‘What Priests Need to Save the Church’

‘What Priests Need to Save the Church’

So many books and articles have been written recently about the struggles we face in the Catholic Church today, and many of these focus on a reform that is needed in the priesthood, since as we know, without priests there is no Eucharist or absolution from sin. 

As I read these, I feel somewhat encouraged and validated, and I certainly agree with authors reminding us that we need more prayer, self-sacrifice, hard work, and faithfulness to Church teaching. However, looking for some solace in what often feels like an insurmountable struggle, I have seen very little mention of what we, the priests, need in order to stay committed and fight discouragement. 

This reflection’s title, by the way, is a bit of a spoof on a recently written book with a similar title. In reality, I have learned that it is not my job or yours to save the Church, nor does it need saving. We already have a Savior, His name is Jesus, and He has promised to never leave us. I am reminded of a quote from St. John XXIII, “Lord, it’s your Church, you fix it, I’m going to bed.” In addition, the words of Mother Teresa are so crucial, “God does not ask us to be successful, He asks us to be faithful.”

One of my favorite authors, Dr. Conrad Baars, has written numerous books about the need for affirmation in our world today. He could already see half a century ago that the breakdown of families and relationships was creating a commonplace epidemic of inner struggles over identity and one’s ability to thrive. His beautifully written books instruct us on how to help each other heal by making use of the simple gift of affirmation. 

This affirmation does not refer to the casual random compliment that one may give to another, but rather it is the loving attention one gives as a gift of one’s very self, reminding the other that he or she is good and worthwhile.  It is in the spirit of Dr. Baars that in my own reflections on the priesthood I have come up with a list of 10 types of affirmation that will help priests to thrive despite what they may face on a daily basis.

First, the most important affirmation needed in the priesthood is affirmation from God. Luckily, this is offered in abundance. If we do not receive it, it is because we are not giving Jesus the priority of our time. Ever since my spiritual conversion in high school, adoration has been central to my life. In addition to devotion to Mary and the rosary, this is what led me to the priesthood and sustains me every day. 

Most days I find myself carrying some heavy burdens. These lead me to feel discouraged and tempted and to even doubt my vocation. Adoration brings me right back to sanity as I lay my burdens at the feet of the Master. There is a temptation to say that we are too busy for this. I’m sorry, but if my priesthood is not primarily about a relationship with Jesus, then it no longer makes sense. Apart from life-and-death emergencies, the people and the structures can wait. If I am not filled with the Spirit that comes from prayer, then what I am giving them is only a cheap imitation anyway.

Second, we need affirmation from our bishops. Just as every child can only truly thrive with the love of both a mom and a dad (psychology agrees with the Church on this), and even Jesus needed the Father’s voice to strengthen Him for His mission, so a priest needs the loving attention of His spiritual father. 

Yes, whether he agrees with it or not, it is essential to the identity and mission of a bishop to be the spiritual father of the priests entrusted to him. A good example of this is the bishop who ordained me.  Although he was far from perfect, in my final days of seminary and early days of priesthood, he met with us, ate with us, prayed with us, and discussed with us our hopes and fears. Even when he was critical of me, I felt that he knew my strengths and weaknesses and was trying to bring the best out of me. In other words, I felt like I was being fathered. By the way, it was during his four short years as the bishop of our diocese that more seminarians were recruited than any other time in my memory, and most of them have remained as priests, giving us a solid base for the shortage that is coming-a base that most other American dioceses do not have at this time. 

Some may question me for making such a strong point of this when so many priests have not experienced this and have no control over it. My answer is that just like so many other areas of life, if we have not received what we needed, then it is still important to identify where and how we are wounded so that we can pray for healing and forgiveness to be applied specifically where needed.

Third, priests have a far greater need of their brother priests than they will often admit. When I joined the priesthood, I was told that it was the greatest brotherhood in the world. I lived with 200 other guys in the seminary, and I never felt alone. Then I got ordained. In my diaconate assignment, there were four of us in the house: a pastor, parochial vicar, hospital chaplain, and myself. Although personalities did not always mix, I looked forward to dinnertime conversations, the occasional practical joke, and a working closely together that enabled us to learn from one another. 

