In my 46 years of priestly ministry, including my 27 years of episcopal ministry, one of my greatest challenges, as well as one of my most fulfilling experiences, has been serving in the capacity of offering pastoral care for presbyteral caregivers — that is, specifically, priests in the diocese who have experienced a particular difficulty in ministry due to their own faults, failures, addictions or problematic situations.
In my role as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, with the wonderful support and affirmation of my own diocesan bishop, I have been given the title of “point man” by the ordinary of the diocese. In that capacity, I find myself to be in the position of the diocesan ecclesiastical complaint department, dealing with complaints of parishioners and others relative to their contact with their parish priests. In those complaints, as any bishop would observe, specific problematic issues surface with individual priests, which issues need to be handled immediately, sensitively, pastorally, as well as in a manner that is authoritative, but not authoritarian; firmly, but not harshly.
Initial contact begins when a complainant contacts the chancery to report a specific concern regarding the inappropriate behavior of a particular priest. As I always do, I hear both sides of the story — that is, from the complainant and from the particular priest against whom the complaint or complaints have been made. When it is obvious that there are some issues in the life of the priest and the priest’s ministry that need to be addressed, the first personal encounter with the priest involves an evaluation of the particular problem the priest is facing.
Fortunately, in our diocese we have our own Diocesan Counseling Center for Church Ministers, for which I have served 27 years as the president of the board of trustees. With a staff of a priest director and two religious women, the first step is to get a simple evaluation from the center, which will indicate whether the problematic issue or issues of the priest could be handled on the diocesan level through counseling, either at the center or with a professional counselor in the area. Such an evaluation may indicate that the priest needs to go for a professional assessment. In the northeastern United States, we are blessed with several residential treatment centers for clergy and religious.
The next step is to “journey” with the priest, as the priest goes through the official assessment at the particular treatment center, an assessment that takes approximately four days. The final day of the assessment involves direct contact with the staff of the treatment center relative to recommendations regarding the specific issues the priest faces, which can be handled by a professional counselor in our geographic area or with the recommendation for residential treatment, which consists of a 14-week program followed by an 18-month recovery program involving two four-day “connections workshops” before final discharge.
Continuing the Journey
Regular contact is maintained with the priest during his period of treatment, as well as contact with a staff member of the residential treatment facility. After the completion of the 14-week program, I make sure that I am personally and physically present at the final discharge session, which I’ve found to be very effective insofar as the priest notes the sacrifice I have made in traveling to the facility for the recommendations made relative to the priest’s recovery program.
I have found most effective in the process of journeying with the individual priest the opportunity to have what I call chancery monthly accountability meetings. Within the context of the meeting, approximately an hour in length, the priest and I review the actual report that is submitted by the residential treatment facility to myself, as well as copied to the client. Within the context of the meeting, recommendations from the report are reviewed to be sure that the priest is following the specifics of his recovery program, as well as his “covenant” and “relapse program.”
The recovery program would involve reviewing that the individual priest has been meeting with a counselor, spiritual director, confessor or diocesan leadership, as well as scheduling a monthly meeting with members of a support group, whom he specifically has chosen and with whom he meets on a monthly basis to discuss how he is fulfilling the recommendations of his recovery program.
In the meantime, the assigned “aftercare person” from the treatment facility is in regular contact with the priest, offering oversight and assistance in the ongoing recovery program.
After the period of 18 months for the entire program, I make sure that I am physically and personally present at the treatment facility for the final discharge of the individual and recommendations relative to the follow-up to the entire residential treatment program.
Spirituality Support Group
I realized it would be a great benefit to the priests with whom I have journeyed the past several years to form a support group that would focus on spirituality in their priestly ministry. As that idea was germinating in my mind, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. one morning and immediately went to my desk. I sat down and wrote on a yellow pad several ideas for a monthly meeting. As I sat to jot down a few notes, I thought of the idea of a group of priests getting together for lunch, followed by a discussion of a particular article on the spirituality of priests and priestly ministry, followed by praying mid-day prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours and, where the Blessed Sacrament was present, shared prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
The whole concept involved the fact that no one would control the group. Each member of the group would take a turn to host the group and guide them in the discussion of the assigned article for the afternoon.
That day, I went about contacting several of the priests who already had completed their recovery program following their residential treatment.
