Did you know that many priests are in trouble, even here in the U.S.? There are priests in prison, some deservedly, some not; priests with legal difficulties, some deserved, some not; priests excluded from ministry, justifiably or not, who are without means of support; priests in spiritual, emotional or mental crisis; priests in financial trouble; and -- perhaps most heartbreaking -- elderly, infirm priests living in destitution because their dioceses do not, for one reason or another, take care of them. Consider the testimony of one of these, Father Charles:
I’m 82 years old and have been a Catholic priest for a very long time. I am a priest in good standing and have been retired for some time now. Because of my infirmities (I am also blind in one eye), I am no longer able to offer Mass or administer the sacraments at the local parishes where I would receive a stipend to help supplement my Social Security of $670. I am paying rent on a small apartment. We are a small diocese and have no money to give priests like me who can’t work anymore at the parishes....I do have health insurance, but the co-pays for prescriptions and doctors visits are hard for me to manage. I am really afraid that I will have to stop taking my medicine.
Why are so many priests in dire straits? It is true that, like other men, priests can be their own worst enemies. But whether or not particular priests are in distress through their own fault, it is also true that, good or bad, they are Other Christs, chosen and set aside to exercise His power on earth. A bad priest will have a lot to answer for before God, but the Mass he offers is still valid; the Sacraments he administers are still efficacious. When we are at death's door, we will be thankful to have a priest hasten to our bedside, and will not ask whether he has led a good life.
Surely the reason so many priests are in dire straits is that we in the pews have stopped loving these men as the spiritual fathers that they are. There is no question that many of the alleged "reforms" in the Church have served to obscure the special dignity and fatherhood of priests, and diminish their standing in the eyes of their flocks. For example, did we have the problem of elderly priests living in penury and loneliness before pastors started being transferred from parish to parish? Here indeed is some of the "fresh air" we let in by opening the windows of the Church onto the world: the contempt of society at large for fathers has infested the Church, until parishes resemble the broken, fatherless families increasingly prevalent in the West. Instead of parishes having fathers, who by definition are permanent fixtures in healthy families, they have an endless parade of step-fathers. With priests coming and going, neither they nor their parishioners have long-term stakes in each other’s well-being. This is an inescapable reality, regardless of the good will of either priest or parishioners. It’s time to re-examine this policy of constantly uprooting priests.
The destitution of priests is also a fruit of secularization within the Church. The priesthood is viewed even by some priests as a job or a career, rather than a calling, so that the priest is useful only for as long as he can continue in active ministry. How many local churches have, for years and years, been run primarily along business lines, by bishops who act more like middle management bureaucrats than shepherds of souls? Small wonder that charity runs cold, and trust in Divine Providence occupies the back burner, if indeed it is to be found on the stove at all.
But we shouldn't look to the chanceries for the solution to the problem of abandoned priests. It is the laity's responsibility to support the Church and her ministers, and for too long, we have looked to bureaucracies, whether religious or secular, to handle problems that we should be taking care of ourselves. Fortunately, some laymen who take their responsibility seriously have formed an association to come to the aid of priests in distress. Opus Bono Sacerdotii -- Work for the Good of the Priesthood -- is an apostolate that reaches out to priests in need with concrete assistance, both corporal and spiritual. Among other things, they provide financial assistance to priests struggling to support themselves; support to priests in prison; counseling for priests in crisis; consolation for friendless priests; even, in some rare cases, suicide watches for priests in despair. This apostolate is worthy of support, and needs all the (tax-deductible) donations it can get.
We still need a reform of the "reforms" of the last half-century in the Church. In addition to the reforms in the liturgy and in the government of the Church that our present Holy Father has introduced, I vote we also get rid of the game of musical pastors. Priests should resume their status as spiritual fathers by staying in one parish permanently, and living in the rectory. Then, when a priest gets older and his health begins to fail him, he should not be ruthlessly put out of the way to make room for fresh blood, but continue to live there as a mentor to younger priests, exercising his ministry to the extent he still can, for as long as he can, all the while having his needs looked after by his spiritual children, in whose loving care he dies. That would be in line both with charity and subsidiarity.
Meanwhile, we should not wait for reforms in canon law to take care of our troubled priest. We can, and should, support Opus Bono Sacerdotii with both alms and prayer, right now.