Do We Have a Church If We Don’t Have Priests?

Deacon Greg pointed me to this video which has excellent production values on a group of newly ordained priests.

Beautifully done and a nice keepsake for these men of their ordination day.

One small quibble: While our priests are of paramount importance, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say “If we don’t have priests we don’t have a church” as the rector, I believe intoned in the video. If we don’t have priests that would be tragic, but there are plenty of communities that do not have priests at this point. Are they no less a part of the Body of Christ? I get the point that we need someone to consecrate the Eucharist and even priest-less parishes share in the sacrifice of another community where the sacrifice of the mass was offered–and therefore they are indebted and tied to a priest in some way. But if there were no priests, what would that mean for the church? What would become of ritual and sacrifice? Would others be called to a new role and who would decide how to move forward on this?

It’s a good question to ask and an even better prayer to pray that we always have priests and deacons.

But it also behooves an additional question: What are we doing to bring the body of Christ into the world? How do we proclaim Christ in ritual where we gather each week? How are we present to one another in the Eucharist and how do we become active participants and not merely consumeristic receivers?

A choir director I know, even challenges her choir in a similar way. “We are ministers of music. The CONGREGATION is the choir! We’re called to be ministers of the word in song, to awaken and enliven the hearts of the faithful so that they sing out with just as much joy as we might express.”

We might want to take that lesson into our hearts this week and be moved by the fact that we have priests and deacons, lay ministers and catechists, ministers of song and hospitality. Without any of them, we might not have a church, much less priests alone. We need each member of the faithful to continue to preach the goodness of our church, to inspire each one to their proper role in life and in the life of the church.

Priests didn’t come from the clear blue sky. They were called from the community to be priests by God for the communities that they, in turn will now serve.

That’s a blessing. We rejoice and be glad. And our response in love is not just to be served, but to serve. And that goes for all of us.

In that way, our common priesthood lives forever.

My dear friend, Fr. Jack Collins often reminds me that “what is common to all is sacramentalized by some.” Perhaps with those who choose to have their priesthood sacramentalized, we indeed have a problem.

But if we really have faith, we believe that God is present in all of us. Is that any less of a Eucharistic moment? Some might think so. I choose to think that God always finds a way out of no way.

And so, I am comforted by that gracious thought. The truth that we are not God. And therefore, while we choose to have men be “in persona Christi” God still exists whether or not men continue to make that choice.

God will never abandon us. And while that’s comforting, it’s still easier to see and feel when we have priests amongst us.

Today, let us pray that young men will continue to respond to the call of Christ to the priesthood. And let us also pray that we too, respond accordingly to our vocational call as well.

Now go and find your favorite priest and tell him how important he is to your community and offer to help him out with something.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the gospel contains the line…”My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they know me.”

Many people have chosen to take the time to use this as a day to concentrate on vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and for religious life for women. But I’d like to take two steps further.

The first is that we can’t just leave our religion to the auspices of the priests. We all need to hear that same voice calling us to serve the people of God. How we choose to do that may be by becoming a priest or religious–which indeed is a good thing for those who are called to that life. But how do the vast majority of us hear God’s call working in our lives?

This weekend I attended the wedding of my dear friend Marc Adams and his lovely now-wife, Lexie in Washington, DC. These two people have lived their lives for others and have been a sign to all of us individually and now collectively as a couple of God’s deep love to the world. They met in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. The legend of the story was that Marc met her at a JVC retreat and that Lexie had gotten on a bus to head back to her community before Marc had the chance to pursue getting her phone number.

So he ran after the bus, shouting…”You’re the nicest person I have ever met! What’s your name again?”

It seems that Lexie heard Marc’s call. At the wedding Lexie stole the show by saying “I”d like to introduce you to my family. She then started with her parents and her sisters and brother and then she ended with the touching line:

“And this is my husband, Marc!”

And we heard that call loud and clear. Lexie had chosen Marc to be her own. More importantly, these two people offer themselves as gift to each other in love and in that love they are able to be gifts to the world.

Their pastor, Fr. Patrick Smith, at St Augustine’s Church, in Washington, DC reminded us of that and more importantly that Marc and Lexie need to remember that all of their love stems from God’s love for them. That they are not enough for one another even in all of their love that they so clearly have in marriage–they will need God who is the only one who gives us everything we will ever need.

I think there are many priests and more importantly many seminarians who need to hear that message. Too many seminarians place the idea of the priest as an “all too holy,” vocation. That their calling is somehow “better” than other callings that they could have chosen.

In truth, I think these men who act in this fashion, (dare I say) are probably not called to the priesthood at this time. In fact, before they can truly be called, they need to learn a bit of humility. Before they can hear that voice they need to hear the struggle of loving beyond boundaries, of choosing celibacy so that they can be truly free to give themselves to the world’s needs, of things not being about YOU.