I offered a prayer to the Holy Spirit and began to call each of the priests, not revealing the names of the individuals who would participate in the session. I emphasized to each priest the importance of absolute confidentiality regarding the identity of the priests who would be part of the group. I set a particular date and time when all would gather for a luncheon in the small dining room off the cafeteria on the second floor of the Catholic Center in downtown Buffalo.
The morning of the meeting, I stormed heaven asking the guidance of the Holy Spirit relative to the effectiveness of this gathering. I also wondered if perhaps this entire experience might just “implode.”
I was stunned, delighted and thrilled when all gathered with me in the small dining room for lunch. Each of them began to hit it off and to share their wonderful fraternity in the priesthood. Following the luncheon, I shared my idea of the monthly gathering for priests and the proposed format of each meeting.
One and all were thrilled with the idea. From there, we all went to the chapel in the Catholic Center and prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. It was a wonderful time of “shared prayer.” I was in tears as each one of them, from their hearts, spoke of their deep love for Jesus and the priesthood, as well as their joy of gathering together as priests and sharing with each other in appreciation of the wonderful call they had received from the Lord to be his priests.
I am pleased to say that this same group, formed six years ago, continues to meet on a monthly basis. On occasion, I visit with the members of the group to offer them ongoing encouragement in their recovery program.
I find it amazing that at every session each priest speaks up without being forced to do so. Each participant offers his reflection on how to implement the specific points of the reading in his own spiritual life. Time and again, the priests in the group have offered thanks to me for the formation of this type of group session. Each member of the group takes his turn in hosting the meeting. Before departing from the meeting, an individual volunteers to host the next meeting, as all in the group then pick the date, place and time for the next session. I have been most impressed by the honesty and transparency of each priest within the group.
On several occasions, the priests have expressed to me and to each other gratitude for the opportunity to have had an assessment, as well as to have participated in residential treatment. Every priest noted that when he was first approached with the idea of going for an assessment, he was angry at the bishop for suggesting it. However, now in hindsight, each priest was thankful for the opportunity to have the assessment, as well as treatment to address his specific issue or issues.
Every priest who has been in residential treatment and followed a recovery program knows that, for the rest of his life, he needs to be faithful to the written covenant he made in completion of his treatment, as well as to be faithful to the recommendations he has made in his own relapse program. That is where the monthly chancery accountability meeting comes into place. That meeting continues by way of mutual consent between myself and the priest. As time goes on, the meetings can take place on a quarterly basis or even a biannual basis.
The priests participating in the monthly spirituality support group meetings include priests who are still in active ministry as well as priests identified as “unassignable priests.” I’ve emphasized the importance of confidentiality within the group, as well as the importance of a tremendous trust level with each other, especially in the revelations each individual might make to the entire group during monthly meetings. Mutual trust is a key element in the priests’ relationship with each other.
No one controls the group, including myself, as auxiliary bishop. I was so proud to note that on one occasion there was the opportunity for another priest to join the group. I noted to the members of the group that perhaps they would find it difficult to accept a new member in light of the bonding that already had taken place among themselves.
All the priests responded by indicating they would be open to having a brother priest join them, which was the experience that they had during their own time in residential treatment. When a new priest was introduced to the group, he was warmly accepted by all the members of the group and truly did “fit in.”
I would note that the members of the group have stated time and again how much they appreciated my presence on occasion to be with them for their monthly meeting.
At a recent meeting with the priests, I shared with them the idea of writing an article for The Priest magazine to detail our experience as a group. Every single one of them offered affirmation for the idea.
I then asked each of the priests to comment on their experience of this wonderful spirituality support group. Here are some of the comments:
◗ “It’s a wonderful thing for priests to get together and to know they are not going it alone.”
◗ “The monthly meeting is a reminder and a shot in the arm to continue the struggle for wholeness.”
◗ “I have been praying and hoping for this type of experience. It’s been lifesaving.”
◗ “Our group shows that the bond of priesthood extends to those priests who are not in active ministry. The makeup of priests in the group are priests active and inactive.”
◗ “Priesthood is who you are, not so much what you do.”
As through the years, I have had with each particular priest in treatment a monthly chancery accountability meeting, I always have reminded each priest that he is a “wounded healer.” I see this as most apropos and valuable in a situation where I need to speak to a priest about his addiction of alcoholism.
