Priestly Identity in Church's Time of Darkness
Common Ground Conference Examines Challenges of 'Icon of Christ' in Crisis

By Gill Donovan
Nat. Catholic Reporter [San Antonio]
Downloaded April 26, 2003

In an explanation of the importance clergy hold in the lives of Catholics, Fr. R.J. Cletus Kiley said, "It seems to me that most priests have had the experience of the smallest child in the parish coming up to him and saying, 'Are you God?' "

Kiley is a former Chicago pastor and seminary rector currently serving as the executive director of the secretariat for priestly life and ministry at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He said, "In listening to the victims of sexual abuse in the past year, out of their woundedness, they will say, 'God did this to me.' The intensity of their anger and their hurt at being abused by a priest is more than it is by a schoolteacher because I believe that the iconic power [of the priest] is somehow involved."

Speaking on the second day of a three-day conference sponsored by the Common Ground Initiative, Kiley was one of about 50 Catholics engaged in a frank and wide-ranging discussion about the identity and ministry of the men at the center of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, men who have taken up the role of alter Christus, "another Christ" -- priests.

The list of Catholic leaders who took part in the conference included theologians, lay activists, religious order and diocesan priests, members of religious communities, and three prelates. One participant, Patricia Kelly, a Pennsylvania psychologist and mother of 12 who works as consultant to dioceses and religious communities, said she thought the group represented "a microcosm of the church, although maybe a little weighty on education."

Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, one of the initiative's cofounders, announced its inception shortly before his death in November 1996. The initiative is sponsored by New York's National Pastoral Life Center, headed by the initiative's other cofounder, Msgr. Philip Murnion. Participants in the conference included 16 initiative committee and staff members and 31 other Catholic leaders invited to take part.

The initiative has sponsored an annual conference since 1997 and held this year's event, titled "The Priest in the Church," in early March at the Oblate Renewal Center at San Antonio's Oblate School of Theology.

The discussion followed a plan aimed at exploring issues in tension about priesthood. Theological, sociological and historical background papers were used as talking points. Nearly all participants raised new concerns, often without reference to the ideas of previous speakers. Many described priests struggling to minister in a church rife with structural and administrative problems. The group most often returned to concerns about priestly identity and the idea that the church has entered a time of symbolic darkness.

'Healthy, holy and learned'

Among the most often-repeated remarks during the conference was Mobile, Ala., Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb's remembrance of having been told years ago that "a priest should be holy, healthy and learned." Lipscomb explained that holiness comes first: "Every time I've come across a successful priest, whom people respect, he can be dumb, he can be sometimes socially inept, but if he has holiness . that man succeeds."

Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood and Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, and a visiting professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, addressed a question placed before the group by the initiative that asked for discussion of "the new context today that impacts our understanding of priesthood." Cozzens decided to address it "from the perspective of developmental psychology."

He said that a result of the present church crisis is that many lay Catholics "are becoming adults" in terms of their interactions with church authorities. When that happens, "the priest himself is challenged to become an adult."

This new interaction, in which servant leaders lead other adults, he said, "can be profoundly challenging, and I think it's quite new."

Fr. Robert Imbelli, an associate professor of theology at Boston College, said that he has thought for some years now there has been too much focus on ecclesiastical issues in the church, and too little focus on Christ.

"Since Vatican II there's been something of a christological amnesia" in some quarters of the church, he said. "I think that in part that has come about because of some very good things like the Jewish-Christian dialogue, but which has a tendency, I think, to so emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus that the distinctiveness of Jesus is not brought out." The same holds true, he said, of the focus on other world religions.

Psychologist Patricia Kelly brought attention to the often difficult state of priestly life: She said that she often meets priests who are "not very happy." Many priests "who are great guys, who are working hard, they're doing wonderful things. They are overwhelmed. They can hardly breathe because they have so much to do. And they don't know how to feed themselves."

Partially, she said, this is because anyone in ministry is always faced with the difficult task of choosing a way of life while not getting caught in a career mentality.

She said that often priests want to trust the hierarchy but fear doing so. "Because they don't feel that they have a forum or they're unwilling to take the risks to find the forum," the fear remains unreconciled and can turn into bitterness. People sometimes make contracts of compromise, she said. For example, they may say, " 'I'm gonna keep my nose down, I'm gonna do my job in my parish' " and not worry about the rest.

Fractured relationships

Among the speakers to most carefully describe the challenges before U.S. clergy was an archdiocesan priest who declined to be identified in NCR. He was asked to introduce discussion around the question, "As the church moves forward, what does a good priest look like as presbyter in relationship to his bishop/superior and brother priests?" The priest said: "To say that the relationship between bishops and priests is under duress would be an understatement. In fact, there are dioceses in this country where the relationship is so fractured I'm not sure where to go.

