‘Home Alone’ in the Priesthood

By Eugene T. Gomulka
America Magazine
August 27, 2001

While serving as the deputy chaplain of the U.S. Marine Corps, with supervisory responsibility for some 250 chaplains from some 60 different faith groups, I was discouraged by the disproportionate number of Catholic chaplains who were committing offenses that resulted either in their imprisonment or separation from the military. While priests comprised about 20 percent of the chaplains, they accounted for about 50 percent of the serious offenses. My first response was to wonder why Catholics tended to get into trouble more often than Protestants, who comprised over 75 percent of the chaplains but accounted for less than 50 percent of the problems. Closer examination revealed that it was neither a Catholic nor a Protestant problem, but rather an issue of living alone or with others.

After careful study, what I discovered was that chaplains who lived alone tended to be tempted more than chaplains who lived with a spouse and, often, children. This is not only true for chaplains, but also for officers and enlisted personnel. For this reason the military has long viewed marriage as advantageous in reducing disciplinary problems among its personnel. Further study revealed that while a relatively small percentage of married Protestant chaplains got into trouble as a result of adulterous behavior punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a much larger percentage of priests were imprisoned or separated as a result of homosexual conduct.

In the past, military chaplains generally lived alone, while their civilian priest counterparts often lived in large urban parishes in the company of other priests. This picture is beginning to change as the number of Catholics increases and the number of priests decreases. While the priest-to-lay ratio in 1978 was approximately 1 priest for every 1,800 Catholics worldwide, the ratio today, with over one billion Catholics, is approximately 1 to 2,500. An increasing number of parishes that once had two or three priests are today finding themselves with just one priest to minister to larger congregations. With more diocesan priests living alone, like military chaplains, bishops must be prepared to deal with the consequences.

One effect of additional one-priest parishes will be an increase in the number of health and disciplinary problems on the part of priests who find themselves “home alone.” With the pressure of pastoring large parishes without the support of brother priests will come the temptation to escape from loneliness and stress by various mechanisms (e.g., alcohol, drugs and sex). Even with the development of various lay ministries over the past years, pastoring alone a parish of 2,000 to 3,000 families is far more stressful than caring for a parish with only 500 families. As the number of large, one-priest parishes increases, bishops and personnel directors should anticipate that more of their priests may be hospitalized or possibly face incarceration as they find themselves attempting to deal with the pressures of their demanding parish responsibilities.

Another consequence of more one-priest parishes will be earlier retirement by priests. Most dioceses have retirement policies that anticipate priests’ remaining active in the ministry until they are 70 or 75 years old. Ordinarily, priests today can retire in their 60’s only for documented health reasons. If priests are able to remain active until they reach 75, it is generally because they are assisted by one or two priests who do much of the parish “leg work.” Today, however, if a parish has grown considerably and the priest in his late 60’s finds himself alone without the help of one or two associates, why should we be surprised that he does not want to stay on until he is 75? As a result, more priests will either die or retire before they reach current mandatory retirement ages. And with priests being ordained older and retiring younger, larger numbers of priests will have to be ordained to maintain even current staffing levels. For example, it would take 200 priests ordained at 39 and retired at 65 to equal 100 priests in the past who were ordained at 26 and retired at 75. Hence, an increase in the number of ordinations in some dioceses does not necessarily mean that the number of priests in those dioceses has increased.

A third effect of more one-priest parishes will be a tendency to lower recruiting standards. As more priests get into trouble living alone and more retire at an earlier age, the growing demand to replace these priests will tempt vocation directors to accept candidates they would not have accepted in the past. But if recruiting standards are lowered, other qualified candidates will be discouraged from entering the priesthood, and qualified priests may be tempted to leave the priesthood rather than associate with the newly recruited, less qualified ministers. Current attempts to solve the priest shortage by importing priests from developing nations and recruiting increasing numbers of homosexual candidates are creating changes in the ethnic face and sexual orientation of the American priesthood. Such developments could have long-term and serious consequences for the future of Catholic ministry in the United States.

After I concelebrated Mass with one Catholic chaplain who was confined to a military brig, the chaplain told me how, tempted in his loneliness, he did something that he deeply regretted. Following lunch in the priest’s cell, I went to the home of a Protestant chaplain friend for dinner and listened as he offered grace, thanking God most especially for the love and support of his wife, who enhanced his ministry. Driving home that night, lamenting the predicament of the imprisoned priest but rejoicing in the ministry of the Lutheran chaplain, I could understand a little better why Jesus sent his disciples out “two by two” (Lk. 10:1) and why “God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’” (Gen. 2:18).

While it may be years before the pope and bishops seriously consider other forms of priestly ministry beyond the current celibate-male model, it is not too early for the laity to become more sensitive and supportive of priests, particularly those who live alone while pastoring large parishes. If bishops are primarily charged with the care of priests who are responsible for ministering to the laity, then bishops would be wise to admonish the laity to refrain from making excessive demands that are beyond the means of priests, whose median age today is 59 and rising. Unfortunately, some members of the laity unrealistically expect and demand the same degree of service from their pastors that was possible when their parishes were staffed by two or three priests. It would be encouraging if, instead of complaining to the bishop that their pastor will not be celebrating midnight Mass this year along with six other Christmas Masses, larger numbers of laypeople were more affirming and helpful in lightening the burden of their aging priests.

When a woman from a base complained about the Catholic chaplain who left the military to marry, I asked her what she had done to let the chaplain know that he was loved. With the belief that celibacy works both ways, I inquired if she ever invited the priest over for dinner or sent him a card on his birthday or at Christmas. If her husband did not show his gratitude in tangible ways especially on special occasions, might she be moved to question whether her husband really loved her? Why should one be surprised if some priests question the love of their parishioners or leave active ministry when their many acts of service often go unacknowledged?

It has been said, “the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.” I suggest that the greatest way to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life is by returning the celibate love of priests and nuns. People are more encouraged to consider marriage when they witness husbands and wives involved in loving relationships. Young people will likewise be encouraged to consider a religious vocation if they see their parents generously returning love given by dedicated and caring priests and religious.

If the Lord chose to send out the apostles “two by two” (Mk. 6:7) and a further 72 other disciples “two by two” (Lk. 10:1), could it have been that he did not want his priests and ministers to be alone? If Jesus himself did not lead a solitary existence, but exercised his ministry in the company of his Apostles, would he himself support the direction in which the priesthood is moving—where more and more priests are living by themselves? Apart from priests who are members of religious orders and who enjoy the support of fellow priests in community, diocesan bishops need to consider both the theological basis and psychological wisdom of large one-priest parishes. Both the recruitment of future candidates and the retention of current priests could be affected by the outcome of such a study.

Msgr. Eugene T. Gomulka is a priest of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Captain Gomulka currently serves as the Force Chaplain, Marine Forces Pacific, based at Camp H. M. Smith in Hawaii.


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