Few professions have taken such a beating in recent years as the Catholic priesthood. Revelations of the sexual abuse of minors by priests have done real harm to the reputation of the Church, the hierarchy and the institution of the ministerial priesthood itself.
At one time, the priesthood may have offered a step up in social status, an aura of fresh-cut self-sacrifice, honor and holiness. Think Father Chuck O’Malley in the 1944 “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” who, despite his youth, enjoyed the respect even of those who didn’t have much use for Catholics.
Those days are long gone. Today donning a Roman collar and clerics takes guts because it is likely to draw uncomfortable stares in public and maybe even awkward encounters with mistrustful fellow Catholics. Plus the job has gotten only harder as the number of priests has dropped; anyone answering the call knows they can look forward to a challenging, underpaid, overworked career.
Why in the world would anyone want to join the priestly ranks?
Ask the 440 men who are being ordained this year in the United States. Most are young, some are old, but all hold the conviction that God is calling them to this life of deprivation, sacrifice, service — and authentic happiness (see Pages 9-12).
It has always taken a certain amount of heroism to voluntarily accept a life of simplicity, celibacy and obedience to serve God’s people; today, even more so. And as one American bishop recently noted, the very fact that the priesthood today has lost every earthly professional appeal helps guarantee that those discerning a vocation are properly focused on its supernatural attractions.
“I want to bring people [the] love of God, that they may feel it,” says one of this year’s new priests. “The priesthood will enrich my life and allow me to get closer to him, and he will take me and mold me, he will make me his special instrument to work his graces into the world. I will basically be sitting in the first row in the show of his action in people’s lives. What a gift.”
Today’s generation of priests, forged in the crucible of this crisis, are also better prepared — particularly in sexual integration — and vetted than priests who went through the seminary even 30 years ago. They undergo psychological tests and fingerprinting. Unlike the past, a regular and open topic of conversation among today’s seminarians and their formators is how to be faithful to the promise of celibacy.
Fidelity is a value our society seems to have lost. Witness the recent collapse of political careers over disclosed adultery. So the example of heroic priestly fidelity — and marital fidelity — also serves the wider society.
Recently in Portugal, Pope Benedict XVI underscored the importance of fidelity in a meeting with priests, religious, deacons and seminarians.
“Let me open my heart,” he said, “and tell you that the greatest concern of every Christian, especially of every consecrated person or minister of the altar, must be fidelity, loyalty to one’s own vocation, as a disciple who wishes to follow the Lord. Faithfulness over time is the name of love.”
All of us are called to strengthen each other in our fidelity to our vocations, in whatever walk of life we find ourselves.
This month, as the Year for Priests closes, express gratitude to and support for the priests and seminarians in your life. And pray that God sends his Church many more good and holy priests.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor