Seeing 'Grace at Work,' Priests Hopeful of Future
In Two Major Archdioceses, Commitment Stays Generally Strong Despite Struggles with Morale in Scandal's Wake

By Tom Tracy
Our Sunday Visitor
May 11, 2003

On Holy Thursday, at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, apostolic administrator Bishop Richard G. Lennon presided at Eucharistic Adoration.

On hand were several protesters - who stood up and turned their back on the bishop when he spoke - along with the religion editor for the Boston Globe, ripe with its 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service for its reporting on the Church scandals.

"We are a little skittish," said one Boston priest who wished not to be identified. The press, he added, has been relentless in its opportunism amid the year's focus on a crisis over the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in New England and elsewhere.

With the already stressful reality of a priest shortage making for tough clerical challenges nationwide, priests in two major archdioceses - Boston and Los Angeles - expressed sincere hope for the future despite the public scrutiny and sometimes scorn cast over the priesthood due to recent sex-abuse revelations.

The Church in Boston was left reeling last year after a court-ordered release of documents suggested Church officials protected abusive priests over several decades. So disturbing was the ongoing news that historian James O'Toole of Boston College, who has written extensively about Boston's cardinals, declared to a Midwestern newspaper recently: "It was like getting punched in the stomach every morning for a year when I opened the [Boston] Globe."


Since the resignation last December of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, things have settled down somewhat in Boston as clergy look to the future.

"On the whole, we are in a hopeful period, but also a confused period," Father David Michael, Catholic chaplain at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and associate director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Boston archdiocese, told Our Sunday Visitor. "We have a lot of work to do in terms of rebuilding a presbyterate in Boston."

Father Michael said the experience of last year has made it abundantly clear priests can't be "Lone Rangers"; they must function together in unity with their bishop, support one another in spiritual and intellectual excellence and live an example of "good pastoral presence."

The Gloucester native said his morale was been buoyed by association with a priest fraternity he started with another priest several years ago. Eight members of the Boston clergy - including a seminary faculty member and a diocesan canon lawyer - convene on first Mondays to talk about issues and examine documents relating to the priesthood.

"We have had some extraordinary discussions on the priesthood," Father Michael said. "Based on that experience, I am convinced it is a model for renewal. I am convinced renewal cannot happen from the top down; it has to come from within the presbyterate."

He added: "If we don't renew priesthood, what can we bring to our role if we don't know what we are supposed to be about in the first place?"

Although priests in Boston "have been sort of broken down" and are worried about what resources and how many priests will be available to serve the Church in coming years, Father Michael said they remain hopeful.

"I don't get a sense that there is a depth of despair among the priesthood," he said. "We will wind up these [court] cases and a new hope will emerge."


A few thousand miles away, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Msgr. Craig Cox said it would be impossible to give a blanket description to the state of morale among priests in Southern California.

Some of the clergy have done well, while others have struggled to come to grips with the behavior of a few fellow priests - and with the U.S. bishops' handling of the crisis in some instances, according to Msgr. Cox, who is archdiocesan vicar for clergy.

"Many are on a better track than they were a year ago, and have found great support from their parishioners," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "The focus for many [has shifted] back to their ministries and their people."

Msgr. Cox said the archdiocese has fostered regional meetings for clergy, some of which Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has attended to talk about Church finances and the scandals. The diocese has encouraged priests to keep in close touch with their own spiritual directors, and some have taken advantage of the archdiocese's offer to provide for professional counseling in dealing with the crisis.

"Some of the men have seen this as a time of real grace, as ugly as sexual misconduct is," Msgr. Cox said. "God has not abandoned us in this; in the crisis there is grace at work."

Father Eugene Hemrick, director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, said he is finding a similar resilience among recent clergy retreatants he has worked with: Priests are carrying on, still trying to be creative in their work; and, most of all, they are engrossed in their parish work or whatever ministry they have, according to Father Hemrick. But it isn't just business as usual anymore.

"One might say that morale is still somewhat high, but the spirit of the priesthood has lost some of its enthusiasm, openness and dedication in regards to the relationship between bishop and priest," he said. But, on the bright side, it has been the "people in the parishes, on the whole, [who] have probably been the most supportive of priests. And it is they who have actually prevented a major morale crisis in the priesthood." - Tracy ( is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor

Healing through forgiveness

Morale is an interior disposition, and individual must make a decision to build morale around both the joys and sorrows of life, according to Msgr. Andrew Cusack, founding director of the International Institute for Clergy Formation at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

"So these times, including the crisis in the Church, are demanding of us a decision for hopeful morale despite environments that are hopeless," Msgr. Cusack told Our Sunday Visitor. "We have to face [that] this has been a terrible scandal, not to our Church, which is Christ, but to members of the Church. It is a period that has known crime, grievous sin."

At the same time, there is a need for perspective here, he added: Only a very small percentage of the clergy have been sources of scandal, criminality and grievous sin.

It is equally necessary to really hear out the terrible pain of the life of the abused, he noted, but the game of blaming has to be eradicated on both sides.

"All human sciences claim there is no healing except through the process of forgiveness, which includes the process of 'unangering,' " he said. "The hopeful sign is the abused and the abusers finding [a peace] that is Gospel-centered: persons gradually healing through forgiving. We can't say enough about it." T.T.


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