"This past autumn, I was at the annual meeting of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, and there was a track for priests involved in personnel work, and it was just breathtaking the lack of confidence that some of the priests felt about their bishops' ability to deal with this crisis. It was in some ways frightening, this feeling that we're not sure where we're going to go."

He said priests have reached a point where many subjects cannot be broached: "One issue would be vocations. You know you just hear so many priests saying, 'Our bishop talks about vocations like we've finally turned the corner and things are looking great,' and you wonder: Did I miss something? Where are all these people coming from? Why can't we talk more about some of the dimensions of loneliness that we are experiencing, or some of our fears about the future?"

Not the church's first crisis

Msgr. John Strynkowski, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' department of doctrine and pastoral practices, noted that this is not the first generation to face crisis in the church: "An empire is collapsing, the barbarians are at the gates, if we go back to the fourth and fifth centuries, for example." The church at that time "worked together in councils, in synods," and had "a true sense of collegiality." It had great leaders, he said, such as Ambrose and Augustine. He said he thought that "some aspect of collegiality, of people working together, collaborating to bring about change, that's going to be important" to face the challenges confronting the church.

The priests at Our Lady of Victory in Centerville, Mass., one of whom is newly ordained, "haven't had a problem recovering from the clergy sex abuse crisis," said Fr. Mark Hession, the church's pastor, "because we take time as a group of supportive priests to realize that the most important thing we do for that parish is to collect the community to pray, to praise God, to celebrate the Eucharist." He said that two other priests work at the church with him.

As for the crisis, he said, "I can't wait to get off the sex abuse piece of it." Hession said that there are many other issues that need attention. "And when we put all the numbers together in this particular crisis, it's almost indecent, frankly, that we are still tearing at it ourselves."

Remarks by Fr. Neill Connolly, pastor of St. Mary's Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side, were among the most critical voiced about the state of the priesthood. He responded to an unpublished chapter of a book by Dean Hoge that was made available to participants as background. In the chapter, Hoge presented statistical data that examined whether or not there is "a morale crisis" in the priesthood.

Perhaps, Connolly said, he would not use the term "morale crisis," but he said, "I find there's a great malaise, a kind of sit-back-and-see attitude. Whereas in the '60s and '70s, I think we as priests had a greater sense of ownership of the church. And in that way, for love of the church, we challenged sometimes our bishops. We formed groups in order to be heard. We raised questions."

After Vatican II, it seemed to Connolly that presbyteral councils appeared to offer priests a way to effect change in the church. However, he said, "I just find that because there didn't seem to be a will to use those on the part of people in authority, after a while nobody wanted to run for them." Connolly acknowledged that every diocese may not be the same in this respect.

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk later responded to Connolly, saying, "It is my opinion that it may be unsafe to say 'the priests of the United States or the priesthood in the United States,' because I believe there are at least three different churches in the United States, each of which is Roman Catholic but each of which is Roman Catholic in its own way."

In an explanation that produced a few smiles, the bishop said, "The church of the Midwest is not the church of New England -- I will let it go at that."

Priest as icon

A question posed for consideration for the group, "What does a good priest look like?" received an interpretation by Paul Griffiths, an English-born Catholic studies professor teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago, that led to some disagreement: "I think most fundamentally the priest does look like an icon," he said.

"An icon is a visible object. It's an object that is characterized by being ordered, beautiful, but most importantly an object that displaces the gaze from itself to that of which it is an icon. So if the priest is iconic for the people, the priest is iconic of Jesus Christ. And that means that in his very mode of being and in his actions he displaces the gaze of the people from himself to Christ."

He said that if priests and lay people take their respective roles as iconic presence of Christ and baptized members of Christ's body more seriously, "then the institutional and other problems will begin to dissolve around us I think."

"Now, there's another characteristic of icons, and that is that they don't actually do very much. They just are." In order to be a "true icon of Christ," he said, priests, who are working long hours, "need to do vastly less than they do, and the only way that can happen is if their iconic function to the people forms and conforms people, the laity, to do vastly more than we do."

Murnion disagreed with the idea that a priest ought to actually do very little, saying, "People find the priest resembling Christ when he works as hard as they do." A priest, he said, "is secular. He is not remote. He shares the struggles of the local community and the larger political and social community."

Griffths responded, saying that, in his judgment, "the central ministry of the priest, at least the congregational parish priest, is to the congregation and not to the world, whereas by contrast the mission of the baptized is to the world."

Peter Cassarella, associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, returned to the issue of a priest's iconic role on the last day of the conference. After reflection, he said, he thought the priest, even while celebrating Eucharist "in the person of Christ, never stops being a lay man or a baptized Christian in performing this action."

Even during the celebration of Eucharist, "he is also kneeling in his heart. He is also in some sense silently, secretly, hiddenly, one with the laity."

'Time of darkness'

Over the course of the three-day conference, a number of participants described the situation facing the church now as "a time of darkness." Some said they feared that complacency could follow once the church crisis leaves the public eye unless Catholics actively work to address the serious problems that have surfaced in the last 15 months about the accountability of priests to the laity.

