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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Something About Fatherhood

Every year we have a secular celebration of Father’s Day. While our culture finds much sentiment, expressed in verse and song for mothers, it does seem that fathers are sometimes cast to the side. The most noble of men find no insult in this, particularly in their children’s devotion to their mothers, because it confirms their good fortune and judgment in finding a companion for life. However, it does behoove us to spend a moment pondering upon the value of the man’s role in the family.

I overheard a woman once say to her friend, “What do I need a husband for, I got my babies and that’s all I wanted.” The statement startled me; it even made me ill inside. The man was reduced to a good time boy or to a sperm donor. What a monstrous notion! Many good and loving women know the true joy in having a special friend in their husbands. Spouses can share their lives, with all their joys and sorrows, knowing that they are not alone. They can also be helpmates in becoming saints. Together, they can raise a family. There are too many fatherless homes. Some cities have made it the rule and the complete family, the exception. A mother is the heart of a home. Is it so terrible that a father might be its head? The fragmentation of family life continues. How can we possibly teach young people about the fatherhood of God if such a role is not modeled in the home and in our society? Fathers are special people and are not dispensable.

Big Brother programs came into existence precisely because there was a need for a fathering role among the young. Some fathers die, and we need to know that their love and prayers are not diminished by death. Some are cast out, and we need to be sympathetic to men denied their rights as parents. Other men run away from their responsibilities, impoverishing their families and denying themselves the joy of participating with God and their wives in nurturing the fruit of marital love– children. The role of St. Joseph as foster father to Christ, chaste husband of Mary, and protector of the Church may be a religious corrective in this regard. Let us esteem and cultivate the prophetic courage of fathers that shows us something of the face of God.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

Protected: Priestly Morale & Celibacy (2)

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Priestly Morale & Celibacy

Sometimes, in the quiet of the evening, I become quite nostalgic.  My thoughts travel back through the years and I look at photographs of old priest-friends.  Most are still in ministry, but a fair number have gone on to other things.  Most went with silence and no fanfare; a few said things that burned their bridges as they went, obviously hurt and angry. All the guys I encountered seemed like good priests, faithful in their obligations (as far as I knew). They defected for many reasons:  an indiscretion of the heart, a lack of support, and/or a hard assignment. Details are always scarce and the archdiocese is silent about these matters (to protect the privacy of the priest). It is peculiar though, to have “brother” priests disappear without a word, their names struck from the ordination lists, and contact information not forthcoming. It is like a death in the family, albeit a somewhat disfunctional one at times.

Fortunately, the archdiocese is doing well right now with vocation applications, no doubt due to young and enthusiastic priests who are reaching out to families and the young. However, such cannot be said in all places, and we could always do better. We must face the truth if we want to plant the seed of hope. A calling is a gift from God, but we must help our men to be disposed in hearing and responding to such a call.

How do you encourage young men to be priests, if priests themselves are unhappy? There are many reasons for the current vocations crisis; but, I suspect that there are no elements more central than this one. The attributing factors toward this lack of joy in God’s service are where the usual laundry list of problems comes into play. Often priests are approached as if they themselves are the ones entirely at fault; and yet, this would be an exaggeration. The current situation would be better served if there were a complete candor in our discussion upon the state of holy orders. A desperate fear of scandal pervades the subject, as if we are afraid to acknowledge the priest’s humanity with all its accompanying strengths and weaknesses.

When I was first ordained, I would quickly go on the defensive when someone criticized the state of the priesthood. The years have taught me that it is better to listen, even if it is a message we do not want to hear. It is in this vein that I took seriously the petition of 163 priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee calling upon the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to address the issue of married men in the priesthood. They claimed that it was a credible way to stem the decline in numbers. This proposition, which has not been proven, may itself be a rationalization of lonely, unfulfilled and unhappy men. What was particularly interesting was their acknowledgment that this effort was taken up from a push in their congregations, because of shortages, but more likely in frustration about the scandalous rascals in ministry. The current effort may have inadvertently been fueled by Rome’s allowance for Episcopalian or Anglican ministers to join the ranks of the Catholic priesthood. I suspect we sometimes underestimate how revolutionary such a step was. For about a thousand years in the West vowed celibacy has been an identifying hallmark of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Critics will sometimes contend that compulsory celibacy was the strategy of the “institutional” Church to insure the retention of Church property and wealth against any lawful heirs. However, as in the monastic model, celibacy had always been an element of the priesthood, going back to its periodic usage among the Jews in regard to their sacrifices at the Temple. There is ample evidence that, along the lines of St. Paul, it was held in high esteem and was even considered the best lifestyle for a man called to Holy Orders.

