Yesterday I got the gut wrenching news that a brother priest who had been ordained for only 5 years is taking a year leave of absence for further discernment. I have watched the reaction of others which have spanned from a disappointed sigh to outright anger. I have been bouncing all over the place myself. I'll be fine. I deeply love being a priest and am solid in my decision. Part of that would be based on something that happened the better part of 20 years ago.
In the early 1990's the Diocese of Belleville Illinois was rocked by scandals involving priests who were molesting children and who were unfaithful to their promise of celibacy in other ways. Kenrick Seminary brought in a counselor from St. Luke's in Baltimore to talk about it and hopefully head off the group of seminarians I was a part of from following down the tragic path these priests had (btw, the young man I am talking about IS NOT part of any scandal of any kind). I remember very clearly what this priest had said that were warning signs that a priest is in some kind of trouble and in danger of leaving. I resolved then and there to make sure all three were constantly in check. I imagined that no priest got ordained believing he would end up leaving or do something scandalous. I present those three today and if you are a priest please attend to them. If you are a lay person, ask your pastor or associate whether they are doing these things.
1) Have a spiritual director. Spiritual directors have a wonderful way of keeping a priest humble and honest. I have been deeply grateful to my spiritual director (15 years this year) who has helped me through tough spots, kicked my tuckus when I needed it, and been there to listen. A spiritual director helps keep a priests honest.
2) Have priests friends. We priests are supposed to form a brotherhood of mutual support. This support is not subject to ideological lines, age, seminaries attended, and such. We know the pratfalls, temptations, and trials we go through and can be of great help to each other and can help in holding each other accountable. It is not that laity cannot understand or be our friends, but we know we can't say everything to a lay person that we can say to each other.
3) Pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully. Along with Mass, it is the way we offer up prayer for our parishioners everyday. It reminds us that we do not live for ourselves but are called to be the Persona Christi in the world in which we live. They remind us that the spiritual life of the priest is the firm foundation of which all is set. Praying the Liturgy should be a thoughtful action and not something rushed through to get it over with.
Whether the young priest I started about comes back is to be seen. But the time for preventative medicine is gone. I know he was told these things in the follow up to ordination that the diocese does with our new priests. However, we need to be of mutual and sometimes challenging support to one another. So ask. It may not be appreciated, but ask anyway.
To my brother priests: we must not allow a guy to isolate themselves. I know it is easy to get so wrapped up in the assignments to which we given that we might not just notice that something is amiss until it is too late. It would be easier to assume what went wrong, but if we are left to assume, it means when we needed to reach out, we didn't. WE are a brotherhood...not a collection of co-workers. We must be of mutual support to one another. Let us lift this young man and other priests we know who have left the ministry up in prayer. Let us be more watchful for each other, that we are not left to mourn again the lost of a priest to leaves, to scandals, or to apathy.