Catholic priests say it's a tough time to be in their line of work
By Deena Yellin
North Jersey Record
October 21, 2018
|Rev. Robert Stagg poses for a photo at Church of The Presentation in Upper Saddle River, NJ.|
Photo by Marko Georgiev
|Father Paul Prevosto|
|Father Stephen Fichter|
As the pastor of one of the largest Catholic churches in New Jersey, the Rev. Robert Stagg ought to be on top of the world: His church membership is at 4,500 families, his Masses are packed and the church facility is undergoing expansion.
Yet the leader of the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River is hurting.
"I read the news about all these abuse cases and it makes me want to throw up," Stagg said. "It's a terrible thing."
Stagg wants people to know that the predators don't represent all priests.
"There's a percentage of the population that are abusers, and that's awful," Stagg said. "But ... we all have to be vigilant — it happens in every country in the world with all kinds of occupations."
It's been a painful time for Catholics in the aftermath of this summer's Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that revealed sexual abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests of hundreds of children over seven decades as church leaders covered it up. In addition, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned because of sexual abuse allegations, becoming the first cardinal in U.S. history to do so.
Such dark sins make it difficult not only for believing Catholics, but also for priests who have given their lives to the Catholic Church. Some admit to feeling self-conscious when wearing their Roman collar outside. Others struggle for the right words to keep their parishioners from becoming disillusioned or losing faith altogether. And many are grappling with their own grief as they have watched their chosen vocation destroyed in the eyes of the public.
The angst is more than a private emotional burden: A Catholic priest was beaten in Indiana in late August by a man who claimed the assault was "for all the little kids." And closer to home, seminarians at Seton Hall University were subjected to harassment as a result of the priest abuse scandals.
Amid this tumultuous climate, Serra International is urging Catholic churchgoers to honor and celebrate the good priests in a nationwide event called Priesthood Sunday, which will be observed this year on Oct. 28.
The last Sunday of October has been designated an annual one-day celebration of the priesthood in which Catholics across the United States show support for their priests with prayer, public recognition and dialogue. The annual celebration is organized by parish lay leaders and has been sponsored by the U.S. council of Serra International, a worldwide Catholic lay organization, since 2003. Some parishes hold dinners or special prayer services; others celebrate their leaders more informally with cards, gifts and tokens of appreciation.
John Liston, executive director of Serra International, said it's particularly important to celebrate priests this year, after the recent abuse revelations that left some believers disillusioned. "This is an opportunity to honor the good priests who do the holy work of the church and help people grow in faith," he said. "There are far more good ones than bad ones."
That is what the Rev. Paul Prevosto of Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack wants people to understand.
"There are good priests and there are those who are faulty, and we don't judge everybody on the sins of others," Prevosto said.
Still, he admits that it's a tough time to be in his line of work. He often wonders what people on the street think when they see him wearing his clerical collar.
“It’s very hard to be a Catholic priest today,” observed the Rev. Stephen Fichter, the pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Wyckoff, who cried during a homily in which he spoke about the abuse in the church when the news broke in August.
“This weighs heavy on our hearts. It’s a really hard time for us. This is such a sad moment in the history of our church. You feel that some people are looking at you negatively and that we are all being smeared with the horrible behavior of a handful of bad priests," he said, likening the situation to a police officer who kills an unarmed teen and thereby creates a bad name for all police.
"Of course, not all cops do that," Fichter said. "And not all priests do this. Catholic priests are human beings, and as human beings we are capable of leading very holy and good lives and, sadly, of also doing very bad things as well.”
The Rev. Lance Reis of St. Virgil Parish in Morris Plains said he felt very discouraged after reading news of the widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. But he also remembered his mission and mustered up the strength to reach out to his congregants.
He organized an open forum so that "people could come and express their disgust and their anger ... I talked about what we are doing with regard to training for volunteers of our church ... to make sure we are protecting our children." The people were appreciative, he said.
The clergy abuse in the news is just one factor that makes it more difficult to be a priest today, mused Father Roy Regaspi of St. Joseph Church in New Milford. "Priests have to deal with our school and church roof leaks, constant electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems, without enough resources," he said "I am still dealing with the life-and-death situations of the people whom I serve, just like my predecessors did. It is difficult to prepare a homily if you are physically exhausted already during the day. It is difficult to console someone when a divorce or a suicide has just happened in a family. ... It is difficult to understand preaching holiness, peace and justice if some of our priests become unfaithful instead of protecting our children."
Yet with all the hardship, there's nothing he'd rather do. "It's my joy to be a member of every family and yet belonging to none, to penetrate the secrets of the people and to heal the wounds of their souls. Yes, it is rewarding that despite my unworthiness, people console me, journey with me in this earthly pilgrimage, asking me to offer their prayers" Regaspi said.
With all the struggles of the church, many priests who spoke with NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey say they aim to give hope to those in and out of the pews.
"The Catholic Church has incredible vision and great ideals," Stagg said, adding that though there are bad apples among the clergy who clearly need to be vetted, that doesn't change the greatness of the church. "The holy spirit will always be with the church," he said.
The Rev. John Galeano of St. Joseph of Bogota agrees.
"Our faith cannot be destroyed because of something that someone else did," Galeano said. "Our faith is not in a priest. Our faith is bigger than that."
Priests in the United States
The number of Catholic priests in the U.S. is on the decline. There were 59,192 priests in 1970, but only 37,181 in 2017, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington, D.C.
Church experts say there are several reasons for the decline. While the recent sexual abuse scandals may have cast a shadow over the priesthood, there are other challenges that serve as barriers to ordinations.
"We've got a lot of older priests who are passing away, and the number of ordinations today are fewer," said Mark Gray, a researcher with CARA. The dearth has been attributed to a number of factors, including student loan debt, lack of interest, lack of support from families and the celibacy vows.