It is true that celibacy is a discipline of the Church and is not made compulsory by the accompanying theology of the priest as a new Christ, the bridegroom of the Church. However, Fr. Stephen Dunn, a spokesman for the Milwaukee priests, exploited the wedge that had been given them when he said, “We do have married priests who are Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran converts who are ministers and become Catholic.” Does he have a point? I must regretfully say that he does. What compounds the dilemma is that while no one I know argues for the validity of Lutheran ordinations, even most Anglican or Episcopalian priests are dubious. Old Catholic and Orthodox bishops, with valid apostolic succession, have sometimes participated at Episcopalian ordinations and consecrations of bishops. This has muddied the waters where Cranmer’s intermittent Book of Common Prayer had previously breached the lines of priestly transmission. However, except for the former Anglican Bishop of London, Episcopalian priests under the indult have been ordained “absolutely” and not “conditionally”. This means that, if they were not true priests before, they are now. The petitioners, and probably many other Catholics from among the faithful and the dissenters, are concerned that married Protestant men can become priests but married Catholic men, no matter how good and holy, cannot.

A great deal is left unsaid in the present controversy. If as I suspect, this petition is somewhat self-seeking, the priests may be very disappointed at how the matter will or will not be addressed. There is a good probability that the petition will be ignored. It is the passive way that churchmen deal with important conflicts in the post-Vatican II Church. It avoids direct confrontation and sidesteps giving a voice to division in the American hierarchy. Certain more conservative voices actually side with the left in arguing that the topic should be considered once and for all. The presumption from this camp is that the bishops would assuredly side with the Holy Father and reaffirm compulsory celibacy and then label the case “closed”. I would suspect that this would happen, after much wrangling in private sessions. It is not probable that the discipline will change any time soon, but I would not take bets on it either. Years ago the media delighted in fantasy statistics about the large numbers of gays in the active priesthood. These voices have largely gone mute since the rash of child molestation cases. One somehwat uncharitable critic noted, “They protect their own.” I wonder how many petitioners themselves are heterosexuals who want the comfort of a woman in marriage? Even if the rules should change, they may be in for a terrible awakening. Marriage does not solve all the questions of intimacy and loneliness. Priests who have left the ministry for a woman have an inordinately high divorce rate. It is also doubtful that any change in discipline would be retroactive. Following the Eastern model, men would have to be ordained before the acquisition of the diaconate. Widowers would not be allowed to remarry, as is the current situation with our permanent deacons. Men who have already vowed celibacy would be held to their promises. Unless they are happy with their celibacy, can you imagine the tension for these men to labor side-by-side with married priests with families? There may be many other good priests who accepted the sacrifice of celibacy and are happy, but would feel betrayed by such a development. The hesitation to assign married former Episcopalian priests to regular parish settings illustrates that the Church is not blind to such concerns, even if largely unexpressed.

While there are common denominators, not everyone’s experience of the priesthood is the same. A man may not even recognize himself in a book or article about the priesthood, depending upon his situation and the model or models of ministry that are put forward. One priest remarked how he hated “preachy” idealistic books because they heightened his frustration in not becoming the priest he had fantasized about in his youth. Of course, this begs the question as to whether he fell sort because of weakness and lack of appropriate gifts or because the expectations of some writers are unrealistic. Priests have tended to measure themselves against the saints. This compounds the pain of priests in a society that now largely counts the priest among the hypocrites and blind guides condemned by Christ.