“But the mystery of the Trinity also speaks to us of ourselves, of our relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In fact, through baptism, the Holy Spirit has placed us in the heart and the very life of God, who is a communion of love. God is a “family” of three Persons who love each other so much as to form a single whole. This “divine family” is not closed in on itself, but is open. It communicates itself in creation and in history and has entered into the world of men to call everyone to form part of it. The trinitarian horizon of communion surrounds all of us and stimulates us to live in love and fraternal sharing, certain that where there is love, there is God. Our being created in the image and likeness of God-Communion calls us to understand ourselves as beings-in-relationship and to live interpersonal relations in solidarity and mutual love. Such relationships play out, above all, in the sphere of our ecclesial communities, so that the image of the Church as icon of the Trinity is ever clearer. But also in every social relationship, from the family to friendships, to the work environment: they are all concrete occasions offered to us in order to build relationships that are increasingly humanly rich, capable of reciprocal respect and disinterested love.”
- Pope Francis, Angelus, 22 May 2016.
It's all about relationship. Just look at the manger. It's all about love. You can see it in the tender gaze of the virgin. You can hear it in the song of the angels. You can embrace it in the devotion of the shepherds. And most of all you can know it in the love which does not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but takes the form of a child who opens his arms on a cross and empties himself that we might be saved. It’s all about relationship. The love between the persons of the Most Blessed Trinity and the love we have known in him who gave us the command: “love one another as I have loved you.” It’s all about relationship.
The Loving Celibate
No one agonizes over relationships like a celibate. Yet, when you are made for the celibate life, nothing can make you more loving.
“Celibacy calls priests to reach toward outward health by sharing a life of compassion, affection, work, and play, with the full range of those with whom they share life and faith, respecting and accepting both genders. It calls them to open up generously so they can share attentively with others their joys and hopes their fears and their sorrows, and so the priest can invite them to share his, too. Celibacy calls a priest as well to life-giving creativity and generatively. In all that he is, says, and does. That is to say, priests need a life! They deserve time for self-expression and self-development--from playing the piano and creative writing to gardening and building things, from hunting, fishing, and breeding dogs to the theater, travel, and researching family genealogy. The more creative and generative priests are, as is true for all people, the healthier their attitudes toward all of life, including sexuality. Healthy sexual attitudes require a lifetime striving.”1
And its all woven together. If my relationship with my close personal friends is a mess, its going to affect my relationship with parishioners and my brother priests and even my staff. If my relationship with those whom I serve as shepherd is a mess, its going to have an impact on the way I experience my family and my friends and even my Bishop. It’s all connected, and when one part of my relational life goes kaflooey, I need to pay attention to the whole thing.
So lets look at a few of the many relationships which go to make up the affective life of the diocesan priest, somewhat arbitrarily divided here into Defining, Primary, and Personal Relationships.
First, Defining Relationships.
From the moment a priest places his life in the hands of his Bishop and promises obedience and respect, a defining relationship is established with enormous implications for these two ordained ministers and the Church which they will serve together.
The Bishop is the one on whom my entire priestly ministry depends. Indeed, in the words of Pastores dabo vobis “there can be no genuine priestly ministry except in communion with one's own Bishop.”2
So essential is this relationship that Archbishop Cupich once wrote: “the one non-negotiable for the growth of a local church is a sound and vibrant relationship between the bishop and the members of his presbyterate.”3
This relationship must be characterized by a mutual honesty and trust and a deep and perduring love. The Bishop cares for each of his priests as a brother and a son. The priest depends on the Bishop as an elder brother and a father.
When the priest faces new pastoral challenges for which he lacks the skills, the Bishop and his curia should be his first resort. Indeed, many have suggested that a chancery or pastoral center is itself best judged by how well each of its’ offices serve the concrete needs of the priests.
The Bishop should be accessible and a good and patient listener, attentive to the joys, the worries and the wounds of a younger shepherd’s heart. He must be willing to readily share from his vast wealth of pastoral experience and do whatever is needed to guide, cajole and support his priests.
The priest, likewise, should be obedient, respectful and hungry for the spiritual and pastoral guidance of the one whom God has chosen to lead him. Despite the constant temptation to take part in an incessant cycle of clerical jealousies, spiteful jokes, rumors and disparaging remarks, the priest must seek to love, respect and obey more deeply with each passing day.
