This is a continuation of the last post with the same title but IV.
The priests are human beings with their challenges. The lay faithful need to understand this. The priest is a human being with flesh and blood. He has feelings, he can get tired, hungry, impatient, or angry. He has his likes and dislikes and sometimes like us can be pathetically human.
It is not proper that when a priest does something good, it is hardly noticed, but when he is involved in a real or imagined scandal, everybody talks about it. We should talk about our priests when they do good. When they do wrong then we should talk to them. This however requires that our priests be ready to listen. The attitude of a priest that makes it difficult for people to talk to him should be done away with. If they do not tell a priest what he may not want to hear then other people will hear it. Inasmuch as priests need to be valued, loved, and supported, they should be prepared to listen, and listen, and listen. How else do they learn from the laity?
At a particular seminar, a woman after addressing the need to respect and support our priests, talked about priests serving the lay faithful better. She gave instances and one of them was the situation where the parishioners after contributing to building a school, find it hard to send their children to the school due to the amount of fees involved. The woman herself gave reasons why the fees seem to be on the high side which participants at the programme seemed to understand. However, she talked about priests meeting the laity at a point and she suggested scholarship for bright children who may come from a poor background. Later the dean of the deanery in which the programme was holding, expressed his displeasure at somebody “pontificating” about what the fees should be. Participants murmured as he spoke. The woman only made suggestions and was very far from pontificating but to the dean she pontificated. The dean heard what the woman said but I do not think he listened.
In the retreats of priests as well as their ongoing education, the laity should be present not to demand or to fight but to communicate respectfully and honestly. To pretend there are no challenges will only create bigger problems.
Spiritual progress requires work from every individual and to develop a deeper relationship with God demands commitment to prayer. The priest is on a mission. Without commitment to prayer and developing a deeper relationship with God, he risks being exhausted by his busyness. This exhaustion can translate into frustration for which the sheep suffer. A priest was leaving office when a young man met me requesting audience. I initially did not want to listen to him for I felt a priest was in a better position to hear what he had to say but he told me that if I do not listen to him, he would leave and go and commit suicide. Something in his look made me believe him. He started talking about his problems and I became sure that a priest was the one to help. Not wanting the guilt of negligence over me, I made haste to see if I could meet the priest who had left office before he went into the presbytery. I met him standing in front of the gate and I pleaded that he should see this particular person. He told me he was out of office and I mentioned that the person was considering suicide. “Is he the first person to commit suicide?”, was the reply I got. “Haven’t you heard that a priest hanged himself?” Naturally I was shocked by the response and I left. What I saw was a priest who was not emotionally mature. He said that in the presence of three other people. This was a priest who needed professional counseling.
Seminaries do a good job teaching seminarians how to teach and sanctify the people. Today there is a need to teach them how to govern properly. Governance is not all about building and repairing structures. It involves mobilizing the people of God for mission. The commitment of a priest to priesthood should not be less than that of a man in the military which demands dedication and courage. The priests are at war – at war for souls.
Priests have the challenge of evangelizing the not-well-evangelized Catholics. These are the Catholics that come for the sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, and marriage. After they must have received the sacrament for which they came, they disappear. This leaves the Church with a vast majority of non-practicing Catholics: 8,000 at Sunday Eucharistic celebration, 2,000 receiving Holy Communion. This has become a trend and rather than getting better, it is becoming worse. This is a very serious challenge in the Church today.
In the history of the world, women have come a long way, from being discriminated against to being publicly acclaimed, from being denied education to being fulfilled in careers, from being housewives to workers with many earning a higher salary than their husbands. Women have made a statement in the society and they continue to do so. Their presence is also being felt in the Church.
Priests learned a lot from their mothers when they were young. They still learn from women as they serve the Church. In their interactions with women, they learn from their wisdom and life experiences.
A woman as a person has her dignity equal to that of a man. As members of the Church, men and women are equal and both collaborate with the priest. Jesus had women who ministered to him and this was so with the apostles.
The interaction and collaboration of a priest and a woman can lead to friendship. Celibacy does not mean that priests will not love women or have friendship with them. Many saints we honour today had women as friends.
Experience of deep love in friendship can help priests to accept themselves, and to discover and develop themselves. Each one of us is a solitude. When a person walks into our life and affirms us it becomes easy for us to accept ourselves. Further, the experience of deep love in friendship can make priests more loving and kind. Finally, the experience of deep human love can make our faith in God’s love more real. This is the religious significance of friendship.
If such a friendship is to be beneficial to a priest he has to take certain concrete steps: First, be honest with yourself: accept the fact that you are getting emotionally very close to the woman. Second, seek guidance. Friends cannot guide each other in the area of their friendship. Their emotional involvement will cloud their perception. Only a person who is open, competent, experienced and courageous can be a good guide. Third, you have to follow your conscience. We are not angels. Our body is necessarily involved in our friendship. What sort of bodily expressions of love are appropriate for you is a decision you have to make in accordance with the dictates of your conscience and in harmony with the local culture. Here it is presumed that your conscience is properly formed. If this is not the case, you are likely to find a sinful disorder where there is none. Or you may not find any sinful disorder where there is actually some. Finally, you have to respect the freedom of your woman friend. If she is a woman religious, she should feel free to attend to her community and her mission.6
The lay man should understand that the priest like him is human and can fall just like him. But the priest and the woman who are socially and emotionally mature can have a relationship that will be beneficial to both without bringing scandal.
We owe it to our priests to pray for them and they need our encouragement. As we continue to support, all including the priest should support the youth to start seeing religious life as an option. That the world is heavily secularized means that the work is much more urgent. Already priests are few. If you think fewer priests will be better, raise your hand. “The harvest is abundant but the labourers are few” (Mt. 9:37).
- Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ, Called to Serve, 2012, St. Pauls Mumbai, p. 94.