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A Priest’s Perspective on Priesthood and Parish Life
Feature image

To Father Nick Rice, seen here during a televised Mass, the primary role of the priest is to preside and to preach. Photo by Alan Shadburne


During Holy Week, priests again renew their commitment to serve Christ and his Church. As the nature of their ministry adapts to changing times, how happy are our clergy? The Rev. G. Nick Rice reflects on this and other questions. By Carol Ann Morrow

  What Worries Priests?

  Priest and Parish: A Vision

  And Who Shall Lead Them?

Priestly Preparedness

Support for Priests: NFPC

Priestly People (Sidebar)

O N A SMALL WESTERN PACIFIC ISLAND called Yap, the first indigenous candidate for priesthood was ready for ordination. The Rev. G. Nick Rice, in nearby Guam for meetings, wanted to witness this historic moment. He hitched a plane ride with the ordaining Franciscan missionary bishop. Following the traditional administering of Holy Orders by the bishop, the newly ordained priest was led out by his people to return in the more typical loincloth of the islanders.

As though it happened just yesterday rather than in the mid-70’s, Father Rice describes the actions of three gnarled indigenous elders: "The first brought the new priest a basket of food, handed it to him and said, ‘Now you are a priest. You are to feed your people.’ The second brought him a wooden staff and said, ‘Now you are a priest. You are to lead your people.’ The third brought him a hat with a big feather on it and said, ‘Now you are a priest. You are to be a man of the Spirit.’

"I have never heard a better definition of priesthood than the one I experienced that day," says Father Rice. His own priestly work has often been to advocate for other diocesan priests who seek to define themselves and to articulate their vision and their concerns. They, too, want to feed and lead their people, to be men of the Spirit.

When he was interviewed bySt. Anthony Messengerlast August, Father Rice had just concluded his three-year presidency of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC). He observes, with some irony, that his seminary vision was to be a parish priest—and he’s been that only once in 30 years of priesthood. He was rector of the college seminary program for the Louisville, Kentucky, archdiocese and served in several other diocesan leadership roles there. He has also been president of both the National Association of Permanent Diaconate Directors and the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership.

The tie that binds his many modes of leadership is ministry to ministers. This mission has made him a frequent flyer, organizing international meetings of priests in English-speaking countries around the world. He is singularly able to speak of—and for—priests and their place in the Church.

What Worries Priests?>

"In the day-to-day ministry with their people, priests are very happy and challenged. They love their work!" says Father Rice. Research commissioned by NFPC four years ago confirms this basic satisfaction for 91 percent of priests. Is all well then? Not quite.

"When it comes to the larger Church issues that affect their life and affect Church life, priests feel that they have no say. That’s where the morale issue comes in," says Father Rice. This causes many priests to go into "private practice," he says. "Many—even the best ones—after 20 and 30 years of getting out there and fighting in the trenches to change this and that in the Church experience some disillusionment." Their attitude becomes, "Leave me in my parish where I’m happy serving my people and don’t bother me with involvement in the diocesan or national Church," he says. "Manydon’tdo that...but we see it happening too often."

The five top concerns of priests today, according to Father Rice, are the way authority is exercised in the Church, unrealistic expectations and demands, too much work, loneliness and—lastly— difficulty representing some Church positions with which they have serious reservations.

  • Many priests often feel that their voice—regarding the future of priesthood, women in ministry, administration of the diocese—is not heard. "We teach them to have deep concern and love for the broader Church, but there’s no place to express that love and caring concern," observes Father Rice. "Morale can be affected instantly by a new bishop who comes in but doesn’t take time to learn the spirit of that diocese."

  • Father Rice illustrates unrealistic demands on priests with the image of an hourglass. In the parish of his own youth, the staff included several priests, a housekeeper and the school principal. Parish organizations and activities were limited to the Legion of Mary and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The priests in the middle of this parish/hourglass were busy enough. In marked contrast, the parish he pastored from 1986 to 1993 had 56 active parish committees and the diocese had 30 separate agencies. "All of them were doing good work and it expressed the vitality of the Church, but I was in that squeeze point," he says.