Cozzens, a former rector, said he didn't think the church abuse crisis was simply "a question of a few bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel." He said that he thinks there has been a reluctance to look into the meaning of the crisis, "because we fear it might take us to some kind of structural change that we're not willing to take a look at."

Griffiths expressed impatience with the idea of darkness in the church, saying, "I always find this talk of darkness that we are avoiding or not properly addressing vaguely mysterious, as I suspect it's meant to be. So let me be simpleminded about it, if I may. It seems to be a fundamental Christian assumption that we are all fundamentally structurally disordered."

The darkness, he said, is not surprising. "It's what human beings are in fact like -- even under the explicit relationship to the grace of Christ."

Patricia Kelly said she had noticed that after the subject of darkness came up at the conference in previous sessions, several times, "in true Catholic culture," some of the participants "would rescue us and say, 'Oh no, no, it's really not that dark. It's really not that bleak.'" However, when people deny the darkness, she said, the problem remains safe but nevertheless toxic.

The darkness, she said, may take the form of racism, "the abuse or misuse of power and influence," or idolatry in which one puts a "system above the faith." If we resist the idea that there is darkness in the church, she said, "we are perpetrators of the violence that separates us from redemption and separates us from grace."

She said that we have to call ourselves to accountability, "to be unafraid and to believe that if the church is what it says it is, the church, despite our best efforts, and despite our lack of belief, simply cannot fail."

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative 2003 Participants

The following Catholic Common Ground Initiative Committee members attended the 2003 San Antonio conference:

R. Scott Appleby, director of the University of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; Sidney Callahan, McKeever Chair of Moral Theology at St. John's University, Queens, N.Y.; Peter Casarella, associate professor of systematic theology in religious studies at The Catholic University of America; Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB, professor of church history at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana; Thomas Donnelly, board member of The Catholic University of America in Washington; Sr. Sharon Euart, RSM, consultant on matters of canon law; Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, senior vice president for mission and values integration at Catholic Healthcare Partners; Fr. Robert Imbelli, associate professor of theology at Boston College; Ann Chih Lin, assistant professor of public policy and political science in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.; Msgr. Philip Murnion, director of New York's National Pastoral Life Center; Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk; Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, CSB; of Las Cruces, N.M.; Sr. Katarina Schuth, OSF, endowed chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Staff members Sr. Donna Ciangio, OP, and Sr. Catherine Patten, RSHM, coordinator of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, also attended.

Participants invited to take part in this year's discussion included:

Chris Alderete, president of the San Antonio Archdiocesan Commission for Women; Fr. Jeremiah Boland, Chicago archdiocese's delegate for externs and international priests; Fr. Gerald Brown, SS, rector-president of Assumption Seminary in San Antonio; Fr. Neil Connolly, pastor of St. Mary's Church, Manhattan, N.Y.; Ernesto Cortes Jr., Southwest Regional Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation; Fr. Donald Cozzens, visiting professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland; Marilyn Donnelly, advisory council member of the International Poetry Forum; Fr. Gerald Fogarty, SJ, professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia; Fr. David Garcia, rector of San Antonio's San Fernando Cathedral; Paul Griffiths, Arthur Schmitt professor of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago; Fr. Douglas Haefner, pastor of the Catholic Community of St. Matthias in Somerset, N.J.; Fr. Mark Hession, pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Centerville, Mass.; Msgr. Francis Kelley, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Boston; Patricia Kelly, psychologist and founder of Kelly Counseling & Consulting; Fr. R.J. Cletus Kiley, executive director of the secretariat for priestly life and ministry, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington; Robert Kusenberger Jr., permanent deacon in the San Antonio archdiocese; Carmen Mason, an active member of St. Matthew's Parish, San Antonio; Fr. Enda McDonagh, Irish moral theologian and lecturer; Sheila McLaughlin, director of the Joseph Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union; Fr. William Morell, OMI, president of Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio; Fr. Edward Oakes, SJ, associate professor of theology at Regis University, Denver; Thomas O'Donnell, counsel of Boston law firm Ropes & Gray; Roberto Pina, pastoral team member for the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio; Christopher Ruddy, assistant professor at St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn.; Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, instructor of theology, liturgical music and Gregorian chant at St. John's University; Gerald Shea, assistant to the president for government affairs at the AFL-CIO; Msgr. Dennis Sheehan, pastor of St. Paul Church, Cambridge, Mass.; Fr. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils; Fr. Thomas Singer, OMI, member of the General Council of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Rome; Msgr. John Strynkowski, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' department of doctrine and pastoral practices; Fr. Donald Wolf, pastor of Assumption Parish in Duncan, Okla.; Sr. Susan Wood, SCL, theology professor and associate dean for the School of Theology at St. John's in Collegeville.

Gill Donovan is an NCR staff writer.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.