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Archbishop Column - April 1, 2005




April 1, 2005

Our diocesan presbyterate:
Reasons for discouragement and hope

This is the instruction given by Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss at the Mass of Oils on Monday of Holy Week at St. Cecilia's Cathedral.

Today as we come together to bless the oils that will be used as sacramental signs during this coming year of grace throughout the archdiocese, I speak in a special way to the priests of the archdiocese who are here and all who support them in their ministry.

Ordination to priesthood is a special sacrament of sharing in the priestly ministry of Jesus. He is the sacrament of the Father's love for his people. It is Jesus who ministers to the people of God through his word and sacrament. We as priests are the main celebrators of the sacraments, so we are identified in a special way with Jesus the Sacrament. We are called to be sacramental ministers in a special way as priests.

But we must remember always who is the one High Priest, Jesus Christ. He must be always the source and focus and the energizer of our own priestly ministry. Otherwise we can begin to depend too much on ourselves, on our natural gifts and talents and energies – and then it becomes all too easy for us to become discouraged and disillusioned.

Too many demands can lead to self-doubt

With all the demands made on us these days to be effective and relevant pastors, we fall easily into the trap of self-doubt. Because of our short comings, we can begin to think that we have little value in the eyes of our critics or even before the Lord. This can effect negatively our self-estimation and our sense of self-value. We are, after all, vessels of clay each with our own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies and inadequacies. We fall short of our ideals and our model Jesus and the expectations that we lay upon ourselves. This can bring discouragement to us.

I am convinced that the most potent and permanent antidote for discouragement is contemplative prayer – to experience time and again the powerful, overwhelming love of God for us, and his total acceptance of us as we are.

This is the only way we are able to cope with the barrage of expectations that hit us from people and the chancery and Rome. We are expected to be good liturgists according to the mind of the church, effective preachers, wise counselors in every conceivable situation, skilled peacemakers and reconcilers, enthusiastic directors of comprehensive educational programs, kindly and consistent visitors of the sick and the aging and champions of social justice, but with consummate diplomacy so that we do not step on too many conservative toes.

Parish priest bears brunt of all the planning

Every program and scheme devised at every level of church life ultimately filters down a funnel to the parish priest with ever quickening pace in this age of collegial bureaucracy and frenetic planning.

And then there are those important extras which require special attention from you – keeping up with the parish census and the perennial need for fundraising and all the reports that need to be completed and promptly returned.

And in your spare time you are expected to make home visits, reach out to fallen aways and the non-churched and yet be available on your phone every time that it rings.

Parish priests are expected to be top-notch administrators and forceful leaders who are not too forceful. You are expected to be collegial acrobats who are always patient and understanding and straight forward without being too confrontative. And always and at all times and in all circumstances you are supposed to have a ready smile for all the people who come into your life, even those who are angry and have negative agendas.

Demands of ministry can be discouraging

It is no wonder that many priests are discouraged these days. You cannot possibly be all things or to do all things for all people and for the archdiocese at all times. All of you in priestly ministry these days need a great number of people ministering with you or you will be torn apart by all the expectations. You need to be able to delegate responsibilities with trust and without relinquishing your leadership roles. You have to take time for quiet prayer and reflection – you cannot accomplish anything of lasting value without the Lord in your lives. And you have to be able to let loose of certain tasks or programs or projects and not feel guilty. Honesty with the Lord and with yourselves and your people is the best way to preserve your sanity and to maintain a sense of satisfaction in your ministry.

Then there is the loneliness that touches the lives of priests in poignant ways. We are called constantly to serve and give ourselves to others, but not in exclusive ways. We are leaders and guides and supporters for others, but all too often we do not receive much support ourselves. With all our human needs plus the pressures we experience in ministry we have a great need for love and companionship and compassion. Celibacy is not meant to be a halter around our necks – it is meant to free us so that we can share deeply with many people. We in turn need people around us who care about us and support us and challenge us and love us. And in a very special way we priests need to minister to each other and share with each other and support each other in love. This is the only way that we can overcome our loneliness and come to cherish the solitude and intimacy with the Lord that is ours as celibate priests.

And finally, we live in a world of rapid change that is unsettling to us. If we let ourselves become rigid or unbending, we become brittle and we can self-destruct. Jesus warned us that we cannot put new wine into old skins. To be comfortable and at peace in the midst of so much change and transition and turmoil in our world, we have to be men of deep faith firmly rooted in Jesus and in his promises to us. Only then are we able to move with the times because we understand that the essentials of faith remain always the same. Only then are we able to discover new ways to meet new problems because we trust in the gift and guidance of the Holy Spirit that have been given to us in abundance. We can become disillusioned with our society and with our church unless we are renewed constantly by the living Christ who sustains us.

Greatest threat to priestly ministry is discouragement

The singular most pervasive threat to our priestly ministry is discouragement. To remain happy for many years, and fulfilled in our ministry, we need to love the Lord with full hearts because he has loved us first. We need to love ourselves because God loves us as we are. We need to love and be loved by other people because of our human condition and need. And in a special way we need the understanding and support of those who share the ordained priesthood with us. When these factors coalesce in our lives, the tensions and disappointments of ministry give way to a deeper sense of joy and hope which the world will never understand. Our priesthood makes sense only in terms of faith, hope and love which we experience together in Christ. May we the priests of the Archdiocese of Omaha sustain each other in this constant lifetime quest. It is the only way we will survive in priesthood with a sense of fulfillment and happiness and peace.

I ask all of you here present and all the people of the archdiocese to pray for our priests and to support them in their important ministries in our midst.

The Catholic Voice

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