In This Time of Great Scandal, Faithful Priests Need Your Love More Than Ever
By Tim Busch
February 15, 2020
There’s a crisis in the Catholic Church that no one’s talking about. It’s not abuse. It’s not cover-ups. It doesn’t spring from Vatican infighting. It starts much closer to home, with the shepherds who guide the flock. Many good and godly Catholic priests are struggling with their vocation.
I realized this in January after hosting a conference for nearly 200 American priests. At a similar event in 2019, I could tell that morale was low. It hadn’t been that long since the summer of shame, when the Pennsylvania grand jury report peeled back the curtain on terrible abuse mostly during the 20th Century and former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was removed from ministry for abusing children and seminary students. It was a low point for every Catholic, including — or perhaps, especially — priests. I assumed that the mood would improve over the year. It got worse.
Nearly every priest I spoke with in January admitted it’s a tough time. Father John Riccardo, a Midwestern priest whose job includes encouraging his peers, told me “it’s never been this bad.” They’re also beat down by the sins of priests who perpetrated terrible crimes. Most priests already deal daily with struggling and suffering parishioners, so they particularly feel the wounds inflicted on God’s people.
The winnowing size of the American priesthood
Mostly, however, the priests are exhausted, because of two trends. First, the number of priests in America is shrinking, both in size and in percentage engaged in active ministry. The priesthood has shrunk by nearly 20% over the past two decades. Second, the number of Catholics in America continues to rise. Fewer and fewer priests are being asked to do more work for more people, all in a culture that’s increasingly hostile to faith.
Father John described a day in the life of the average priest as “whack-a-mole, going from fire to fire,” from troubled marriages to impoverished families to death beds. He also told me they’re weighed down by parishioners’ expectations, which are that every priest will be “as compassionate as Jesus, and oh by the way, experts at running small companies, fund-raisers extraordinaire, and able to preach like John the Baptist.” Priests feel like they’re being asked to do the impossible.
Some, including many Catholics, may have little sympathy. The anger in the pews is palpable. People want answers about what happened, what’s still hidden, and what’s coming next. This is understandable, even justified. Yet regular priests aren’t the ones setting Church policy and covering up crimes and scandal. Bad and abusive priests have been driven out of the priesthood over the past two decades, leading to annual credible abuse claims in the low single digits. While more remains to be done, taking out anger on priests risks driving holy men to desperation and the exit door.
Can you be a former Catholic? Can you be a former Catholic? With new betrayal on child sex abuse, I'm about to find out
It’s also self-defeating. Catholics should realize that the one who most wants to destroy the priesthood is the evil one — the Devil. The Catechism tells us that in priests, “the presence of Christ… is made visible in the midst of the community of believers.” Without a strong and vibrant priesthood, the mission of the Catholic Church cannot be fulfilled. Sadly, in my conversations with Catholic leaders — including bishops and lay Catholics — the sense is that record numbers of good priests are ready to give up.
Supporting those who've always supported us
Catholics must rally to stop this crisis. Those of in the pews should look to support them, however we can, using our unique gifts. This doesn’t mean blindly trusting priests or putting them on a pedestal. Rather, it means finding ways to lighten priests’ burdens and share in their responsibilities. Pope Francis, echoing the Second Vatican Council, has called on Catholics to “participate, in their own way, in the priestly, prophetic, and royal function of Christ himself.”
Perhaps this means taking on a leadership role in a parish function or event. Perhaps it means starting a ministry, so that the priest doesn’t have to. It can include chipping in a few bucks to send them on a much needed vacation or forming a group of parishioners to provide accountability.
Concrete action:What Catholic bishops must do to prevent sexual abuse and hold clergy accountable
As Father John told me, “father is dying to hear you ask, ‘what can I do for you, how can I pray for you, how can I support you?’” He also said that priests, who lead lonely lives, long for real friendships. Grabbing a burger or getting a beer would go a long way toward helping struggling priests. They need us, just as we need them.
Father John said it best: “The Catholic Church won’t get well until priests get well.” That’s something every Catholic should pray for and work toward, together with our shepherds.
Tim Busch is the founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic lay organization.