Even when, and perhaps especially when, the priest finds himself over his head, slipping off a cliff, or with no place to turn, the Bishop is called to be the one who goes out to find the lost shepherd and carry him home.
Every case in which a priest has ended up in treatment, in jail or permanently removed from ministry is preceded by an infinite number of moments in which the whole disastrous course of events could have been stopped by picking up the phone and calling the Bishop and uttering those three little words: “I need help.”
We all need help, regularly, and significantly. And the Bishop is always your first call.
And then there are your brother priests. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council depicted the preeminent manifestation of the Church as a celebration of the Eucharist in the Cathedral Church “at one altar at which the Bishop presides, surrounded by his presbyterate and ministers.”4
The relationship of the members of a presbyterate is concretely expressed at every ordination when the priests who are present greet “their newly ordained brothers with the fraternal kiss as a sign of reception into the presbyterate…” (Rite of Ordination [ORD], no. 110)
The second defining relationship of my priestly life, therefore, is as a member of the presbyterorum Vigornii, the presbyterate of the Diocese of Worcester. That’s because “all priests … are bound together by an intimate sacramental brotherhood, and in a special way they form one priestly body in the diocese to which they are attached under their own bishop.”
Just before Christmas a couple of years ago, the Worcester presbyterate buried Father Frank Goguen, pastor of Saint Cecilia’s Church in Leominster. Frank went to the same Seminary as me and I would see him at our yearly reunions. Once or twice I went to Saint Cecilia’s to give a talk for him, and occasionally we would end up at the same dinner with a bunch of other priests.
I could tell you funny Frank Goguen stories (including the ones about the darn hat he always wore). And he was one of our best pastors. Which is why my brothers and I held him in such great esteem. He was and is important to me as a fellow priest, a Worcester Priest. Just as all 137 of the members of my presbyterate are my brothers….with all their faults and all their glories, with their idiosyncrasies and their talents. They are my brothers and I need them.
When my dad died a few year ago, so many of my brother priests showed up to concelebrate…as I have done for their jubilees and and anniversaries and funerals and for the annual three day presbyteral assembly down the Cape. Priests of your presbyterate will be your mentors, your friends, your superiors and even, someday, your parochial vicars. They are your brothers.
One final quick point on the importance of our relationship to the presbyterate. I have known a lot of priests who, sadly, have left the priesthood in the Diocese of Worcester, some of their own accord and some due to the painful and extraordinary circumstances of their lives. But in no instance have I ever known a priest to leave the priesthood who was deeply connected to his brother priests.
A recent CARA survey reinforced my perception: “priests who perceive a lack of encouragement or support from fellow priests, who have relatively few close friends who are priests, and who view their bishop as unsupportive are more likely than others to express dissatisfaction [with their priesthood].” (Presbyterorum ordinis, no. 8)
Your presbyterate is like your family. Stay in touch!
Second are the Primary Relationships:
Why did God make priests? The Homily from the ordination of a priest makes it clear: for the “service of the people of God.” (ORD, no. 123) Listen to the Bishop as he preaches to the people:
“…they will be consecrated as true priests of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd God's people, and to celebrate the sacred Liturgy, especially the Lord's sacrifice.” (ORD, no. 123)
And listen to the first question you will be asked, God willing, on the day of your ordination:
“Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as worthy fellow workers with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord's flock?” (ORD, no. 124)
Your relationship to the people in your parish is, therefore, primary and indispensable. We are not made priests for ourselves, but for the flocks to whom we are sent as shepherds.
That means that the Priest must be, by definition, attractive to his parishioners. Not so that they might be loved, but so that the beauty of Christ Jesus might shine through him. People should be made to feel at home with their priest. He must be seen as an educated man who is popular and fun to be around. He is articulate and generally perceived to be a good guy. It is a good thing that “priests are often sensitive, attentive, and decently comfortable about listening to and expressing feelings.
This is what Pope Francis was talking about when, just a few weeks after his election as Pope, he spoke to the priests of Rome at the Chrism Mass. He talked about what happens when the priest becomes a part of the lives of his people, when he is imbued with the smell of the sheep:
“they feel encouraged to entrust to us in everything they want to bring before the Lord: Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem, Bless me Father, Pray for me – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests, mediators between God and men…”
“The priest who seldom goes out of himself…misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers.
“We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, has already received his reward, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests - in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the smell of the sheep, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.”
