Jesus Our Shepherd
A Letter From Priests To Priests
adapted from The Coordinating Board of WEORC

[This letter is written to priests by priests, by twelve members of the Coordinating Board of WEORC. These are mainly Chicago-area priests who left the clerical state and currently are engaged in other forms of ministry. WEORC was founded to support priests in transition. I believe this (adapted) letter deserves a wide readership. Fr. Frank Baiocchi, co-pastor, Jesus Our Shepherd parish in Nenno, Wisconsin -- www.jesusourshepherd.org]

Dear friends,

Congratulations to all who are celebrating ordination anniversaries at this time of year, whether active, retired or resigned.

Looking over all those old ordination class photos, we realize that times have changed in ways we never would have imagined. A half-century ago classes were huge. Recently they’ve become much smaller. Gazing at those eager young faces frozen in time, many powerful memories and emotions wash over us. Some classmates have died. Many have accomplished great things. Others have withdrawn from ministry, married and raised families. Some have been removed from ministry because of sexual abuse or financial misconduct. Others have successfully embraced rehabilitation programs for addiction or mental or physical problems. Many have exercised creative leadership as pastors while others have done excellent work as life-long associates. Some have become bishops of whom two head dioceses in bankruptcy as a result of abuse cases. Who among us could have predicted these developments?

Years ago the motto of one ordination class at Mundelein was “Numquam Pastores” (never pastors). Today the well-staffed rectories and rigid seniority system of the past have given way to one-priest parishes, very young pastors and an increasing number of priests who, with severely limited resources, are being asked to care for two or three parishes. Moreover many contemporary priest colleagues don’t appear in any of our class photos. Their ordinations took place in Poland or Viet Nam or Mexico or Africa or India or the Philippines or elsewhere far from Chicago. We thank them for their generosity in coming to our area. Some dioceses now have married priests who began their ministry as Lutherans or Episcopalians. Their parishioners welcome their service, but remain puzzled by an apparent double standard that continues to exclude married Catholics. It is a very different world, and who knows what lies ahead?

The time of ordination anniversaries provides an opportunity to thank all of you for your years of dedication and service. Your personal photo albums probably contain many other faces: families whose babies you baptized, couples whose marriages you celebrated, youngsters on First Communion day, memorial cards of people whom you buried, people with whom you’ve labored in various ministries, soup kitchens, community organizations or prayer groups. An effective priest touches thousands of lives over the years. Despite all the bad news these days, there’s a tremendous amount of good news to cherish and celebrate. We thank you and congratulate you!…

Oremus pro invicem

We all know the phrase “I’ll keep you in my prayers” can be a pious exit line from tough situations. It slips easily from our lips as we leave hospital rooms, counseling situations or contentious meetings. Do we really pray for them? Sometimes we do; other times, not really. But in these troubled times we need one another’s strong, deep, passionate prayer. The commemoration of our ordination anniversaries should include prayers for classmates or friends who languish under a dark cloud at the Retreat House or in prison cells. We pray for beleaguered bishops who want to do the right thing, but aren’t sure what it is. We pray for our own tarnished archbishop and his colleagues. We pray for those among us who feel overworked and under-appreciated. We pray for those struggling to resist temptations to take that drink, or swipe that money, or log onto that pornography site. We pray for those from other lands struggling to learn English and understand our culture. And please add a prayer for us “worker priests” with our mortgages, bills and concerns.

Assisting Priests in Transition

Our organization WEORC was founded in 1969 to assist priests in transition. For the past 37 years we’ve helped them find jobs and adjust to new ways of life. Today our mission remains the same, but circumstances have expanded its embrace. Today all priests and the priesthood itself are in transition. Something old is dying. Something new is being born within and among us. What’s happening deep beneath the surface of our lives?

Some have accused us of having a hidden agenda. Are we trying to entice other priests to leave? No way. Are we trying to wheedle our way back into the archdiocesan directory? Not at all. We love the priesthood and deeply regret that, as an institution, it has been badly beaten up lately by the sex abuse crisis, by the shortage of vocations, and by the polarization that permeates the church. How can we sort out the pieces and be a part of putting them back together?