  • Out of this hourglass squeeze comes a feeling of overwork. Father Rice connects the two: "The parish priest is the last generalist in a world of specialists. In the diocesan offices are liturgists, social-justice coordinators, educators and other specialists. But the pastor is in the middle of his community as the generalist in all these areas.... Psychologists, sociologists and those who observe the Church speak to us of the great difficulty of trying to do this intense work with people for a period of 40 years. This is especially true as fewer priests carry more responsibility within a growing Church population."

  • For some priests, this feeling of stress is compounded by a sense of loneliness, especially in one-priest parishes. "You really are living a fishbowl existence and you’re living a unique role," explains Father Rice. Perhaps, he says, "you’re in a large, rural area serving two, three or four parishes. You’re a public person. As good as the people that you serve and love are, there’s no one to talk to from a priest-to-priest perspective." Father Rice notes that the experience of priests in religious communities differs from that of diocesan priests. His ministry and his experience are primarily with the latter.

  • And what if the priest wants to talk about Church issues with which he’s wrestling? "By and large, priests are remarkably obedient and faithful to the Church," says Father Rice. "But they also have to be faithful to themselves. People just need to know that there is a tension for them in such a situation.... You are a public representative of the Church, but you don’t surrender your own ability to think and you don’t surrender your own conscience."

Priests and Parishes in the U.S.
Comparing the Numbers

  1965 1997
Diocesan priests 35,925 31,977
Religious priests 22,207 16,120
Total 58,132 48,097

Ordinations 997 521
Permanent deacons 0 11,788
Parishes 17,637 19,677
Parishes without resident priest 549 2,393
Total Catholics 46.6 million 61.2 million

Source: The CARA Report, Summer 1997

Priest and Parish: A Vision

Asked to paint a picture of priesthood moving toward the new millennium, Father Rice demurs. He declares himself to be neither a crisis thinker nor a crystal-ball reader. As a planner and a priest with vision, he does enjoy looking at the far horizon.

"The parish will remain as a viable form of Catholic community," he says with confidence. What will happen in that parish may change. Father Rice sees the principal role of the priest as the one who leads worship and preaches the Word of God to the people, the presider, the one who inspires and motivates. "Catholics gripe about the quality of the preaching," he says. What they need to do is identify it as a top value in parish planning, build it into the job description of their pastor, encourage and support him in learning more about good preaching and ensure that he has time to prepare.

Father Rice contends that priests are "generous of spirit" and "willing to be of service," but their generosity contributes to what he calls "bad pastoral practice." They say four or five Masses, sometimes traveling 200 miles. If they don’t, some parishioners will think them to be lazy. "Priests shouldn’t have to live with that kind of guilt!" he says.

On the other hand, he is quick to add, "Since Eucharist is the center of our faith, we have to consider pastoral solutions to this problem," one many U.S. Catholics haven’t had to face in their past.

Parishes today, Father Rice contends, are trying to do too many things. "The parish of the future needs to prioritize what it will do and do it with excellence," he says. "The parish of the future will be much more intergenerational in its planning. That will be reflected in the buildings. They will be designed for adults. The parish, I think," he says with obvious relish, "will become more like a retreat center for spiritual growth and opportunity for adults. It will not be as child-centered as it has been in the past."

Isn’t that where we learned what it is to be Catholic? In Father Rice’s opinion, the primary school was the dominant experience and Church was not the center of parish life. Yes, he agrees, "quality experiences for children" are important, but should they be at the expense of other important ministries? The spiritual life of the parish as a whole should be the primary consideration.

Part of the richness Father Rice believes will be available in the parish of the future is a full-time spiritual director. "He or she will train other spiritual directors to be available to the people. I also think it will be quite common to have a staff Scripture scholar to organize Bible study. The ways that we organize our parish staff will be to provide adult resources. That should be exciting!" he says. "Thirty years ago, we wondered if we could afford lay teachers and still have other parish ministers. We have discovered we can do both with good stewardship."