Thus does the Holy Father call priests to go out to “the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.” The Good Shepherd goes out in search of his sheep: the poor, the sick, the old, the young, the searching, the fearful, the joy-filled, the married, the single, the saints, the sinners and everyone who has been placed in my acre as the pastor of Saint Paul’s Parish. I am their shepherd and they are the sheep of his fold, placed in my pastoral care!
I remember Bishop Dan Reilly, beloved emeritus of Worcester, once describing the feeling he had as he drove the streets of his first parish. He looked at the houses and the kids in the yards and the old people on the stoops and the families walking down the street and thrilled that “God has placed them all in my care. These are the ones to whom I am called to preach the Gospel, to bring to Jesus, to give them his body and blood, to baptize their babies and bury their dead and anoint their sick and teach their kids and console and challenge…” They will call you Father and you will try to be worthy of their love.
Personal Relationships in the Parish
And many of these relationships will become very personal, and many will warm your heart and you will be profoundly grateful for them for the rest of your life.
Like the married couple who adopts you in your first assignment and the elderly person who is so kind. The pediatrician who’s intrigued by theology or the CEO who enjoys a good round of golf; the group of guys who invite you to go to the Red Sox with them, and the folks who also have a membership to the MFA.
All of these relationships can be enriching, but while you are their priest, you are also a professional.
What does that mean? Perhaps an analogy will help. I like you. I like and admire each of you a lot. In fact, I love you, as my brothers and my sons. I would love to be your friend, and maybe someday, once you’re ordained, by the grace of God that might happen.
But not while I am your rector, for while I am your rector, I cannot truly be your friend. As your pastor, I am called to be your shepherd, and to do that I need to maintain a degree of objectivity, a distance if you will, which is neither required nor desirable in a friendship. I need to be able to tell you the hard things despite your reaction. I need to be able to do the right thing for you and for the Church without regard to how it affects me or my feelings. So, I cannot be your friend, for now. But I can be your Rector, your spiritual father, your shepherd and your priest.
In the same way, no parishioner is ever just your friend. From their point of view, you are always Father, and they have certain justifiable expectations of you in that role. You are the one who hears the sins they dare not speak to their friends. You are the one who counsels them when they see no viable choices. You are the one through whose hands God gives them sacramental grace. You bless them, intercede for them and preach to them. There are many people who can be their friend, but few who can be their priest.
Nor would it be fair to you. For, like any father, the obligations of your role preclude you from confiding in your sons and daughters as you would your best friend. Nor can a father expect from his children the same support and challenge he can from his dearest friends.
Does a priest love his people? With a unique, deep and perduring love that makes no demands and seeks only to serve, like the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. But it is a different reality than the mutual, the reciprocal love I bear for my friend.
For if the relationship of pastor and parishioner is a professional relationship, the parishioner should rightfully be able to expect that certain boundaries and expectations will be observed.
Maintaining professional boundaries is often a challenge when a parishioner is in pain and perceives the kindness, compassion and understanding of the priest as something quite different due to emotional challenges they may be experiencing in their own life or marriage.
For example, the parishioner experiencing nothing but rejection in his own affective life may see in the kind and understanding priest the ideal candidate for a close friendship.
Or the woman who experiences her spouse as cold and disinterested might see in the compassionate and caring young priest a prospective lover.
Such transference is a natural phenomenon experienced by a wide range of professionals whose business is understanding and healing the emotional lives of vulnerable people. But the priest who is so complimented by the attention that he allows proper boundaries to be violated risks his very priesthood. For the violation of these boundaries is an act of abuse no less serious than the violation of a child.
In one recent case, a woman went to a priest for counsel when she found her husband to be physically and emotionally abusive. The priest heard her confession and then helped her to rebuild her life spiritually and emotionally. He referred her to a counsellor and, after separating from her husband, she began to rebuild her life.
But she kept returning to the priest who had been so compassionate in the first place and began to seek something more than spiritual solace. Sexually naive, inexperienced in relationships, and under considerable stress in his first assignment the priest responded to her affections and a sexual relationship developed between priest and parishioner, lasting for almost a year.
Toward the end of the year the woman returned to counseling and later wrote of the relationship: “"If he had been a doctor, a lawyer or a psychiatrist, he'd have his license pulled. I realized later that anything short of marriage with a priest is exploitation.”