I fear we have too many priests and seminarians who haven’t heard that call. The call of being an obscure shepherd–always chasing after love and not caring about one’s own ego.

And there are often too many married people who haven’t heard the call that Marc and Lexie have. The call to place our own needs behind those that we freely choose to love for a lifetime. I know I don’t always do that–and I need people like Marc and Lexie to remind me of that call.

“My sheep hear my voice…I know them and they know me.”

Do we let God really see us for who we are–without all of the pretentions? Can we offer all of ourselves to God in love and not in our own arrogance. Rather can we hear Jesus’ voice calling us to be Christ for others even if that means that we have to continually go running after love, after that sheep that nearly got away.

Can we run after God in the same way that Marc ran after Lexie –offering all of ourselves, being unafraid and even risking embarrassment?

Because that’s how the Good Shepherd runs after us.

Why Priests Should Wear Their Collars…and why lay ministers need something to identify themselves like it


Earlier this week I went to a campus function with Fr. Pat, the pastor of our North Campus. It’s rare that I see him without his collar on, as he wears it often, especially when on “official business.”

We walked into the gross anatomy lab, as I was getting a tour of the facility from Fr. Pat and a young man was getting ready to leave. As we were about to turn the corner the young man stopped us, out of the blue.

“Excuse me, Father…”

Fr Pat turned towards him and the young man broke down in tears within seconds.

“I just found out that my grandma died about an hour ago and I wondered if you would pray with me?”

I excused myself and let Fr. Pat and the young man sit together to talk and pray for a few minutes, sensing that he wasn’t inviting me to prayer but that “the collar” called him towards an identifiable minister.

We just happened to be there that day. But had Fr. Pat not been wearing his collar or had I been by myself, that opportunity would not have presented itself. That symbol of ministry, the symbol of priesthood, the identifiable sign to this young man that said, “I can ask this guy to pray for me…I NEED him” was welcomed and not abhorred.

I could have been the campus minister there all semester, but for those not readily aware of me, or of my position (which I fear is most students, especially in the med school–one because I’m new and two, because many aren’t regular churchgoers) would never have dared to ask me the same question.

Jesus asked us to “go out to all the world and tell the good news” and to “not hide our light under a bushel basket” but for the unaware, or the agnostic, or the sporadic attendee, we all need to be welcome signs of Christ’s presence. For priests an easy way to accomplish this task is to wear the collar. For nuns, a habit perhaps (although most have “kicked the habit”–however many young nuns are trying to be more intentional about wearing theirs and some like the Felician Sisters here wear a very identifiable pectoral cross) does the trick as well. But for us lay ministers…it’s more difficult. I’m pretty vocal about who I am, introducing myself to all I meet as the Campus Minister, but it’s not as easily recognized. I’m considering getting a golf shirt with “campus minister” scrawled on the crest, maybe with a cross? Maybe I wear a cross around my neck over my clothes? Deacons have an identifiable lapel pin, but even that “whispers” their presence, especially to the young. Many deacons like to keep their presence as lay people in a parish and have found that “looking like a lay person” outside of the liturgy often makes them “more approachable” to many. However, I would argue that this is true only to those who are already initiated into parish life. What about when you head off to do prison ministry, or head to the hospital? For deacons, I wonder if their diagonal stole might serve more than a liturgical purpose, even over street clothes?

A friend of mine was a volunteer down at ground zero after September 11th and he reported something similar. That symbol of the priesthood invited him to be a presence for many. When workers found two vertebrae in the wreckage, the priest was immediately found and a makeshift prayer service for those remains occurred–at the workers request.

So I’d like to hear your stories, priests and ministers…for those who wear their collars, tell me the good and the bad of wearing it. For women religious, how do you make yourself present to those you minister to? Campus and other lay ministers, how much harder is this for you? For those in the marketing or fashion field, what might you suggest for us lay Catholic ministers?

Maybe our friend Peacebang, whose blog should be on your must-read list might have an idea or two as well?

Don’t misunderstand….this is not about recognition in terms of haughtyness…but rather it’s about serving the needs of those seeking someone in their time of need. With few priests around and some not wearing collars, I wonder how many opportunities fall by the wayside?

In Boise with the Recently Ordained

It’s been an interesting two days with the recently ordained priests (1-5 years ordained, that is) of the Boise Diocese. I was invited to come and give them a series of workshops on both young adults and how to use technology in ministry.

The group has an international flair with several from Mexico and Latin America, one Polish priest, an Asian and two anglo-americans. I asked what world events may have caused them to question God’s existence or even helped them see God working in the world differently than they may have expected and some new events came to fore:

An Earthquake in South America
Elections in Guatemala
The first McDonald’s in China (which meant Communism was becoming more open to Western ideas)
The fall of communism and the Soviet Union.