Luke Timothy Johnson, the Catholic scripture scholar at Emory University in Atlanta, observes that the New Testament contains two complementary images of the church coexisting in a kind of creative tension. One is “the household of the faith.” The other is “the body of Christ.” The first is more organizational and structural; the second is more organic and mysterious. The first evolved into institutions and offices and rituals aimed at maintaining good order and purposefulness. Thus the church developed parishes, hospitals, buildings, orphanages, schools, bishops, priests, deacons, monasteries, convents, canon law, the Curia, theologians and all the other elements of a well-functioning household. You get the idea.

The second element is rooted in the wonderful insight that just as Jesus used his human body to walk and talk, to teach and heal, to love and confront, to suffer and die, so also today he employs his mystical body, the Church, to enable his Spirit to continue his mission in our contemporary world. In Saint Paul’s image, some of us are eyes or ears or tongues or hands or feet or lesser parts; but all of us – cleric or lay, man, woman or child, rich or poor, sophisticated or simple – have an important role to play in continuing the work of Christ. It’s rooted in our Baptism.

So What’s the Problem?

Dr. Patricia O’Donnell Ewers is the current chair of the National Lay Review Board created by the bishops four years ago in Dallas. At a recent talk she was asked, “When the first chair, Governor Frank Keating, left, he complained that dealing with the U.S. bishops was like dealing with the Mafia. When his successor Judge Anne Burke left, she said the whole situation involved the most arcane political system that she (the wife of a Chicago alderman) had ever seen. What do you think you might say when your time comes?” She replied that there’s been an enormous change in the attitude of many bishops, which is hopeful; but true change will be slow, incremental and probably not transformational. The bishops and many priests were formed in a clerical culture that is deeply ingrained. The bishops were selected because they manifestly committed to that culture. The clerical culture is a significant part of the problem.

The clerical culture has deep roots in the church. Emperor Constantine not only legalized Christianity; he also provided a model for church governance. The “household of faith” became a kind of upstairs/downstairs affair with higher and lower clergy, with aristocrats and commoners. A bishop might be the son of a butcher, but he becomes acculturated as a “prince” of the church. Those upstairs tend to see things quite differently from those below. For example, seeing Cardinal Law’s embarrassment and disgrace touched the hearts of Vatican officials who then gave him a basilica to care for. They didn’t see or hear the abused children who were perceived administratively and impersonally not as deeply wounded individuals bearing life-long scars from the abuse, but as part of an ugly problem to be solved expeditiously with minimal damage to the institution.

This clerical culture permeates some dioceses, but not all, and some parishes, but not all, It seems to be an occupational hazard for those who focus on the church as the household of faith. Orderliness is the norm. Canon Law and diocesan regulations are the guides. Consistency is key. Those are important values, but not the sole values. The messiness and unpredictability of life intrude. There is a refreshing wildness in God’s Spirit. The Gospels are organic and lively. Sometimes the most unlikely members of the body of Christ have rare and wonderful talents and extraordinary ideas that erupt from deep and hidden sources. The body of Christ needs the strength and rigidity of a good skeletal system; but it also needs the flexibility and dynamism of the heart, lungs, nerves, colon, brain, muscles and other softer organs. Sadly, the connectivity and interaction is flawed today and the body of Christ is seriously sick.

How Can Healing Begin?

We need priests, not clerics. We need genuine communities, not ecclesial corporations. We need shepherds, not CEOs. We need people who focus not on the privileges of ordination but on the communality of Baptism. We need a Vatican III to recapture the spirit and vision of John XXIII. We need pastors who recognize and nurture and celebrate the giftedness of all their people. We need presiders at the Eucharist who realize that the words of the Eucharistic Prayer not only transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but also in a deeply amazing way have the power to patiently transform this gathered community into the mystical body of Christ.

Our ordination anniversaries present opportunities for a profound transitionto a new and more powerful vision of who we are and what we are all about. May we all work together to make it happen!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

The Coordinating Board of WEORC