In our diocese of Buffalo, New York, we have just gone through the excruciating pain of the revelation of child sexual abuse and adult affairs in the priesthood. Our good Bishop, Richard Malone, is doing the best he can to pray, lead, heal and work our way through this crisis and into the future. I believe he is acting justly and doing amazing work in an extremely difficult situation. It is brutal. Souls and whole families are wounded deeply. Parishes are shell-shocked by news uncovered about their shepherds. Innocent priests are painted with the same brush as the guilty. Trust is eroded and faith often mortally wounded.
Our seminaries have responded to this worldwide crisis with a complete overhaul of their screening procedures. Those who make it to ordination today are highly unlikely to be the type of wounded and tragic figures that perpetrated these crimes and grave sins.
But what of the wounded priests still serving? How do we help those who perhaps didn’t receive the psychological counseling and screening that current seminarians receive, didn’t commit these heinous acts and yet are struggling to connect in right and healthy, human ways in ministry and personally? In some ways we are all the walking wounded. Yet when the soul of the priest is wounded, the whole of flock is affected negatively. Wounded priest, wounded parish. Heal a priest and you heal a parish; heal families, heal a whole corner of the world!
Yearnings for Love
All yearnings for love are yearnings for heaven and a reflection of the perfect yearning for Him who created us. On this earth those yearnings are naturally turned to each other. When I see that spark of life, truth, beauty and goodness in someone who is not my spouse that makes my heart cry, “I love him!” or “I love her!” I am not having an adulterous thought, but a heavenly one. But a wounded heart will seek to satisfy those yearnings in a way outside of God’s protective boundaries, even though that seeking will fail to satisfy every, single time.
It isn’t much different, except in degree, than how I seek to satisfy my yearnings for peace and happiness in a chocolate bar. I know it will not work, and yet some small wounded and/or sinful part of me still seeks to fulfill that yearning in wrong ways. In prayer about my own woundedness, and the process of Christian living which seeks to continually heal and become more whole, more holy, the Lord gave me these words:
Part of your healing which needs to change, one of the reasons you keep scabbing up, is that you are not allowing your Mother to care for you in the healing that follows the Physician’s touch, My touch. A mother does the follow-up care, the rehab, the application of the daily balm and dressing of the wounds. The mother tells you the other things you need to do in your life to aid the healing process. You need to listen to your Mother. She wants to spare you pain, spare you another painful trip to the doctor, heal your wound completely. Your Mother applies the daily, constant touch of the Feminine Genius which is so very present to you, and leads you to all wholeness in Her Son.
Consecration to Jesus Through Mary
Mary, the archetype and model of the “feminine genius” Pope Saint John Paul II wrote so eloquently about, is in our lives for the day-to-day, the mundane, the continued healing that comes over time after the initial touch of Jesus. Consecration to Jesus through Mary provides everyone, priests included, with a foundation for our relationship with her. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every priest were consecrated to Jesus through Mary? What a blessing to them and to their ministry! What an example to their flocks! Mary always leads us back to her Son. In consecration we are led to pray daily, to simplify our lives, to put God first, and to trust Him. Consecration through Mary entails both the female and male wisdom of the human race on a spiritual level as it takes us to Jesus, through Mary.
But what about a priest’s day-to-day life and integration of this feminine genius? How does a priest grow in understanding of the feminine, and benefit from this understanding if he is not able to relate properly to people because of some woundedness he carried with him into his priesthood? How, in the increasingly isolated life a busy priest often lives, can he safely learn of this feminine genius and become more whole in a safe, well bounded way, that acknowledges the healthy yearnings for love without compromising the great gift and grace of priestly celibacy?
Priests do not go it alone. They do have spiritual directors. But quite often these directors are fellow priests. This is wonderful and crucial. Having a guide who knows the path is an incredibly important part of the journey. For many priests who are gifted to be extremely well balanced on their own, this priestly direction may indeed be enough. But perhaps for those who have not entered the priesthood with a healed and whole heart, there is a need for a priest director and a female director.
The stories of the saints are full of examples of spiritual sisters and spiritual mothers who gave counsel and direction to priests. St. Therese wrote to a struggling seminarian and gave him a form of spiritual direction which he could not get from brother priests, from other men. The priestly heart, like all human hearts, is created for love. Direction from a woman may be necessary for some priests, in addition to direction from another priest. This is a spiritual sisterhood/motherhood which a priest may need in order to be healthy, happy and whole. This is a grace he made need to become a healer himself.
The Apostles gathered together in the Upper Room around Mary, invoked the Holy Spirit and let the fire fall. Around Mary. The feminine genius was present even among the Apostles. The simple direction that St. Therese, surely a Doctor of the Church for our times, gave is that which she herself lived exceedingly well: be constantly aware of your littleness and need for Jesus’ mercy, remain ever close to Mary’s Immaculate Heart and be guided at all times by the Holy Spirit. This simplicity, “applied” frequently through the feminine genius of encouragement, nurturing and correction, can bring healing to the heart and soul of the wounded priest, or any priest struggling to live his vocation.
