All priests, especially those called diocesan, should bear in mind how much their sanctity profits from loyal attachment to the bishop and generous collaboration with him. — Lumen Gentium, No. 41
I just finished another book on building presbyteral unity. Entitled A Bishop and His Priests Together: Resources for Building More Intentional Presbyterates, it is the latest in a series of books, talks, retreats and convocations that I have written or designed around that subject.
Like every book I have written, a list of things that I left out began to cross my mind the minute the presses started to roll. I realized that most of what I have written is written from the perspective of what the bishop owes his priests. “A bishop should be concerned about the spiritual, intellectual and material condition of his priests” (Christus Dominus, No. 26). However, as I was using Eucharistic Prayer I for Masses of Reconciliation recently, I was struck by the words “keep us all in communion of mind and heart with our bishop.” Communion of mind and heart? I resolved then and there to write something about the compassion we priests owe our bishops, who have so many responsibilities and so many things that demand their attention. As Pope Paul VI put it, “To be a bishop today is more demanding, difficult and perhaps, humanly speaking, more thankless and dangerous task than ever before” (AAS 58:69).
There are a few good things about turning 67, and this is one of them — I am old enough now to write this kind of article without being accused of kissing up in hopes of becoming a bishop! After all, one of the most dangerous things a diocesan priest can do is to appear too solicitous of the bishop in front of his brothers.
The Christian ideal is that bishops and priests are equal in dignity and call, so what is said of the responsibilities of the bishop toward his priests can also be said of the responsibility of his priests toward their bishop. For example, at a time when men and women were not equal in society, St. Paul nevertheless told the Corinthian Church that the husband is the sanctifier of the wife and the wife is the sanctifier of the husband (1 Cor 7:14). When masters still owned slaves, Paul wrote to Philemon that the runaway slave, Onesimus, was sent back not as a slave, but as a beloved brother (Phil 15). At a time when codes proscribed the husband as head of the wife, the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians taught: “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).
Minimally, we priests owe our bishops compassion. The word “compassion” means “to suffer with.” Are we not all in this together? If one part suffers, do not all the parts suffer? If one part is honored, do not all parts share its honor?” St. Cyprian, in the Office of Readings for the Feast of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, put it this way: “Why should a priest not take pride in the praise given to a fellow priest as though it were given to him? What brotherhood fails to rejoice in the happenings of its brothers wherever they are?”
The first reason for offering compassion is for the sake of our effectiveness in ministry. “The relations between the bishop and the diocesan clergy should be based before all else on supernatural charity, so that their unity of purpose will make their pastoral activity more effective” (CD, No. 28). Surely, priests and bishops have realized as never before that it is only together that the Gospel will be effectively preached to a new generation of Roman Catholics.
The second reason for offering compassion is for the sake of our common humanity. Are we not all human? Are we so battered in our day-to-day post-conciliar ministry that we cannot feel for one another? Isn’t it the presbyterate’s task to make the bishop feel welcomed and respected, if not loved? Isn’t it their task to treat him as a brother and friend, looking out for his spiritual and physical welfare? Do priests as a body not understand that it is their duty to see to his ongoing formation, his health, even his sanctification? Is the presbyterate ready to give him the benefit of the doubt when perspectives clash? Is he a lonely prophet accepted everywhere but in his own town, who must find nourishment, encouragement and sustenance on his own?
I repeat, “The relations between the bishop and the diocesan clergy should be based before all else on supernatural charity.” However, this supernatural charity is often wanting. Let me cite three areas where priests’ sanctity can profit from offering their bishops the same compassion they seek from him.
In the practice of “supernatural charity,” priests must adopt the asceticism of controlling their own tongues. I once heard the late Father Andy Cusack say that the best program for the renewal of presbyterates would be a commitment from every priest to never ever again say a nasty and mean thing about another priest (or bishop). That, indeed, is a very good place to start, but merely not saying bad things about each other falls way short. Giving up “bad mouthing” is not enough. We need to adopt the spiritual practice of “good mouthing” each other. By that I mean giving direct, clear and unconditional compliments and words of encouragement to each other, rather than those half measures that end with a “but.”
In the practice of supernatural charity, priests need to take personal responsibility for their own happiness. Priests can often become, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “feverish, selfish little clods of ailments and grievances complaining that the bishop will not devote himself to making them happy.” Yes, the bishop is required to be concerned about the spiritual, intellectual and material condition of his priests, but as adults, priests must take responsibility for their own happiness and, when necessary, develop the skills of self-rescue.
As Pope John Paul II put it, after he had outlined all the things the Church should offer in the area of priestly formation, “...it is the priest himself, the individual priest, who is the person primarily responsible in the Church for ongoing formation” (PDV, No. 79). Priests with low self-esteem avoid being powerful; they have learned to be helpless. They withdraw from the simplest demands in a task, as well as from life’s opportunities. Author and counselor John Sanford calls these people “amniotic.” Amniotic people want to be taken care of. They want to find strong people — those in whom they can nestle, upon whom they can become dependent, and by whom they can be mollycoddled. To paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, “No bishop can be strong when his priests are individually weak.”
Finally, in the practice of supernatural charity, priests need to develop the ability to change their minds. In my lifetime, we have moved from “never being consulted” about appointments to “hell, no, I won’t go.” Two quotes from Christus Dominus apply here. “The harmony of the will of the priests with that of the bishop will render their pastoral activity more fruitful. . .and help priests develop a pressing concern for the spiritual welfare of the whole diocese. In order to distribute the sacred ministries more equitably and properly among his priests, the bishop should posses a necessary freedom in assigning offices.”
A priest’s promise of obedience makes the spiritual welfare of the whole diocese and the bishop’s necessary freedom possible. Pope John Paul II gives the best description of that promise of obedience in this regard when he says, “Priestly obedience demands a marked spirit of asceticism in the sense of not being too bound up in one’s own preferences and points of view” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 28).
When priests consider the spiritual welfare of the whole diocese and not just their own, compassion for the bishop and supernatural charity toward him become possible. This compassion and charity, which are part of a priest’s “loyal attachment” mentioned in Lumen Gentium, actually contribute to a priest’s sanctity. TP
Father Knott, ordained in 1970 as a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the Director of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana. He also serves as a campus ministry on weekends at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.