The first comment I hear from the mouth of the priest is simply: “Bishop, you don’t know what it’s like to be an alcoholic,” to which I reply: “I really don’t know because I’m not an alcoholic. However, I’ll be pleased to put you in contract with a brother priest who knows exactly what you are talking about because he has been there; he has now control of his addiction, and he will be happy to journey with you.” The same holds true of the other members of the group who have experienced a similar addiction or difficulty that had been responsible for bringing him to an assessment and residential treatment in the first place.
A Call to Personal Holiness
In my experience of dealing with priests who have had to face serious problems and issues in their priestly ministry and lives, I have noted the importance of what is key to maintaining the ability to offer a daily “yes” (adsum) to the Lord. That key is a strong spirituality — that is, living faithfully our call to holiness as we continue, as priests and bishops, to be faithful to the conversio continua (continual conversation) of Jesus’ Gospel.
We, as priests, must always realize the important need to grow in holiness of life, as we follow the GPS of the Holy Spirit we received in the Sacrament of Holy Orders to guide us in the path of true holiness of life.
A quote from St. Gregory of Nazianzus says it all about priests, as he states: “Before purifying others, they must purify themselves; to instruct others, they must be instructed; they have to become light in order to illuminate; and become close to God in order to bring others closer to him; they have to be sanctified in order to sanctify.”
Balance of Ministry and Life
As I have shared and journeyed with several priests and their own assessments, residential treatment programs and aftercare programs, I truly have been thrilled and delighted to see the great progress that each priest makes as he honestly faces a need to look at the importance of a balance in his own priestly ministry and life, as well as to keep in place important elements to support him in living a priesthood that truly is reflective of his call to be an alter Christus.
While the entire residential treatment and aftercare program truly is holistic — that is, addressing the health of the individual priest mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually — the challenge remains to live each day in the spirit of faith and humility, offering a daily “yes” to the Lord in the spirit of Our Blessed Lady, Mother of Priests.
Guest House is a treatment facility in Lake Orion, Michigan, for Catholic clergy, men and women religious, and seminarians suffering from addictions and other behavioral health conditions. Along with in-patient treatment options, it offers consultations, workshops and retreats, convocations, clergy study days and seminary presentations. For more information, visit guesthouse.org
Presentation topics include but are not limited to following subject areas:
◗ Addiction and Risk Management — An Overview of Addictive Disorders
◗ Addiction and Trauma — Explore the Relationship of Addiction and Personal Trauma
◗ The Impact of Addictions on Spirituality
◗ The Evaluation and Treatment Process
◗ The Role of Leadership in the Treatment Process
My prayer is that the monthly priests’ spirituality support group continues to be a great aid to emphasize the pre-eminence of holiness in a priest’s life, rooted in the word of God, celebration of the sacraments, prayer, lectio divina, a great love and devotion for the Blessed Sacrament, regular spiritual direction and confession, priestly fraternity, healthy relationships and prayerful recourse to our Blessed Lady, Mother of Priests, to make of our lives as priests a true Magnificat, a true Canticle of Praise!
As I offer my reflections, I think of a passage in the Second Vatican Council’s document Presbyterorum Ordinis that states: “No priest, therefore, can on his own accomplish his mission in a satisfactory way. He can do so only by joining forces with other priests under the direction of the Church authorities” (No. 7).
The communion of priests with their bishops is aptly expressed in Pope St. John Paul’s exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, which notes:
“The ministry of priests is above all communion and a responsible and necessary cooperation with the bishop’s ministry” (No. 17).
It goes on to say: “This ministry demands of a priest an intense spiritual life, filled with those qualities and virtues typical of a person who presides over and leads a community” (No. 26). It is also important to note that priestly “fraternity maintains a kind and fraternal dialogue ... with those who for whatever reasons are facing difficulties” (No. 74).
May the ministry of every bishop be pastoral in outreach, especially to those priests “who for whatever reasons are facing difficulties.”
May each bishop, as teacher, brother and friend to his priests, offer the true spirit of the Lord Jesus in reaching out to all his brother priests, especially those most in need of his pastoral care, as he offers episcopal pastoral response for his priest caregivers.
BISHOP EDWARD M. GROSZ is auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, New York.