Spiritual Motherhood, not Smothering Mothering
Oftentimes women in a parish can instinctually see this need in their pastor and kick into “mothering mode.” A dear deceased priest friend of mine reminded me once, “You’re a mother, but you’re not my mother!” But while women are not called to mother priests in unhealthy ways, perhaps some women are called to be spiritual mothers, or even spiritual sisters, to them. It may be feminine spiritual direction that is needed, the nurturing, encouraging, gently correcting direction that flows more readily from the female soul. One thinks of the type of direction that St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese gave which was very different than a St. Ignatius of Loyola would have. Some priests may need both.
We all can think, with aching heart, of a priest we know who seems to be struggling just to get through the day, who is so clearly faithful, but whose heart seems closed off to his flock by his own woundedness. These men need our help. As dioceses, we need to be better at spotting these souls and getting them the help they need so that they can receive the love they need and become healed healers. We ignore the signs of isolation and unmet yearnings to our own peril. Conversely, if we reveal the problems and address the human yearnings correctly, then we have opened up a whole new font of mercy and grace in our diocese in the process of helping to heal a soul.
Perhaps a part of the crisis within the priesthood is an indirect result of the collapse of female vocations. Through prayer and counsel, through shared parish and ministry life, this sisterhood for priests was a given when female vocations flourished. With female vocations again on the rise, and wonderful, faithful orders experiencing resurgence and new foundations, perhaps this natural shared life will return on its own one day. But for the priests struggling on their own now, perhaps each diocese can identify sister-directors to fill in the gaps. Certainly bad direction would be worse than no direction at all. Any director must be living a life faithful to Church teachings. But there are wise and faithful women out there. Their genius simply needs to be tapped.
On a more basic level as well, many of us used to think of priests as another member of the family. This intimacy allowed for a built-in sisterhood that was healthy and natural. In some families and parishes this blessed occurrence still exists. The more healed the priesthood becomes, the more this can again become a reality.
Not Just Spiritual
Many of us think of our priests in purely spiritual terms. We think they somehow float around without the same struggles we ourselves have. But priests are every bit as human as we are. We need to address their human needs. A dear priest friend from another diocese recently visited and a group of us had a rather spirited discussion about this topic. Father openly discussed this very real problem in his life, and in the lives of priests around him. Priests are not meant to be stand-alone entities any more than lay people are. The scandals have revealed that something has been missing in our training and counsel for priests. Emotional intimacy and how to correctly give and receive it within the boundaries of the celibate priesthood is an area that has historically been underserved in priestly training.
Right now many wounded priests live by setting up very necessary and rigid boundaries in their lives. But, while boundaries will protect a healed heart, they will not heal a wounded heart. The human heart will always seek healing in a wrong or a right way, and must be healed before any boundaries will be successful in the long term. Eventually the soul will bust out of the boundaries and seek the love it was created for, but in wrong ways.
Healing must occur first, through male and female direction. In counsel and direction the priest may reveal the wounds of his soul in a safe intimacy. In the setting of prayerful counsel, the two souls can then take the wound to Jesus, the true healer. Once healed, those boundaries that all of us need in our lives will hold up. They will hold up, not as a fortress against the desperate yearnings of a wounded soul, but like Robert Frost’s mending wall, reminding us of lines we would not cross for our own good and God’s glory. Boundaries only work when the heart is receiving what it needs within them.
Celibacy is Powerful: Handle with Care!
In a way, the Protestant church acknowledges this problem with their married pastoral model. But it is not what Jesus asked for and not what our Church teaches. Like divorce, it has been admitted because of the hardness of our hearts. Celibacy is like nuclear fission drawn from Christ’s heart to give power to the priesthood. Celibacy must be handled with extreme care, but removing celibacy reduces the Eucharist to a symbol, a commemoration, versus the True Presence we, as Roman Catholics, profess it to be.
Because of this extreme importance of celibacy, IT IS REALLY HARD TO LIVE! Why are we allowing priests to go “Lone Ranger” on this most difficult aspect of their lives? It dooms a certain percentage to failure by either outright scandal or simply dysfunctional priesthood and thus dysfunctional parishes. If the priest’s emotional needs aren’t being met, the parish cannot thrive. If the priest is healthy and whole, this wholeness will spread to the staff, to the families, to the whole parish and community. The stakes are very high, and the potential gains are immeasurable.
Yes, brotherhood of priests is key, but for many priests, especially those wounded and struggling, so is spiritual motherhood or sisterhood. There is always going to be that part of the heart that is “restless until it rests in Thee.” In living celibacy, there is always going to be sacrifice involved. But that cannot be the pat response to the priestly longing for love, the whole of their life.
The whole of the priest’s existence is to be who Jesus called him to be, which is another Christ. Jesus was not miserable in this life. He was not just struggling through without love and human friendship. He was at peace in the present moment, among His flock. He spent much time with the Apostles, but also with women, with families, with people whose love He received within safe boundaries.
As a Church we need to address these very real, and yes, good needs of our priests. They reveal the truths of the human heart and ultimately the truths of the heart of God. As we find a way forward for our struggling priests, we will find a way forward as a Church in the twenty-first century, faithful to her teachings, adapting to the changing circumstances of each era.
St. Therese, patron of priests, pray for our priests and for all those who offer them direction, counsel, love, healing and well bounded human intimacy.