Awesome conversations and people here are beginning to use technology well. One priest already has a radio show and will begin to podcast it now. Others may start blogging. Text messaging has been a huge mode of communicating upcoming events and so the diocese seems ripe for using Twitter and Facebook more regularly. Upheaval of Diocesan and parish-based websites can now happen with more ease as well.

It’s always great to see brother priests bond together in a somewhat fraternity-style of agape-love for each other. They rib each other about their own shortcomings and tease each other in a myriad of ways.

I even heard about one of the worst homily ideas ever (not given by anyone who was present here). A priest wielded a gun from the pulpit trying to make a point about the dangers and destruction of sin in one’s life. He sent the entire congregation running for cover! Hysterical…well, kinda dopey…but still, a great story nonetheless.

And nobody got hurt!

Please pray for these fine men and their Bishop as they embrace the church in the great state of Idaho.

Priesthood and American Catholicism

We need priests.

This has been the echo of not merely vocation directors, other men in the priesthood, the faithful themselves but also the call that has not always been a welcome voice: the sociologist.

I got to spend a portion of this weekend with the noted Purdue University Sociologist Jim Davidson at the Murnion Lecture sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center and their Common Ground Initiative. It was not lost on me that both of these entities were founded by good priests namely Msgr. Phil Murnion and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. We dearly miss both of these giants since their deaths.

But interestingly enough, the lecture was not about priesthood but about laity and what American Catholics think about the church. The aforementioned Dr. Davidson keynoted the evening and I sat on a panel of responders with 3 other noted experts in their fields all of whom I was humbled to just be associated. Sr. Amy Hoey, RSM, a Lay Ecclesial Ministry Consultant, Fr Alan Deck, SJ a noted expert in Hispanic Ministry and Melissa Cidade, a Research Associate, CARA, Georgetown University.

We spoke a lot on how an older generation of Americans were what Dr Davidson named “Cuture I” Catholics. They viewed the church springing forth from the priesthood to the people. The clergy made the rules and the laity followed them and moreover supported them.

As Catholics have become more middle class and more theologically educated over the past 50-60 years, there has been a shift in a majority of people’s thinking about the church. “Culture II” Catholics as Dr Davidson again notes are people who see themselves as contributing to the life of the church just as much as the clergy. Note that we didn’t say MORE than the clergy, but rather it’s more of an equal partnership. The Second Vatican Council opened the doors for laity to express their baptismal call as Church, the people of God.

Naturally this has caused a type of culture clash, has it not.

My point in all of this is that young people don’t seem to belong to either culture, but rather have seen the forest for the trees. They have seen the value of making their own contribution and for a need to critically challenge the clergy in matters that are scandalous (such as clergy sex abuse and finances). And yet, young people still hold the priesthood in high regard in most matters–most often they trust that they know their theology and hope that they can make sense of spiritual matters for them not merely on Sunday but when they search (most often online and anonymously) for answers of faith.

But we don’t have enough priests and so many get lost in their own spiritual search.
It seems to me that one of the interesting issues of the vocational crisis is that the newly ordained have stated that having an experience with another priest or campus minister was what inspired them to the priesthood (and I would think the same is true for religious women).

But if we have less of these relationships building with our priests (and dare I say, more of these opportunities with young teens will fall to the wayside now because the sex abuse scandal has made everyone skittish about priests interacting with young children) then are we really to expect vocations to the priesthood to rise in number? I think that’s somewhat doubtful.

However, there is some good news in store. We have a growing diaconate and a growing educated laity who are slowly making more contributions to the life of the church. I know in my own role as a lay minister tons of people come to me to ask me about how I decided to enter into this phase of my still-young life. Many men don’t consider priesthood simply because of the celibacy question. Many want a family and feel called to marriage and still feel a call to ministry. Women who aren’t able to be ordained in the Catholic Church today are also called to ministry and where would we be without them today? Women have made HUGE contributions to all kinds of things in Catholic Life. It was not lost on any of us that we honored a woman at the Murnion Lecture this year Carol Keehan, President and CEO, Catholic Health Association of the United States–and what a significant contribution indeed one woman has made in the name of all that is Catholic.

But herein lies a huge problem. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the moment when the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus can only happen at the hands of a priest. How do we sustain ourselves as a Eucharistic Community? Can we sustain that community–or will we indeed need to look at new and creative models? It seems to me that if our faith is based on Eucharist and not necessarily on priesthood that it is merely a more creative solution to continue getting the Eucharist to the people of God that we need (communion services, Diaconate use, etc.).

In short, I pray every day for more priests. But I also pray that we all can continue our partnership with them, called to our own ministries sharing equally in bringing Christ to one another.