I am a pastor not to be a parishioner’s friend or lover, but to be their priest… proper professional boundaries are indispensable to my effectiveness in that role. As one wise priest recently wrote:
“…appropriate professional boundaries, respectful discretion, and congenial restraint in word and action demand continued monitoring on the part of all priests…Keeping proper boundaries can be tricky; cool aloofness can be as damaging to a community as playing favorites. Nonetheless, healthy, balanced, attentive, and compassionate yet prudent relationship boundaries empower many priests, staffs, and people across the country to remarkable gospel ministry in their faith communities.6
And then there are our friends. As indispensable as the air we breathe, friendships, and particularly friendships with other priests, are essential for our health, our ministry and our life. They are literally life-giving. One recent commentator put it well:
“Close friendship is about an intimate mutuality, commonality, people delighting in the same truth, enjoying each others company, and sharing simple affection and fun. Friends are a great boon in human life and an enormous source of support that all human beings both need and deserve.”7
A close friend, is one who knows you and loves you anyway. He is the first one to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. I always loved the line from Oscar Wilde: “True friends stab you in the front!”
A true friend is the one who listens to your rantings when you are in pain. He patiently helps you to navigate the waterfalls and rapids of life and just likes to hear your voice. And you try to be the same for him.
William Butler Yeats understood it well when he wrote:
“think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
and say my glory was I had such friends.”
True friendships are not exclusive. Indeed, they open you up to others and make you more loving. True friendships delight in the successes of the other and are not jealous or overly competitive. True friendships are secure and are not out to get anything: not money or sex or attention or prestige. They are giving with the same kenotic love which Christ exemplified upon the cross.
But true friendships are hard work. They require constant attention and self-emptying love, patience and listening and caring. True friendships are formed with the same love which brought Christ to the cross, and they are forged in suffering and sacrifice.
But true friendships, especially priest friendships, are for the celibate priest the pearl beyond all price. And they will make you more holy, and more priestly and more true to Christ. Friendships are God’s carving tool, by which he teaches you how to love and to grow in his image and likeness.
And then there is your family. And while the stories of priests and their families would make a long running reality show, allow me to say just two things.
First, Beaver Cleaver and his family was a T.V. show and they were never real. There is no such thing as the fully functional family, just as there is no such thing as the totally perfect priest. We are all flesh and blood, and family, famously described by W.C. Fields is the only place where they always have to take you back.
Each family is a union of imperfect human beings who love each other for life, just as much as they have been able, and are bound by blood. A union of imperfect human beings. And in each family there are easy relationships and there are hard ones, but each of them are as real as they are complex. In the eyes of a parent you will ever be the child, and even in those latter years, when the role of parent and child is often switched, you will always be defined by the decades which have passed.
Yet despite the complexities, the good memories and the hurtful things, and maybe because of them, we must cling in love to our families and to each of their members with the stubborn patience and absolute conviction that God really meant what he said in the Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 6:2!
Relationships. The three hundred names on my Christmas Card list tells you a lot about the relationships of the past thirty six years of priesthood. Family, friends, parishioners. All loved. All loving me. God, it’s a great life!
It’s like a wise man recently said:
“…The world will recognize the disciples of Jesus by the way they love one another. Before all else, love is beautiful, it is the path to happiness. But it is not an easy path. It is demanding and it requires effort…
“To love means to give, not only something material, but also something of one’s self: one’s own time, one’s friendship, one’s own abilities…Let your daily program be the works of mercy…In this way…your joy will be complete.” - Pope Francis, April, 2016.
1 - Clerical Culture, Contradiction and Transformation: The Culture of the Diocesan Priests of the United States Catholic Church, Michael L. Papesh. (The Liturgical Press, 2004) page 91.
2 - Pastores dabo vobis, no. 28.
3 - Bishop Blaise Cupich, Bishop of Rapid City, in “Improving the Bishop-Priest Relationship,” by Tom Gallagher in National Catholic Reporter. May. 6, 2009.
4 - Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 41.
5 - “Priests in the United States: Satisfaction, Work Load, and Support Structures,” a 2002 study by Paul M. Perl and Bryan T. Foretell of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
6 - Clerical Culture, Contradiction and Transformation: The Culture of the Diocesan Priests of the United States Catholic Church, Michael L. Papesh. (The Liturgical Press, 2004) page 90.
7 - Ibid., page 95.