Monday, November 5, 2012
We All Need Priests
Reflection for Priesthood Sunday Holy Hour, Oct. 27, 2012
This weekend many parishes across the united states are observing priesthood Sunday, a Sunday that gives us the opportunity to reflect on the importance of priestly ministry and to encourage young men to be open to responding to the call to follow Christ as ordained priests.
Priesthood Sunday is relatively new, I think we’ve only observed it on the last weekend of October for a decade or so. And that is because as scandals erupted about 10 years ago, many Catholics saw that there was a great need to support good priests and to encourage good men to become priests. Because as Catholics we experience the presence and ministry of Christ in a very personal and critical way through the ministry of our priests. Through the human voices of our priests we hear the eternal words of Christ in our earthly ears “this is my body, given up for you”, “I absolve you from your sins.” Every priest is ordained to embody Christ in caring for the Church as a groom cares for his bride and as a father cares for his children. So we need good and holy and healthy priests, priests who can bring us closer to God and to one another through their ministry.
Now, I am a priest, so it might seem strange for me to speak about the importance of good priests in the third person. But it is important for all of you to remember that I rely heavily on the ministry of priests too. First of all on the ministry of the bishop, who embodies the fullness of the priesthood for all of us in Maine. His ministry is incredibly important for all of us, and certainly for me as a priest of the diocese. The bishop is responsible for my well-being, for my training and studies, and for keeping me in line – and not just me, but every priest and deacon in the diocese. So the ministry of our chief shepherd, our bishop, is critical and we should all be praying every day for our new bishop, that he is a holy and wise man. But we have to pray not only for our bishop, but for all of the priests of our diocese. Because I am also, like you, in need of the ministry of good priests. I can’t absolve myself of my own sins, as much as I've thought that would be nice sometimes, not to mention convenient. And when I go to confession, it’s important to me that I receive good counsel and encouragement, just as it is important to all of you. And I am very much in need of the guidance and encouragement of brother priests as I work to serve the Church, especially being the young’un that I am. Jesus sent the disciples out two by two for a reason: priests need the support of other priests in order to be healthy and faithful in their ministry.
So we all rely on the ministry of priests, and having good priests is critical to having a healthy Church. I know many of you are worried about the priesthood today – troubled by where we find ourselves: with so few priests compared to years ago and so many priests today seem worn out. And to be honest, there have been days when I have found myself more than a little anxious as I looked at the aging ranks of priests in Maine.
But then the clouds part a bit and I remember that Jesus has promised us that he will be with us to the end of the age. He has not abandoned his Church in 2000 years and he will not leave us without the priests that we need. And there are many positive developments today – especially in other parts of our country. In my alma mater, the North American College in Rome, they have had to increase capacity and turn away men – over 250 seminarians from the United States are currently studying for the priesthood. There has been a gradual increase in the number of men in the major seminary over the last two decades up to 3,700, which is the largest number since 1989. If you look at the big picture in the United States, the number of ordinations to the priesthood bottomed out in the early 90s and has remained steady and grown a little since then.
And the average age of men entering the priesthood has declined in recent years, so that today only ¼ of men entering the seminary are over the age of 35, down from almost a third in the 1980s and 90s. So while the overall number of priests continues to drop as the large number of baby boomer priests retire, there is reason to be hopeful about the future numbers of priests, we just need to get through the next couple of decades.
That is good news for young men who are wondering whether they may be called to the priesthood. We can tell them with confidence today: you will not be alone in ministry, you will not be shackling yourself to a sinking ship. No, the priesthood of Jesus Christ is essential for the health and well-being of Christ’s body the Church, and so the Lord makes sure that there are priests to minister to his people. This is not a time in which the role of the priest in the Church can or should be diminished. In our time of increased efforts to re-evangelize areas that were once Christian in the West, priest must play a critical role. I will close with the words of our bishops who gathered recently in a synod to discuss the New Evangelization:
“Confronted with the scandals affecting priestly life and ministry, which we deeply regret, we propose nevertheless that thanks and encouragement be given to the faithful service of so many priests and that pastoral orientations be given to the particular churches on a presbyteral pastoral plan that is systematic and organized, that supports the genuine renewal of the life and ministry of the priests, who are the primary agents of the New Evangelization.”