Since my ordination to priesthood, I have spent most of my time alone: in work, in prayer, in meals, and I do not see this ever changing in my experience of the diocesan priesthood. As we plan for the future, we see ourselves spreading out thinner and taking on more responsibilities with minimal help from other clergy. I often call brother priests to get together to pray or have a meal together. Sometimes I am successful, and it is a great joy. We often laugh together about our stress-related illnesses that are causing our bodies to function as if they are 20 years older than they are. Sometimes work commitments are prioritized over our getting together, or at least we must plan far in advance and hope that nothing else comes up. Quite often, my brothers do not even respond to my calls and texts. 

One thing that I have done to supplement my need for fraternity is that I recently became an oblate of the Community of Saint John, and they graciously welcome me to spend time with them during my vacations and days off. I hear that in other countries some restructuring has occurred to favor priestly brotherhood, such as a system in which priests (some of whom are pastors of 3 or 4 parishes) live together in a common rectory and designate certain days and times for fellowship and common prayer, while going out to their parishes at other designated times to pray with their people, teach and preach to them, and offer Sacraments, while the lay people are entrusted with the upkeep of buildings and other work that is needed behind the scenes. My prediction is this: we will not see a reform of the priesthood and a resurgence of priestly vocations if we do not fix the problem of priestly brotherhood.

Fourth, because we are human, priests become greatly discouraged without some level of affirmation from their flock. While I agree that some healthy distance is needed for priestly leadership to be respected, it is nonetheless essential for the Church to recognize itself as a Communion, that is, a family of worshippers centered around Christ, and to recognize the priest as the spiritual father. 

Jesus founded us to be a family of mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. We are meant to be a family that prays, celebrates, mourns, learns, and works together. So many of our parishes, while perhaps formerly having been this in the past, have become more like flea markets of social and sometimes spiritual activities that people will maybe consider coming to if there is something obvious that piques their interest. Also, while the activity is taking place, it is almost a given that the pastor will hear complaints about it, the most common being that it would be better if it was quicker, as people have other places to go and other things to do. Often a pastor will feel more like a failed store manager or theater director than a spiritual father of his flock. 

It is also important for our people to know that although our schedules are full, most of us will make time for invitations to socialize with members of our parish. It used to be common for a priest to be invited to dinner. This is rare nowadays, and the invites that come are usually on holidays in which I have already made plans with my family-I do feel bad saying no, but there is only so much time on Thanksgiving Day and Fourth of July. As family dinners happen less and less in general, my favorite invites that I occasionally do get are graduation parties-it is usually a great opportunity for ministry and fun at the same time. We can learn a lot on this overall topic from our Protestant brothers and sisters, due to their simplicity and a focus that is often radically centered on Jesus and prayer.

Fifth, another area that has the potential to be a source of great affirmation for us is ministry. After all, ideally second to our relationship with Jesus, this is the reason that most men become priests, and this was the goal of our education and formation. Even when carrying heavy burdens and tired from long days, a priest is fulfilled when he hears that his lessons have turned someone back to God and away from sin, or when a family is consoled by him at the death of a loved one, or members of his flock are becoming more and more generous in their ministry to others. 

This category is obvious, and yet ministry is becoming more and more limited by increasing demands of paperwork and the management of buildings and finances. It is essential for each priest to remain connected to the ministry for which he has been ordained and solidify boundaries against all things that distract from this, either through delegation or learning how to say no to non-essential work.

Sixth, due to the increasing lack of priestly brotherhood it is imperative for every priest to ask God for a support system of family and friends, with which to spend time in prayer, enjoy some fun, and have deep meaningful conversations. This needs to become a priority, for the same bible that calls us to celibacy also says, “it is not good for the man to be alone.”

It can be challenging for a priest to find the right friends. Some friends only want to focus on our priesthood and therefore spend each outing or conversation acting the way they should have acted when they attended Catholic grade school, saying “yes Father” and either agreeing with every word we say, or commenting with scriptural platitudes. Other friends, often those we have known for many years, seem to forget that we are priests, and take great joy in speaking offensively in front of us and show great discomfort if we say anything meaningful. I thank God constantly, rather, for those who support me as both a man and a priest, those who are balanced enough to either talk about sports or appreciate the fruits of each other’s prayer lives. I cannot tell you what a great gift that is to me, and I try to place meeting with such persons throughout my calendar.

