to help figure things out and, in the meantime, tend to the wounded, and baptize a few babies, and preach a few homilies, and chair a few meetings—all the things we normally do in the year, in the life, of a priest.