And Who Shall Lead Them?

Are priests, even newly ordained priests, prepared for this vision of their parish? Not necessarily, Father Rice admits, not without a twinge of nostalgia. "In seminary formation and my early years of priesthood in the 70’s, we benefited from all the energy and excitement, all the optimism and hope that was generated after Vatican II. Everything was blossoming and unfolding that had been in planning for 50 years before the council, but being implemented then. As young priests, we were truly excited about what was happening in liturgy, in continuing education and in the empowerment of the laity."

Today’s newly ordained experience a tug-of-war, Father Rice thinks, between the continued implementation of Vatican II and returning to an earlier time in the Church. "We have many fine young priests," he says with conviction, "but a number of these young priests...have encountered a lot more of the problems and challenges that the Church faces. They’ve encountered the clay feet of the priesthood—in some of the pedophile issues, for instance."

Newly ordained priests come out of a different background, observes the veteran priest who’s visited U.S. dioceses large and small. "A lot of the men coming to priesthood today—like their peers in society—are coming from broken homes, divorced families....They have lived in ambiguity in Church and society practically all their lives, so they want certitude....They want to know what their role is and they want to know clearly, in contrast to us veteran priests who basically grew up in a context of clarity. Our tolerance for ambiguity is probably higher. Many newly ordained priests are looking for something more settled, more secure."

Rather than finding a serene and settled parish where they can learn the ropes, newly ordained priests are quickly thrown into positions of heavy responsibility. "You are thrown out there now to face tremendous expectations and challenges while you’re still basically forming your own identity," says Father Rice. It’s not uncommon for priests ordained just a few years to have full responsibility for more than one parish, he observes.

Do fewer priests pastoring multiple parishes imply a crisis? Father Rice has no truck with crisis language or the thinking it belies. He believes that growth causes change and change can create growth. No parish can stay as it has been. "Either [your parish] will grow because of your presence and your ministries in this neighborhood, or you will merge with another parish so together you can do something better. It’s difficult but it needs to happen. It’s normal societal shifts," contends Father Rice.

Priestly Preparedness

As parishes merge, close, open and generally reconfigure themselves at the cusp of a new millennium, how do priests learn to play their pivotal role? By and large, seminaries have met the challenge, Father Rice thinks. This is an important transition time, in his view, as seminaries try to keep and attract good teachers despite declining enrollments and financial stresses.

"There always has to be a solid academic, theological, liturgical, Church history base. There always have to be spiritual formation and personal formation. But I think the skills needed now are primarily leadership, management, conflict resolution and ministry training," says Father Rice.

Priests need to know how to collaborate. "This is the situation in which they will live," he contends, describing the now-familiar scene of one priest in a parish whose boundaries are likely to be large and suburban, a parish replete with lay ministers, both men and women.

Does the scene speak of a priest shortage? Father Rice serves up questions by way of answer. "If the Holy Spirit were trying to move the Church to open up the primarily white, male, celibate priesthood to others, what would it look like? Would it look like very few going into the seminary? Would it look like large numbers of priests resigning, getting married but continuing in ministries, works that help people? Would it look like all types of people wanting to be involved in ministry while the only ministry experiencing lack is the ordained priesthood?

"I think these are signs. The Church will react very, very slowly and reluctantly. I believe that’s wise because this could cause a split in the Church," says Father Rice. "But I do believe there is a reason behind everything we are experiencing. In my own personal opinion, the Holy Spirit is edging us toward a new paradigm, a new definition of priesthood."

One effect of the present situation is stepped-up recruitment to the traditional priesthood. Another is exploring the possibility of a married clergy, such as other Catholic rites allow. Father Rice finds openness to this avenue among many active Catholics. He believes the establishment of the permanent diaconate has accustomed Catholics to married men in the service of the Church. He estimates that 60 percent of Catholics are ready to discuss this issue.