The seventh category requires far more emphasis than it gets is the need for women in the life of priests. This is especially true with the lack of religious sisters that used to be part of parish life almost everywhere. I often say that with female religious lacking, I feel like the father of a single-parent family. 

Both the Church and the secular world today need this reminder: men and women need each other. We are incomplete without each other. Even if one is called to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, it does not change the fact that the image of God is incomplete without both sexes. God made both to support and challenge one another. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will experience the fulfillment and joy that come from it. Just as husbands and wives help each other to find balance, a priest cannot become his fullest best self without help from women.

In my own priesthood, both friendship and collaboration with women are essential. Women see more deeply into the heart, both mine and those to whom I minister. When I face a situation that I feel I cannot handle alone, often finding later that there were items involved that my brain was simply unable to grasp, I almost always will ask the advice or assistance of a female friend or co-worker. In my personal life, I have experienced a growth and maturity that would not have been possible without the “feminine genius”, as St. John Paul calls it, of my sisters in the Lord. Often when I encounter the eccentric behavior of a brother priest (there is no surprise here) I imagine how different that would be if he had some female friends. And perhaps then his ministry would benefit more from a well-rounded, appropriately affectionate, and compassionate approach, that women help us to develop, to the people that he serves.

The eighth and ninth categories are ones that we have heard before and we are constantly reminded of them, and yet we often ignore them nonetheless: affirmation from a healthy body and an educated mind. In other words, exercise and study, both highly emphasized in the seminary. 

Our bodies fail due to excessive stress, leading to unhealthy eating and/or drinking, and we often say that we cannot find time to exercise. Our intellectual lives often fail to be kept up also due to the same stress and lack of time. However, in both cases, failure leads us to discontentment in our priesthood, while success leads us to a greater fulfillment. In my life, my weight is always in flux, vacillating in a range of about 95 pounds. If I fail to work on it, I gain. If I am attentive to it, I lose weight, and recently I have even had the joy of entering some local races. This is in addition to better sleep at night and fewer illnesses. 

Mentally speaking, recognizing that my role of teaching and preaching requires ongoing education, I subscribe to an audiobook of the month so that the learning never stops. I also attend classes with the Theology of the Body Institute, which are a great source of learning, spirituality and fellowship.

The above categories lead me then to my 10th and final category of necessary affirmation in the priesthood, and that is an overall affirmation from one’s self. We all know that the golden rule is to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and yet we fail in the presupposition of that statement. You cannot give what you yourself are lacking. It is like the instructions we receive when getting on an airplane, that in the event of an emergency and the oxygen masks are released, put yours on before helping the person next to you. Especially if one has ever suffered from depression, or even if one deals with a lot of negativity on a regular basis, each of us is responsible to cultivate his own peace of mind. It is easy to become negative in the priesthood while not even realizing that we beat ourselves up and give in way too easily to excessive unhealthy people-pleasing. 

One thing I have started to do to combat this is to consider each day one thing that is for me, to which I am really looking forward. It may have to do with the above categories, like seeing a friend, exercising, or reading, or it may involve going for a walk, or to a movie or a concert. Hobbies are so very important for all of us, such as my interest in developing my singing voice. I also highly recommend for priests to find a support group for anything with which they may struggle. I was introduced to this concept when very early in my priesthood it was explained to me that those in helping professions benefit greatly from seeking help to make sure that they uphold healthy boundaries and not get weighed down by the burdens laid upon us by others.

Ultimately, the lesson we learn from growing in affirmation, especially in the priesthood, is that all will work out for the best if we simply do what the Church is supposed to do, which we have been commanded by our Savior. Jesus tells us, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is our mission: prayer, personal growth, and charity. All else is secondary and all else has the potential to distract us from what matters most. Let us live the miracle of affirmation, and see how it becomes contagious to those around us.

Rev. Charles Colozzi (pictured above) attended St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia and was ordained in 2002 for the Diocese of Camden, N.J. He was assigned as parochial vicar to Holy Family in Sewell, N.J, and then St. Joseph in Somers Point, N.J. He then served seven years as a high school chaplain at both Camden Catholic and Gloucester Catholic high schools, and has been the pastor at St. Gabriel the Archangel in Carneys Point, N.J. for the last seven years.