For Father Rice, the "most radical" solution to lower numbers of priests is that ordained priesthood be open not only to married men but also to women. In considering any new option, people in the pew are looking for "quality people," in his opinion. Parish leaders may retrench from such radical solutions, however, when the debate turns to equitable salaries, he suspects.

Support for Priests: NFPC

The National Federation of Priests’ Councils, says Father Rice, is "an organization that sees itself as undergirding and serving the priesthood of the country, a national body of priests to surface concerns and needs of priests themselves."

The Federation had its beginnings in 1968 as the Church fumbled with collegiality in the wake of Vatican II and the nation wrestled with civil rights. "Priests never had a national voice before, were never organized nationally," Father Rice recalls with candor.

While priests’ councils are now a given in almost every U.S. diocese, this wasn’t so 30 years ago. Even today, some have a council in name only. In about 20 dioceses, Father Rice estimates, the local bishop has actually discouraged diocesan priests from affiliating with NFPC.

Why? Perhaps some bishops remember the organization’s early days arguing due process for Washington, D.C., priests suspended over their public criticism ofHumanae Vitae. That diocese remains unrepresented on NFPC’s membership roster. In others, the benefits of the network and its advocacy for priests aren’t deemed necessary—by the bishop or the clergy.

Over the years, NFPC has certainly mellowed. In 1989, the organization consciously changed its style from in-your-face resolutions to dialogue, reflection and collaboration. This is Father Nick Rice’s chosen style, one he teaches in NFPC Pastoral Leadership Development Seminars. These seminars are based on the work of Stephen Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and emphasize solutions in which all parties experience satisfaction and ownership.

Living by a vision, moved by a mission: This is the kind of priesthood Father Nick Rice practices and encourages. This is the kind of priest he wants to see in every parish. His role as past president of NFPC has been to put his finger on the pulse of priests and describe it. He’s seen it on an island in the Western Pacific and affirmed it in parishes across the United States—men of God ordained by their bishops and called by their people to feed, to lead and to inspire. He’d know such a man anywhere.

Carol Ann Morrow is assistant managing editor ofSt. Anthony Messengerand editor of Youth Update ,published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Priestly People:
Father William Bausch
on the Parish

As the oil of catechumens is blessed during the Chrism Mass in Holy Week, the diocese’s bishop prays: "Bring [those preparing for Baptism] to a deeper understanding of the gospel, help them to accept the challenge of Christian living, and lead them to the joy of new birth in the family of your Church." Understanding, challenge and joy: All believers—catechumens and baptized—can say Amen.

In 1996, Father William Bausch, retired New Jersey pastor and author of many books on the parish and ministry, spoke to NFPC on "The Parish for the New Millennium." He later expanded the themes of his talk into a full-length book,The Parish of the Next Millennium, published by Twenty-Third Publications last year.

In Father Bausch’s book, he asserts that the parish will follow the lead of the priest: "He is both symbol and key. As he discovers his identitywithinand not above the community, as he senses his vital linkageamongand not beyond the People of God, as he moves intoempowermentand not domination, then the people in turn will more readily claim their identity as community and collaborators and know in their bones that they have communion in ministry."

  • The Parish in Scripture:Father Bausch says the parish of the next millennium will be grounded in baptism and charism rather than ordination and office. He points readers toward St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12: "There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone" (12:4-6).

  • The Challenge:"Average Catholics just want liturgies that nourish, homilies that comfort and challenge and a good religious-education program free of extremes. They want to be met warmly and nonjudgmentally when planning their weddings, and sympathetically in times of sickness and death."

  • The Joy:"There are many good things about the Church, many daily, endless heroisms, public and private, deep prayer, everyday mysticism, life-giving nourishment in its great sacramental life and profound and sustaining traditions—all this in spite of...the good, bad and ugly who make up our leaders and followers."

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